Classics and Modernity: Does the Age of Tolerance Change Ballet?

Classics and Modernity: Does the Age of Tolerance Change Ballet?

The boundaries of tolerance are expanding everywhere today. New norms of perception also get into the most formalized art form — ballet. Let's talk about some cases.

Berlin Episode: The Veil Story

A 29-year-old French dancer Chloe Lopes Gomes has been performing at the Berlin State Ballet since 2018.  Gomes became the first black ballerina in the troupe. The dancer herself called this event “a small victory, but a huge step for the ballet world”.

Recently, she faced a manifestation of racism. According to her, in one production, the choreographer was handing out white veils for the dancers. Approaching Lopes Gomes, he said: “I can’t give you the veil. It is white and you are black.” The ballerina also remembered that the same choreographer once had forced her to wear white makeup to "blend in" with other dancers in a production of Swan Lake.

Last summer, the company management didn’t renew the fixed-term contract with the dancer. So she went to court - and the law was on her side. Gomes was awarded 16,000 euros in compensation and extended her contract out of court until the end of the 2021-2022 season.

Following this case, a series of workshops on discrimination were held at the State Berlin Ballet, and the management supported the dancer, calling the incident a "wake-up call". Social media users also supported Lopes Gomes - the protest went online.

“I realized that even if I feared the consequences, speaking out was the best thing to do. I encourage everyone to break the silence," - the ballerina wrote on her social media account.

Australian Episode: The Book Story

Chloe Angyal is a former dancer, BA in Sociology, PhD in Media Studies, and ballet columnist at HuffPost. As an author, she has written extensively about the shortcomings of contemporary culture - racism, sexism, classism, and homophobia. Angyal recently released her book, Turning Pointe (pay attention to the word-play: “turning pointe” - “turning point” - note by IngoDance).

“Ballet must change, if it is to survive.”

The book is based on almost 100 interviews with representatives of the world of ballet and art, from students to art directors. Chloe Angyal spoke to them about their love for ballet, about their difficulties and disappointments, and then summed up: “Ballet must change, if it is to survive.”

The sociological component in the book turned out to be powerful: Angyal reflects on the vulnerability of ballet dancers - physical, material, and emotional. “There is an idea that dancers must suffer for their art. There's some very cinematic glory in that.  It doesn't have to be that way,” - the author is convinced. Angyal examines the topic of racism as a shackle hindering the development of dance art, including using the example of 16-year-old black ballerina Sasha. The girl grew up in a suburb of Indianapolis and now trains at the Royal Ballet School in London. She is bright and talented - this pushes the boundaries of conventions and stereotypes.

Russian Episode: About the Ballet Classics

There are reasons to discuss racism in Russian ballet too. For example, at the end of 2019, American ballerina Misty Copeland accused her Russian colleagues of racism because of a photo posted on a social network.

In the photo, the dancers were made up to look like dark-skinned women, the photographer captured the moment of the rehearsal of the production of La Bayadere. But historically, African people in the ballet looked exactly like that, wearing blackface. The performance was on stage since the end of the 19th century and to this day it hasn’t undergone any major changes. Moreover, not only the Russian audience, but ballet connoisseurs all over the world saw La Bayadere many times. And until recently, the scene with blackface dancers didn’t cause any complaints.

It is obvious that in issues of racial tolerance, as in many sensitive topics dividing society into two camps, it is crucial to find a balance. In a production whose stage life goes back several centuries, it is difficult to look for tolerance in the form many people understand it today. And at the same time, modernity dictates its own terms, including to the art with age-old traditions. The further stage life and interpretation of many works depend on how this dialogue will develop.