The Paris Opera Ballet is the oldest national ballet company in the world and is steeped in tradition. For all its grandeur and prestige, ballet notably lacks diversity and until recently was among ballet companies with a repertoire that even included blackface. However, a 66-page report released on Monday shed light on the work the Paris Opera will need to do to remedy its lack of diversity.
Compiled by historian Pap Ndiaye and rights lawyer Constance Rivière, the report was commissioned by Alexander Neef, artistic director of the Paris Opera. It was created in response to a 2020 open letter written by five black members of the ballet company who were frustrated with the Opera House’s persistent discriminatory environment. Published in January, the report revealed that the Paris Opera urgently needed diversity.
Taking into account the criticism of the report, the Opera is initiating efforts that will create a more progressive ballet for the future. Neef announced that the Paris Opera will now employ a “diversity and inclusion officer”, similar to the Metropolitan Opera in New York which created its first such position in January. The Opera will also constitute an advisory body of experts, both internal to the Opera and external to the institution, who will weigh in on the ballet repertoire in relation to the conclusions of the report.
The report also called for an overhaul of the Paris Opera School of Dance admissions process, where the company trains the majority of its dancers, to be made to allow for more diverse selection. “The goal is not for the school to recruit less talented students to achieve diversity goals,” the report’s writers said, “but to seek out excellent students wherever they are.”
The report didn’t stop at the ballet itself either, as it highlighted the need for diversity among the Paris Opera’s 1,800 staff, including technical and administrative staff, musicians and librettists.
Neef said the Opera will continue to include Nutcracker and The Bayadere in its repertoire, although there will be careful consideration in future productions to change the choreography and costumes perpetuating the racist caricatures found in a number of classic works. After all, Nutcracker continues to present “Chinese dance” and until 2015, The Bayadere used blackface.
The specific “aesthetic choices” of Russian ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev, who led the Paris Opera Ballet as director in the 1980s and whose ballets are still performed by the company, were also discussed in the report. Neef assured that Nureyev’s works will not be banned from the Opera, but the use of blackface and yellowface, which were both in Nureyev’s works, will certainly be prohibited. The report also weighed specifically in white ballet, or white ballet. the white ballet the tradition is that which shows a corps de ballet in identical white tutus; we find it in a number of ballets, but those of Swan Lake are perhaps the most iconic. According to the report, black ballet dancers were sometimes explicitly excluded from these scenes performed by the ballet.
“I expect the far right and the more conservative politicians and intellectuals to protest and say this is, once again, about the Americanization of French culture,” Ndiaye said, and he was right. The report has already drawn criticism from some. Neef’s statement that “certain works will undoubtedly disappear from the repertoire” drew particular outcry, although Neef said his remarks were taken out of context. Among the critics is the leader of the far-right National Rally party, Marine Le Pen, who took to Twitter to call the actions “anti-racism gone mad”. In response to such reprimands, Neef did not hesitate, saying, “We are not here to promote a climate of censorship or dictatorial actions by the rulers. The whole point of this initiative is that we want to put opera and ballet by 21startists of the century for 21staudience of the century.
Of course, the Paris Opera Ballet is not the only company to face these challenges. American Ballet Theater principal dancer Misty Copeland spoke out about the perpetuation of racism and the lack of diversity within the ballet community. Copeland was the first African-American woman to become ABT’s principal dancer and in 2019 called out the Bolshoi Ballet for its use of blackface. Chloé Lopes Gomes, the first black ballet dancer to enter Berlin’s Staatsballett, has accused the organization of racism.
“It’s not the end, it’s the beginning,” Neef said of the Paris Opera’s diversity plans, stressing that changes will take time. As a force to be reckoned with in the world of ballet, if the Opera makes the recommended changes and continues to progress as an institution, it could set a standard for ballet companies around the world. whole.