Taken out of (cultural) context.
Joseph Carman's article on ethnic stereotypes ("Exotic or Offensive?," July) suggests that the ballet world should be transformed into a veritable nanny state in which political correctness supplants historical perspective and sheer common sense. Carman might have asked why we do not censor or alter Oliver Twist, The Merchant of Venice, or Huckleberry Finn for adults, while, at the same time, we feel free to mess with ballets which do not hew to contemporary political or racial attitudes. I attended both the Oakland Ballet and San Francisco Ballet productions of Petrouchka with its Blueamoor, the presence of which I found misguided in the context of the narrative.
I have two suggestions for companies who find aspects of certain ballets from the past distasteful or offensive: Hire for the role in question a major dancer whose histrionic gifts may confer humanity on ethnic stereotypes (generations of great Shylocks prove it can be done), or don't perform the work at all. But respect the ballet's integrity and the spirit and biases of the period in which it was created. If choreographer Michel Fokine and designer Alexandre Benois had wanted a Blueamoor in Petrouchka, they would have indicated their desires.
The fact that problematic images abound in story ballets is not news. For my own sanity, I do not waste energy thinking about them, just as I do not dwell on what Bollywood projects about gender and color. But I do appreciate that Joseph Carman comes out and says perhaps it's time to lay these ballets to rest.
The ballets were created during a colonial era and are based on racist notions about certain peoples--those who need to be ruled or conquered. Ron Thiele, who performed the Blackamoor role, posits that the 20th-century ballet audience did not see themselves in the characters. With all due respect, I don't think so. Audiences very much saw themselves in the work, and the work expressed their worldview. Sympathetic characters: Petrouchka and the Ballerina. Unseemly character: Blackamoor. That image is based on real people who must be "othered"--represented as different, two-dimensional, and, ultimately, negative. Representing people as such reinforces the powers that be.
Given the historical underpinnings, I am not sure how changing the face paint color challenges anything. Perhaps artists are convinced that moving away from blackface makes the spectacle more palatable. DM's subhead, "The Avatar Solution," implies that painting the Blackamoor blue changes the reference from blackface to Krishna-face. Well, now it's beginning to reek of Ruth St. Denis. The underlying problem remains: the Blackamoor is a ridiculous trope concocted by a colonialist culture.
I am glad voices within the mainstream dance community are articulating these critiques. As for me, I'm happy to work in the margins.
Director, Parijat Desai