A "La Bayadère" for the 21st Century: How Companies are Confronting the Ballet’s Orientalist Stereotypes

August 31, 2020

For over 140 years, La Bayadère has affirmed its sublime elements: the “Kingdom of the Shades” act, a ballet blanc of pristine classicism; brilliantly musical, virtuosic variations that dancers love to perform. Its drama has inspired unforgettable star performances, and Marius Petipa’s seminal choreography has impacted choreographers like George Balanchine.

But many take issue with the ballet, mainly for its patronizing Orientalism. The ballet’s confusing Eastern pseudo-religiosity mashes up Hindu temples with Persian harem pants and a gold Buddhist idol. In some productions, child servants wear blackface. The chipped veneer of the Victorian era’s fetishization of and condescension toward Eastern stereotypes has worn thin with time.

Recently Rajan Zed, president of the Universal Society of Hinduism, called The Royal Ballet’s production by Natalia Makarova a “blatant belittling of a rich civilization,” and demanded an apology. A change.org petition, initiated by Madhusmita Bora of Sattriya Dance Company, insisted that Pennsylvania Ballet cancel its March performances of La Bayadère, despite artistic director Angel Corella’s attempts at infusing cultural sensitivity. And Misty Copeland decried the inclusion of blackface in Russian productions.

For many dancers and audience members, La Bayadère is a beloved 19th-century staple of the classical canon, a product of the time in which it was created. But for those who find the ballet offensive—and there are plenty—what can be done to update it for the 21st century?

Cultural Inaccuracies

“Nothing about La Bayadère is actually Indian—not the music, the story, the characters, the choreography, the collaborators,” says Phil Chan of Final Bow for Yellowface, an organization that opposes Asian stereotypes in the performing arts and encourages more accurate, positive representations. “It’s a fantasy depiction of Indian culture by Western artists for a homogenous Western audience.”

According to dance historian Doug Fullington, 19th-century Europeans, including Petipa, took interest in Indian dancers then touring the continent. Petipa had previously choreographed The Pharaoh’s Daughter, and a mix of imperialism and Orientalism (a 19th-century creative movement that fetishized Eastern cultures) was burgeoning. “When the indigenous peoples of India were depicted in La Bayadère, there was a sense very clearly of superiority of the Western Europeans,” says Fullington. They performed subservient character steps, unlike the royal courtiers’ classical ballet choreography. But, says Fullington, “Petipa was creating classical ballets on a formula to be set anywhere,” and therein lies the danger of casual cultural appropriation. “What he was interested in ultimately were steps and construction.”

Mathilde Kschessinskaya and Pavel Gerdt, 1901. Wikimedia Commons

The British contemporary choreographer Shobana Jeyasingh, born in India, says that the ballet’s Orientalism represents “a totally inaccurate mishmash of stuff” of anything “roughly east of Venice.” She also finds the portrayal of the fakirs embarrassing: “Why are Indian holy men moving on all fours, as if they were monkeys, and being incredibly servile?” she wonders.

Likewise, when Louisville Ballet dancer Sanjay Saverimuttu, whose ancestry is Sri Lankan, performed as a fakir in a student production, he winced: “It’s always taken as a kind of savage role, but fakirs are ascetics that are revered by the community.” He also questioned why the High Brahmin would lust after a temple dancer. (In comparison, that would be like the pope harassing an abbess.)

And there’s that other racism issue. When the photo of two young dancers from the Bolshoi Ballet posing in full blackface appeared on Instagram last December, Copeland shot back with, “And this is the reality of the ballet world.” On Twitter she said, “I’m tired of giving oppressors the benefit of the doubt.”

Some prominent Russians pushed back. “Finding some sort of deep insults in this is simply ridiculous,” said Makhar Vaziev, the Bolshoi Ballet’s director, to the newspaper Izvestiya. “No one has ever complained to us or saw in these small Moors an act of disrespect.” Bolshoi ballerina Svetlana Zakharova chimed in: “There is nothing strange here, it’s absolutely normal for us…this is art.”

So is all this noise out-of-control political correctness?

Dancer and choreographer Rasta Thomas, who has performed as a guest artist with Russia’s Mariinsky Ballet, thinks so: “It’s something to tweet about, and a marketing scheme.” He sees La Bayadère as a product of its time, and thinks anyone attending the ballet in Russia must grasp that it is showcasing historical tradition. “You can only look at the past as the past,” says Thomas, adding if you want something new, then create it and infuse it with 21st-century sensibility.

Making Amends

Some companies are tweaking the traditional version. In 2012, Nikolaj Hübbe staged a production for the Royal Danish Ballet, to mixed reviews, that moved the scenario to colonial India, with British aristocrats replacing Solor and Gamzatti, and a Blue God (like the Hindu god Shiva) instead of a Golden Idol.

For his production, Corella, on the advice of Chan, asked dance anthropologist and Swarthmore College professor Pallabi Chakravorty to assist in contextualizing La Bayadère from an Indian perspective. She first offered gestures that would reflect salutations from Islamic and Hindu modes of greetings or worship to the temple dancer, Nikiya. “The temple dancer is not an imaginary representation of the East,” says Chakravorty. “She did exist,” albeit misrepresented and nearly erased from history. When a European impresario brought the South Indian devadasis (temple dancers) to Europe in 1843, they inspired a lot of publicity. But the British social-reform movement in India banished them, and degraded them as prostitutes. That stereotype still exists.

One way to change the temple dancer’s image, says Jeyasingh, is by losing the harem pants and the jeweled navel and placing her in something closer to the Indian dance costume.

For PAB’s production, Chakravorty recognized the limitations of amending a historical artifact and aimed for “not anything big or large. It’s like accents—we’re cooking pasta but putting a little cumin in it.” She changed gestures to reflect the South Indian culture and directed the dancers to use their eyes, as kathak dancers do. She also welcomed panel discussions about Orientalism between Philadelphia’s Asian and dance communities.

“Showing consideration for the audience would be a good thing, because you’ll get a bigger, more diverse audience,” says Jeyasingh.

La Bayadère could also benefit from historically enlightening program notes. And Saverimuttu notes that while ballet schools take the time to teach a proper czardas, they should also teach authentic Eastern dance forms.

“If ballet is constantly changing as an art form, why can’t we change in the direction of being more inclusive?” asks Chan, who in the end felt PAB’s production didn’t go far enough in its offstage messaging. “We can no longer approach making ballets from the perspective of a single culture and how its members see the world.”

Jeyasingh responded to La Bayadère with her own choreography, Bayadère—the Ninth Life, for her company. She examined the Oriental trope of the temple dancer by focusing on the work of the true-life bayadère Amany, from writings by French poet Théophile Gautier, the librettist for Giselle. Jeyasingh also drew a parallel between the tragic fates of Nikiya and Amany, who, Gautier claimed, died by suicide in London.

Another case in point: At Royal Ballet of Flanders, choreographer Daniel Proietto deconstructed La Bayadère‘s plot and characters for his multicultural piece RASA [after La Bayadère], set to a commissioned electronic score. The work places the transgender protagonist Nicky against the backdrop of Dante’s Divine Comedy, whose illustrations allegedly inspired Petipa’s Shades scene.

Alternately, Fullington and Chan have devised an original libretto that positions the ballet in a wildly different setting: the Golden Age of Hollywood on a Western film set with glittering cowgirls and a love triangle. They’ll use Petipa’s choreography with a jazzed-up Minkus score. Several companies have indicated interest.

The La Bayadère debate is far from over. Stay tuned.