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The Paris Opera Ballet Is Undergoing A Racial Reckoning

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

The world's oldest ballet company is doing some soul searching. The Paris Opera Ballet is addressing questions of race and racism in its ranks and repertoire. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley reports.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: In the fall of 2008, "La Traviata" was performed at Paris' Bastille Opera House with a character in blackface despite most Western operas banning it in 2015. Last month, another of Giuseppe Verdi's 19th-century operas, "Aida," was performed on that same stage. But things were different this time.

(SOUNDBITE OF PERFORMANCE OF "AIDA")

BEARDSLEY: Aida, an enslaved Ethiopian princess, has traditionally been portrayed using blackface, but stage director Lotte de Beer says she wanted to find another approach.

LOTTE DE BEER: To look at this material and to think how can we connect it to these times so that it becomes relevant again.

BEARDSLEY: De Beer worked with an Ethiopian artist. Aida was depicted as a statue that comes to life in a 19th-century museum. By staging the piece as a metaphor, De Beer says they were able to tell the story of Aida, but also tell the story of the opera itself, which Verdi composed during a colonial imperialist era.

DE BEER: Music has this great ability to be an everlasting abstract language. It doesn't matter if you hear it 300 years ago or now, it makes you cry at exactly the same time. It doesn't need translation. However, opera is music theater. Now theater is very, very different. Cultural beliefs, they age way quicker than music does.

BEARDSLEY: Engaging more choreographers and stage directors of color and with different perspectives is just one of the recommendations of a report released last month titled "Diversity And Inclusion At The Paris Opera." Banning black-, brown- and yellowface, as well as whitening makeup, is another. French historian Pap Ndiaye is one of the report's authors. He says companies across the West are engaged in the same reflection, although Paris has been a little behind.

PAP NDIAYE: It is important that the Opera be sensitive to issues of diversity, but also to the racist depictions of non-Europeans that are so common in opera works. It's not about censorship, it is about inventing and reinventing the representation of these 19th-, sometimes 18th-century operas and ballet.

BEARDSLEY: The driving force behind the report and recommended changes is new opera director Alexander Neef, who began in September. Neef directed the Canadian Opera Company in Toronto for 12 years.

ALEXANDER NEEF: If we want to remain at the center of society, we should be interested in telling society's stories in a very broad way, and we should allow artists of all kinds of backgrounds to have a voice in our stage.

BEARDSLEY: Traditionalists have accused Neef of importing Anglo-Saxon political correctness into France. Far-right leader Marine Le Pen slammed what she called anti-racism gone mad.

(SOUNDBITE OF PERFORMANCE OF TCHAIKOVSKY'S "SWAN LAKE, OP.20 SUITE - 6")

BEARDSLEY: Le Pen tweeted a scene from "Swan Lake" starring Russian dancer Rudolf Nureyev. This is what the pseudo progressives want to get rid of, she wrote. Nureyev, who defected in 1961, led the Paris Opera for much of the '80s. His productions of classics often featured dancers wearing black- and yellowface. The push for change at the Paris Opera is not just from above.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).

BEARDSLEY: Last summer, as protests prompted by George Floyd's killing swept France, ballet dancers of color issued a manifesto slamming productions that exaggerate and deride the characteristics of non-white dancers. They called for breaking the silence surrounding the question of race. Neef commended their manifesto, saying it showed the dancers' trust and attachment to the organization.

French dancer Chloe Lopes Gomes says it's great what the Paris Ballet is doing, especially its commitment to recruit dancers from more diverse backgrounds. Lopes Gomes, who is the only Black dancer at the Berlin State Ballet, made global headlines last year after complaining about racism. She says despite traditional views that dancers must look identical, it's actually very beautiful to have different looking dancers performing the same choreography.

CHLOE LOPES GOMES: To have diversity inside the company, it's something very positive. I think that classical ballet, it's a part of art, and art always evolved with the society. And today, we are living in a multicultural society, so it is time for the ballet to catch up.

BEARDSLEY: Paris Opera director Alexander Neef agrees. But whatever your views on it, he says, diversity is already a reality within companies and audiences and can no longer be ignored.

Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Paris.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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