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Does ballet have a race problem? – A response to The Guardian

A message from Scottish Ballet’s CEO/Artistic Director Christopher Hampson:

In a recent article, The Guardian’s dance critic, Lyndsey Winship, asks; ‘Does ballet have a race problem’ Winship, L (20.11.19). A short response is, yes; and while the subject carries nuance and a requirement to think beyond our own cultural experiences there are, in my opinion, some clear answers to some of the questions raised.

Should ballet companies still be presenting the original version of Petrushka?

No. It has a leading character in blackface which is unacceptable and offensive.

Should ballet companies still be presenting original versions of La Bayadère and Le Corsaire?

Personally, I don’t think so. They represent elements of 19th century, Western European values and attitudes that are outdated and undesirable in a modern society striving for inclusion and respect for diversity.

What happens to the choreographic art that they hold?

These ballets are notated in Benesh Movement Notation and recorded on film so choreographers, academics and researchers can access them to study, while excerpts from these works can be retained in repertoires.

What happens if we stop presenting these works?

Nothing, and everything. I believe some fantastic things start to happen. We stop perpetuating unacceptable stereotyping through the guise of nostalgic reverence, and we start filling the void they leave with works that represent what is important to our culture today.

Why are responses from Ballet Black and others within the wider dance community important?

Because Ballet Black is going into their 20th year with their current mission still unachieved; of seeing enough fundamental change of BAME representation within classical ballet as to make Ballet Black wonderfully unnecessary. Articles like The Guardian’s demonstrate Ballet Black’s mission will take many more years to achieve. Their voice, and others like it, are there to ensure representation, on and off the stage, remains constant in our thinking in what is still a very tradition-bound art form.

Within the article, Jean-Christophe Maillot’s response to whether a traditional Swan Lake could be diverse within the corps de ballet, (“a black girl in the corps de ballet [at the Mariinsky]… I feel like telling you no”) is demoralising; but for Lyndsey Winship to refer to those comments as being “not so much about race as about not having any deviation from a particular image” needs challenging. Hiding behind explanations on aesthetics, schooling or style is exactly where ballet gets it very wrong.

Through my own production of The Nutcracker created for English National Ballet 15 years ago I contributed to this issue through perpetuating stereotypes with a Chinese divertissement which I would now never condone. But since then, particularly through my engagement with Ballet Black and others, I have developed a different perspective. One which asks of me to consider and to consult with people from a variety of backgrounds, such as the Royal Ballet demonstrated with its Bayadère – The Ninth Life collaboration with Shobana Jeyasingh. Only through challenging ourselves, and the organisations we lead, can we begin to make any discernible difference.

To imagine there remains a place in a ballet company’s repertoire in which it is acceptable to present blackface on stage or deliver a pyrotechnic dance-competition set in a background of slavery during the Ottoman Empire should be objectionable, but, if this Guardian article is anything to go by, it seems that it isn’t yet.

Ballet can do much better by including a variety of viewpoints in our discussions. It is thanks to Ballet Black and the – woefully few – dancers and choreographers of colour in the industry, who rightly call out our stale and sluggish artistic viewpoints, so that present and future generations of dancers, choreographers and leaders can get on with creating works of relevance, inclusion and integrity.

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