The history of ballet has always represented Europeanness through what is its other and what it is not. Nineteenth-century European imperialism also shifted ballet’s relationship with colonialism, because ballet was increasingly performed outside Europe. Ghosts, fairies and other supernatural creatures were juxtaposed with other people from exotic lands. The vices forbidden to ‘decent citizens’ – especially seductive sexuality and violence – were projected onto these strangers. As Edward Saïd has shown, the stereotypes that art represented as true functioned to justify colonial rule: the other was incapable of self-restraint, and thus not entitled to self-government. In colonialism, the subjugation and silencing of the conquered other was often represented as charity and appreciation: the culture of the other was timeless and without history, and therefore not really even the other’s own, but something that could be appropriated and exploited by the Western explorer, adventurer, artist or colonialist.
Where in the world this other was geographically located depended on the interests of the European colonial powers. When the United States Navy forced Japan to end its long policy of isolation in 1853, Japonism – the use of Japanese themes in European cultural products – quickly became fashionable in Europe. Through art, Japanese culture was incorporated into Europe’s own white culture. Similarly, Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt in 1798 and the emergence of Egyptology contributed to the prevalence of Egyptian themes in European art at the turn of the 19th century. Archaeologists even appeared on the ballet stage in Marius Petipa’s The Pharaoh’s Daughter (1862). In the beginning of the 20th century, the archaeological excavations in the Valley of the Kings led to a veritable Egypt-mania in dance.
Through exotic otherness, it was possible to stage what would have been censored had it been set at home: scantily-clad performers, non-normative gender roles, even politically sensitive topics. In 1833, Filippo Taglioni’s La Révolte au sérail (The Revolt in the Seraglio) presented its heroine as a revolutionary who roused other imprisoned women to revolt against the king. Although the women’s army was motivated by the right to choose whom to love, in the July Monarchy in France, the theme of women’s equality and questions of royal power were hot political topics. The plot directly referenced the reforms of the theatre director Louis-Désiré Véron, which may well have caused female dancers at the Paris Opera to feel they had been forced into prostitution. On the other hand, the travesty roles in the choreography allowed these same female dancers the kind of movements and aggressive behaviour reserved for male dancers.
Today, the legacy of orientalism is apparent in racist stereotypes included in the 19th-century féeries – fairytale ballets – still in repertories and represented as ‘classics.’ For example, inPetipa’s The Nutcracker, the sweetsin the Kingdom of Sweets are explicitly colonial products. The choreographies for tea (imported from China) and coffee (from the Arabian Peninsula) followed the advertisements for these products. As the dancers were by default white, their skin was darkened with paint and leotards, and ballet’s technique modified to fit presumptions about how the ‘other’ would move – presumptions that were based on earlier stereotypes within the European performance tradition. These racist choreographies are still performed, and histories, lectures, museum exhibitions and social media accounts on dance keep reproducing them.
Critiques of Orientalism and Whitewashing History
Before the 2000s, the manner that art dance performed otherness from a white, colonialist position was not often questioned. In particular, the relationship of ballet to colonialism has still not been prominent enough for the discussion to have an impact on the attitudes exemplified by repertoires. Ballet’s hegemonic status as ‘the’ art of dance has made its movement style and aesthetics normative: it has been the mould into which the dances of ‘others’ have had to fit. Even the character dances of the 19th century are, essentially, balletised versions of local dances. In other words, it is impossible to make character dances more ‘authentic’ by learning more about the history of the ‘folk’ who first performed them. Similarly, the recurrent claim in dance studies that a choreographer has acted as a kind of ‘ethnographer’ when appropriating dances from other cultures exemplifies the discipline’s colonialist attitude that ballet’s technique is superior or culturally neutral, and that cultural appropriation is justified as a choreographer’s bold creativity. As early as 1970, the anthropologist Joann Kealiinohomoku criticised this Eurocentric attitude when she wrote of ballet as a form of ethnic dance.
Early 20th-century makers of ballet and modern dance were actually able to claim their own colonialist works were more ‘authentic’ than those of earlier ballets simply because they had seen more non-European dance. White artists like Mikhail Fokine, Mata Hari or Ruth St. Denis became interested in the dances of their cultural ‘others’ because more dancers from these other cultures performed at world exhibitions, theatres, and even in department stores, and appeared in the press and the cinema. For many immigrants, dance was a means of keeping in touch with the old country, and for some it became a profession. Because the dance of these ‘others’ appeared as a radically new movement language to white audiences of the time, these white choreographers – still praised in textbooks of dance – also increasingly travelled to explore more ‘authentic versions’ of these dances in their places of origin. However, they considered their own body techniques and aesthetics as a neutral foundation that allowed them to pick up a dance from an entirely different tradition in a matter of days as well as perform these dances in ways unrecognisable or downright offensive to members of these ‘other’ cultures.
Together with the 20th-century belief in the need to repeat choreography in ‘the same’ way as before, the transgenerational nature of ballet has led to a damaging conservatism in staging racism, sexism and the kind of bodies represented as acceptable. Ballet emerged as a courtly art hand in hand with colonialism, and this legacy has continued to the present day. Around the globe, national ballet companies reproduce the primacy of Europe by reproducing the art form’s Eurocentric history, even at the expense of local dance traditions. In recent years, reviews of ballet productions have increasingly noticed the art form’s stereotypical ways of presenting non-white, non-European characters. These do not essentially differ from the racist variety theatre characters of early 20th century (i.e. blackface Blacks, redface Native Americans, brownface and yellowface Asians). While Petipa, for example, was quite open to changes in the works that bore his name, those defending his works today, reveal their racist prejudice when they insist that the ‘original’ cannot be changed in terms of either choreography or scenography. In reality, ballet has succeeded in preserving its transgenerational history precisely because the works themselves change and adapt to changing ideologies.
Ballet dancers who are not white still encounter racist attitudes, notably typecasting and forgetting. Typecasting is the casting of a racialised dancer in a racialised, usually stereotypical role. Because ballet’s manner of constructing roles for dancers who are not white rests on colonialist attitudes, many of the racialised parts in old works still in the repertoire are quite racist. The non-white dancer cast in these roles is thus forced to reproduce a negative image of people like themselves.
Forgetting relates to whitewashing the history of the art form. When the American Ballet Theatre appointed their first African American soloist, Misty Copeland, she was reported as if she was the first black ballerina ever. By way of comparison, probably the first black ballet master in Europe was the adopted brother of King Gustav III of Sweden, Couchi, or Gustav Badin (1747/1750–1822). Badin was a slave child that Queen Louisa Ulrika emancipated and had raised with her own children. He became a courtier and a landowner who not only performed himself, but also choreographed ballet and theatre performances for upper-class organisations.
Whitewashing also happens in the aesthetics of ballet. As Brenda Dixon Gottschild, for example, has shown, many of the features seen as ‘modernism’ in ballet derive from Afrodiasporic dance. Similarly, Black American dancers from Alvin Ailey to Arthur Mitchell and Joan Myers Brown have gained cultural prestige precisely through their ballet training and by combining ballet aesthetics with Afrodiasporic dance. Indeed, the boundaries between modern dance and contemporary ballet become blurred in choreographies of non-white ballet bodies – bodies whose pedagogical and cultural genealogies are more complex than the Eurocentric rhetoric of ballet would have us believe.
1 Saïd 1978/1994.
2 Arkin & Smith 1997.
3 Järvinen 2020.
4 Kealiinohomoku 2001.
5 Srinivasan 2011.
6 See e.g. Bourne 2017; Brown 2018; Järvinen 2020; Chan & Chase 2020.
7 Pred 2004.
8 Gottschild 2003.
Arkin, Lisa C. & Smith, Marian. 1997. “National Dance in the Romantic Ballet.” In Rethinking the Sylph: New Perspectives on the Romantic Ballet, edited by Lynn Garafola, 11–68. Hanover and London: Wesleyan University Press, University Press of New England.
Bourne, Sandie Mae. 2017. “Black British Ballet: Race, Representation and Aesthetics.” Dissertation, Department of Dance, University of Roehampton.
Brown, Lauren Erin. 2018. “‘As Long as They Have Talent’: Organizational Barriers to Black Ballet.” Dance Chronicle 41(3): 359–392.
Chan, Phil & Chase, Michelle. 2020. Final Bow for Yellowface: Dancing Between Intention and Impact. Brooklyn, NY: Yellow Peril Press.
Gottschild, Brenda Dixon. 2003. The Black Dancing Body: A Geography from Coon to Cool. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
Kealiinohomoku, Joann. 2001. “An Anthropologist Looks at Ballet as a Form of Ethnic Dance.” In Moving History/Dancing Cultures: A Dance History Reader, edited by Ann Dils & Ann Cooper Albright, 33–43. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press. (Originally published 1969/1970.)
Pred, Allan Richard. 2004. The Past Is Not Dead: Facts, Fictions, and Enduring Racial Stereotypes. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Saïd, Edward W. (1978) 1994. Orientalism. New York: Vintage Books.
Srinivasan, Priya. 2011. Sweating Saris: Indian Dance as Transnational Labor. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
Hanna Järvinen a university lecturer and department head at the Performing Arts Research Centre of the Theatre Academy, docent in dance history at the University of Turku, and Honorary Visiting Research Fellow at De Montfort University in Leicester. She has researched authorship and genius as well as the performing arts canon and the use of power in the light of feminist and postcolonial research traditions. She is also interested in issues of modernity and materiality at the intersection of performance and performing arts and dance orcid.org/0000-0001-9081-9906.