Just when you thought Russia was easing out of the spotlight of U.S. and world news (are they ever?) The Bolshoi Ballet has risen to the top of everyone’s feeds, thanks to African-American ballet dancer Misty Copeland and her battle with the production company over blackface. Earlier this month, Copeland posted a photo of two white Russian ballet dancers preparing for The Bolshoi Ballet production of La Bayadère—in full on blackface—calling attention to the tone deaf act.
What promptly happened next was a full-on Twitter and Instagram war, in which dancers, critics, and the masses came forward with commentary on blackface —many comments failing to acknowledge how disrespectful and offensive it is.
Russian ballerina Svetlana Zakharova told broadcaster Moscow 24: “There is nothing strange here, it’s absolutely normal for us… this is art.”
Misty’s Twitter may have sent the most of the offensive comments—many in Russian and just plain ignorant—and the ballerina put in time making sure that those trolls were properly educated.
Where Justin Trudeau was dragged in the media for wearing blackface during a high school production, blackface has been used in La Bayadère—the romantic tragedy set in India—since it was first performed at the Bolshoi Theatre in St Petersburg in 1877. On the one hand Trudeau is a world political leader who represents an entire country, but on the other hand, the Bolshoi is a major player in international culture and has been met with less criticism in the name of art. Which begs the question, is something more or less politically offensive depending on who it is coming from? Does Pepsi face backlash over a tone deaf article, but a less culturally pervasive entity is allowed to do so, because it helps define a scene or make an artistic point?
“I get that this is a VERY sensitive subject in the ballet world … but until we can call people out and make people uncomfortable, change can’t happen.” – Misty Copeland, Twitter
Not one to back down—in elections or otherwise—the Bolshoi Theatre director Vladimir Urin said the ballet had been performed the same way for many years, and doesn’t have any intention of making changes now.
“The ballet La Bayadère has been performed thousands of times in this production in Russia and abroad, and the Bolshoi Theatre will not get involved in such a discussion,” told Mr Urin to Russia’s RIA Novosti news agency in response to Copeland.
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Founder of Left Bank Media. I write about music, and New York mostly.