Misty Copeland called out a Russian theater for blackface

Misty Copeland called out a Russian theater for blackface
Queensland Performing Arts Centre via CNN

After legendary ballerina Misty Copeland called out the Bolshoi Theatre for its use of blackface in performances, the theatre told Russian state-run media that it would continue the practice despite the criticism.

The debate started earlier this month, when Copeland — known for being the American Ballet Theatre’s first African-American principal dancer — posted a photo of two young ballerinas with the Bolshoi Theatre, set to perform the classic ballet “La Bayadère,” a tragic love story set in India.

The problem? The two dancers are posing in blackface.

Copeland, who is not a part of this production, wrote, “And this is the reality of the ballet world” as the caption on Instagram.

Vladimir Urin, the director of the theatre, told state-run RIA Novosti that the theater “will not be included in such a discussion” and reiterated that the ballet had been performed in the same way for many years.

‘We can’t continue to make excuses,’ Copeland says

The reaction to Copeland’s post has been mixed. Some criticized Copeland’s decision to post the photo of the young ballerinas, opening them up to online hate, rather than blaming the theater itself.

“this is so so so wrong and this doesn’t make it okay but keep in mind the girls dressed like this should know better but they don’t,” said one commenter whose words were posted on Copeland’s Instagram page. “and have also been forced to dress like this and wear this makeup because of the company. the people in power at the Bolshoi need to learn this is wrong.”

“I’m tired of giving the oppressors the benefit of the doubt,” Copeland wrote on Instagram in response. “They need to be exposed, called out, educated and more. I have lived in the ballet world for 25 years. I have silenced myself around ‘them,’ and made them feel comfortable and suffered in silence. At 37 I feel ready and free to stop.”

“This is post going send people to a child’s page,” said another commenter. “Not only is she a child, she is a Russian child. People can be brutal online and a child shouldn’t be subject to an onslaught of hostile comments. Sure, that makeup looks ridiculous, but….what is the percentage of Africans living in Russia and of that number, what percentage would be ballet dancers?”

Copeland wrote in reply, “We can’t continue to make excuses for those who choose to not see what is in plain sight and that is the truth and reality of so many brown children being shot daily, and viewed as adults. I don’t condone bullying but lessons need to be had.”

Others have defended the production, saying the use of blackface is necessary for the performance, and that Copeland is taking an American problem and trying to apply it to Russia.

Blackface had a long history in theater in the former Soviet Union

Leah Feldman, a professor at the University of Chicago who studies theater and the former Soviet Union, said in an email to CNN that there is a long history of blackface in theater across the former Soviet Union.

“It’s a complicated issue,” she wrote. “However, I’m strongly of the opinion that, particularly in Russia’s current climate of rising intolerance, blackface practices cannot be decoupled from forms of racism.”

Copeland has long been outspoken about matters of race in the ballet — specifically lamenting the ways black people are told their hair, skin color and body types don’t fit the ballet.

“At 7 years old being a black girl in their school and they’re being told by their teachers ‘you don’t belong here, your skin is the wrong color, your feet are too flat … we can’t work with your hair,'” she told CNN in 2018.

She also told CNN that the ballet world “doesn’t really celebrate or have women of color.”

This is something she has actively worked to change, through things like mentoring programs and by being outspoken about the problem.

Regarding this incident, Copeland 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.”