In 2020, the ballet world remains cautious about altering classics, even if those changes are the removal of stereotypes.
La Bayadère is perhaps the worst offender. As recently as December, the Bolshoi Ballet performed a scene in blackface — and yet it is one of the most beautiful, beloved ballets, performed regularly by major companies around the world.
But when Pennsylvania Ballet artistic director Angel Corella’s La Bayadère premieres Thursday night at the Academy of Music, it will have alterations throughout, both to remove stereotypes and to incorporate more accurate Indian dance details. He hopes the result will be an even more special Bayadère.
Phil Chan, cofounder of Final Bow for Yellowface, an organization that works with dance and theater companies to remove racist representations of Asians, is one of the consultants Corella hired to make the changes. He says that political correctness — which he says means not to give offense — is not the aim here.
“I don’t think that’s a very good end goal to making good art,” he said before a behind-the-scenes forum on the ballet last week at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. "Because then [choreographers and dancers are] walking on eggshells, and you’re not actually focusing on doing something really creative or beautiful or revolutionary.
“Instead, you know, I try to help frame the conversation of: Does the intention of what you’re trying to do match the impact? And when those two things aren’t congruent, that’s when people get offended.”
La Bayadère is set in India, the romantic story of a temple dancer (or bayadère) and a warrior, but in a “time and a space that doesn’t really exist,” Corella said. “It’s never going to be Indian dance, [but I want] all those little details to be as accurate as possible.”
Corella and Chan discussed how they could make this new version more inclusive.
“If you’re presenting Asian culture in a way that is inaccurate, [white dancers] can take off the costume and walk away from it, but I have to suffer the consequences,” Chan said. As an audience member, “I have to carry that weight.
“What else could it be? That’s a question I asked a lot of artistic directors,” Chan said.
Corella also sought input from a local expert, Pallabi Chakravorty, the chair of the music and dance department at Swarthmore College, who is also an anthropologist and choreographer with her own company Courtyard Dancers. To her surprise, Corella didn’t just want to talk. He wanted her in the studio to help with the choreography.
“My style is Kathak dance, which also has an upright body," Chakravorty said. “So it’s easier for me to kind of see where I could intervene and not completely destroy the aesthetics. Because already [Bayadère] was a beautiful piece.”
Chakravorty and Chan spoke of Orientalism, or Westerners’ often distorted stereotyping of Asian culture. La Bayadère was created in Russia in a time when cultural accuracy was not a consideration. The theme did not come from nowhere, though, Chakravorty said. Indian temple dancers toured the West, and Marius Petipa, the original choreographer was inspired by them.
It’s not just Western society that has made these mistakes, though. Chakravorty deals with Indian stereotypes in her own work as well. Temple dancers, she says, have either been erased from history or degraded as prostitutes.
“So it is so powerful to actually have these transnational conversations,” she said.
In Pennsylvania Ballet’s studio, Corella demonstrated bits of the classic choreography for Chakravorty, and she offered alternatives. One of the first steps in the ballet has the warrior bowing in a way she said was beautiful but inaccurate. Instead, she offered Corella two options, the Hindu and Islamic. (He chose the aesthetic of the Islamic.)
In another section, she recommended a dancer’s balletic gesture be replaced by an arm swishing across the head, as though parting her hair in a more culturally relevant way — which Corella found beautiful.
But he wasn’t just going for authenticity. He was going for inclusion.
To Chan, these changes mean being more sensitive to everyone.
“If I call you racist, that shuts down the conversation, you’ll dismiss anything I have to say,” Chan said. “Whereas if I say to you, ‘I understand that, you know, you’re coming from a good place, that’s your intention. [But] this is where it’s landing.’ This is the impact, right?”
Inclusion can also mean finding creative ways to incorporate all dancers in the “white scenes,” such as the gorgeous Kingdom of the Shades in La Bayadère where one long line of dancers zigzag across the stage with beauty that belies its difficulty. The “white” should refer to the color of the tutus but so often has meant race as well, leaving dancers of color on the sidelines.
“The dancers are supposed to be beams of light,” Chan said.
To incorporate a dancer of color, there is an easy fix, Chan said. “You put her as the first one, or you put her in the last one. There’s ways to group dancers in a way that still gives you that optical illusion, but doesn’t say, ‘Oh, you’re the one brown girl in the company, so you can’t be in this thing.’ "
This is an issue in her genre as well, Chakravorty said. “Indian classical dance is also very elitist and very hierarchical.”
Dance she says, “has an imperial history, and that has a whiteness attached to it.”
“I don’t think we’re very good as a community to talk about race,” Chan said. “This is sort of still a new conversation in the ballet world. And by presenting works like La Bayadère in this way," he says, "is how conversation starts.”
Pennsylvania Ballet in ‘La Bayadère’
Through March 15, Academy of Music 240 S. Broad St.
Information: 215-893-1999. paballet.org