Opera ballet

The Paris Opera Ballet is the subject of a racial toll : NPR

The world’s oldest ballet company is being raced. The Paris Opera Ballet works to update racist stereotypes and increase diversity.



AILSA CHANG, HOST:

The world’s oldest ballet company takes a look. The Paris Opera Ballet addresses issues of race and racism in its ranks and repertoire. NPR’s Eleanor Beardsley reports.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: In the fall of 2008, “La Traviata” was performed at the Opéra Bastille in Paris with a black-faced character despite being banned from most Western opera houses in 2015. Last month, another of Giuseppe Verdi’s 19th century operas, “Aida”, was performed on this same stage. But things were different this time.

(SOUNDBITE OF “AIDA” PERFORMANCE)

BEARDSLEY: Aida, an enslaved Ethiopian princess, is traditionally portrayed with a black face, but director Lotte de Beer says she wanted to find another approach.

LOTTE DE BEER: Looking at this material and thinking about how to relate it to that time so that it becomes relevant again.

BEARDSLEY: De Beer worked with an Ethiopian artist. Aida was depicted as a statue coming to life in a 19th century museum. By staging the piece as a metaphor, De Beer says they were able to tell the story of Aida, but also tell the story of the opera itself, which Verdi composed during the imperialist colonial era. .

DE BEER: Music has this great capacity to be an eternal abstract language. It doesn’t matter if you hear it 300 years ago or now, it makes you cry at exactly the same time. It doesn’t need translation. However, opera is musical theatre. Now the theater is very, very different. Cultural beliefs, they age much faster than music.

BEARDSLEY: Hiring more choreographers and directors of color and with different perspectives is just one of the recommendations of a report released last month titled “Diversity and Inclusion at the Paris Opera.” Banning black, brown and yellow faces, as well as bleaching makeup, is another. French historian Pap Ndiaye is one of the authors of the report. He says businesses across the West are engaged in the same thinking, even if Paris has fallen a bit behind.

PAP NDIAYE: It is important for the Opera to be sensitive to questions of diversity, but also to the racist representations of non-Europeans so frequent in lyrical works. It is not a question of censorship, it is a question of inventing and reinventing the representation of these operas and ballets of the 19th, sometimes of the 18th century.

BEARDSLEY: The driving force behind the report and the recommended changes is new opera director Alexander Neef, who started in September. Neef directed the Canadian Opera Company in Toronto for 12 years.

ALEXANDER NEEF: If we want to stay at the center of society, we should be interested in telling the stories of society in a very broad way, and we should allow artists from all walks of life to have a voice on our stage.

BEARDSLEY: Traditionalists have accused Neef of importing Anglo-Saxon political correctness into France. Far-right leader Marine Le Pen criticized what she called anti-racism gone mad.

(SOUNDBITE FROM TCHAIKOVSKY’S “SWAN LAKE, OP.20 SUITE – 6” PERFORMANCE)

BEARDSLEY: Le Pen tweeted a scene from “Swan Lake” featuring Russian dancer Rudolf Nureyev. This is what pseudo-progressives want to get rid of, she writes. Nureyev, who defected in 1961, directed the Paris Opera for much of the 1980s. His productions of classics often featured dancers wearing black and yellow faces. The push for change at the Paris Opera does not just come from above.

(PROTEST EXCERPT)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (non-English language spoken).

BEARDSLEY: Last summer, as protests over the murder of George Floyd swept France, ballet dancers of color issued a manifesto slamming productions that exaggerate and deride the characteristics of non-white dancers. They called for breaking the silence around the racial question. Neef praised their manifesto, saying it showed the dancers’ trust and commitment to the organization.

French dancer Chloe Lopes Gomes says it’s great what the Ballet de Paris is doing, especially its commitment to recruiting dancers from more diverse backgrounds. Lopes Gomes, who is the only black dancer in the Berlin State Ballet, made global headlines last year after complaining about racism. She says that despite traditional views that dancers should look the same, it’s actually very beautiful to have different dancers performing the same choreography.

CHLOE LOPES GOMES: Having diversity within the company is something very positive. I think classical ballet is part of art, and art has always evolved with society. And today we live in a multicultural society, so it’s time for ballet to catch up.

BEARDSLEY: The director of the Paris Opera, Alexander Neef, agrees. But whatever your opinion on it, he says, diversity is already a reality within companies and audiences and can no longer be ignored.

Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Paris.

(MUSIC SOUND EXTRACTION)

Copyright © 2021 NRP. All rights reserved. Visit the Terms of Use and Permissions pages of our website at www.npr.org for more information.

NPR transcripts are created in peak time by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative recording of NPR’s programming is the audio recording.