American ballet dancer Misty Copeland is calling out racism in Russian ballets and the Russians don’t seem to be too happy about it.
Copeland first made waves when she posted a picture earlier this month on Instagram of ballerinas in blackface. According to BBC, she said the Russian production of La Bayadére was racially insensitive. Later she wrote on Twitter, “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.”
“It is painful to think about the fact that many prominent ballet companies refuse to hire dancers of color and instead opt to use blackface,” she added.
Copeland’s comments sparked a lot of support and recently Russia’s Bolshoi Theater has responded to the discussion by saying they will continue to use performers who wear blackface make-up despite the criticism. The theatre’s director Vladimir Urin said the ballet has been produced this way for many years. “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,” Urin told Russia’s RIA Novosti news agency in response to Copeland’s thoughts.
Other Russian theatre experts and ballet dancers have defended the Bolshoi production, citing a lack of Black performers in the country for the reason blackface is used. “Finding some sort of deep insults in this is simply ridiculous,” Urin added. “No-one has ever complained to us or saw… an act of disrespect.”
Russian ballerina Svetlana Zakharova even told broadcaster Moscow 24, “There is nothing strange here, it’s absolutely normal for us… this is art.”
La Bayadére takes place in India and it’s a romantic tragedy that has featured black-faced performers since its premiere at the Bolshoi Theatre in 1877.
Copeland, who isn’t involved in the Russian production, made history in 2015 when she became the first Black female principal dancer in the American Ballet Theatre. Copeland has been outspoken about the lack of diversity in the ballet world and she’s given her thoughts on race relations in America. She was considered a prodigy during her first couple of years in dancing, despite not starting ballet until she was 13. In just eight months after her dance career started, Copeland’s first show was “The Nutcracker”, where she took on the lead role of Clara.