Paris Opera to Act on Racist Stereotypes in Ballet

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The announcements might seem straightforward, but the conversation around the Paris Opera and diversity has already caused a stir in France this year.

In December, an article in the magazine of Le Monde, the daily newspaper, created a fuss when it seemed to suggest Neef was considering banning problematic works. The article at one point discussed the “aesthetic choices” of Rudolf Nureyev, the star Russian ballet dancer who led the Paris Opera Ballet for much of the 1980s. Some of his productions, which the company still performs, originally featured dancers in blackface and yellowface, and although they are no longer presented this way, some sequences, like the “Chinese Dance” in his “Nutcracker,” may still strike viewers as insensitive.

“Some works will undoubtedly disappear from the repertoire,” Neef was quoted as saying.

That comment, which Neef later said was taken out of context, was seized on by Marine Le Pen, the leader of the far-right National Rally party, who wrote on Twitter that it was an example of “antiracism gone mad.” It also led to debate in the media, and online, about whether the focus on diversity was a sign of creeping Americanization.

Neef said he wasn’t worried about a similar reaction to the new report. “We’re not here promoting a climate of censorship, or dictatorial actions from the leadership,” he said. “The whole point of this initiative is we want to put on opera and ballet by 21st-century artists for 21st-century audiences.”

But it was clear that the furor had an impact on the report’s drafting. “I expect the far right and the most conservative politicians and intellectuals to protest, and say it’s, once again, about the Americanization of French culture,” Ndiaye said. He had written it carefully to try to head off those reactions, he added.

The Paris Opera is not the only ballet company in Europe to find itself caught up in debates about race. Last year, Chloé Lopes Gomes, the only Black dancer at the Staatsballett Berlin, made global headlines when she complained about racism at the company. In 2019, Misty Copeland, an African-American principal at American Ballet Theater, complained about the use of blackface at the Bolshoi in Moscow, although many in Russia defended its use, arguing that it was not racist because it was how classical ballets have always been performed in the country.

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