PA Ballet: Cancel La Bayadère and Repair the Harm

PA Ballet: Cancel La Bayadère and Repair the Harm

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Madhu Bora started this petition to ED, Pennsylvania Ballet Shelly Power

Open Letter to the Pennsylvania Ballet March 4, 2020

Dear Shelly Power (ED), Angel Corella (AD), and David Hoffman (Board Chair);

We are writing to express our deep concerns and profound disappointment regarding Pennsylvania Ballet’s production of La Bayadére. We are not writing about what the organization’s intention may have been. We write this letter to address the tangible, harmful impact of mounting such a dehumanizing portrayal of a people and culture. 

La Bayadére (The Temple Dancer) is recognized as a notoriously racist production whose choreography, plot line, costuming, and libretto rely on harmful orientalist tropes that exoticize, fetishize, and dehumanize. It takes place in a fantasized version of India and  has been performed in literal blackface by the likes of the Bolshoi ballet since its conception in 1877. While this production has done away with that very obviously grotesque practice, the PA Ballet, by its own admission, has chosen to very closely align itself with the original orientalist aesthetic via its preservation of choreography, music, styling, character portrayal, costuming, and sentiment.   

Brownface, a close cousin of blackface, is categorically damaging and degrading. It encourages and cultivates xenophobia. It makes culture and tradition a costume that can be put on by anyone who wants to wear and perform it. It lifts up white supremacy by allowing people to act as though they know another person’s culture, practices, stories, and art forms better than that person themselves. Brownface is never acceptable. When people are portrayed as caricatures, when their identities are commodified and marketed for public consumption, even in seemingly “well-intentioned” artistic ways the message is clear – people of color are less than human and can be treated as such.  

When asked why La Bayadére was selected for the season, your Artistic Director, Mr. Corella, named the strength of the corps of dancers as the primary reason. He spoke of feeling that the "corps girls" were finally strong enough to perform the complicated ensemble choreography done in unison that the ballet is known and loved for. That this motivation fueled the mounting of a ballet that is racist at its heart is ill-considered and irresponsible. If highlighting the corp was the core motivation for the production, why not choose a different ballet with equally powerful ensemble pieces that does not cause harm? Or, why not mount a radically reimagined version as other companies have done? La Bayadére is listed as a problematic work on the Final Bow for Yellowface website. The organization’s commendable pledge to stop relying on outdated, racist portrayals in the performing arts was signed by Mr. Corella. The Pennsylvania Ballet has not lived up to that pledge.

A wonderful opportunity to subvert, interrupt, and investigate ballet’s long and complicated relationship with colonialism, imperialism, othering, and racism was missed by a longshot.  Instead, lazy lip service was performed. Under the guise of collaboration, Dr. Pallabi Chakravorty – an Indian classical choreographer, performer, and scholar – was brought in for a mere 3 to 4 studio hours at the very end of the choreographic process to add some “Indian flavor” to the work. The notion that bringing in Dr. Chakravorty gives the entire production complete legitimacy was championed by the PA Ballet in the heavily promoted marketing video shared on social media and during the Ballet Forum panel discussion held on February 26th at PAFA. It is absurd to suggest that four hours with an Indian dance artist is enough to even begin to dismantle the century plus decades of orientalism and exoticism that exist in La Bayadére. Still, this cursory coming together is being used as a false signifier that the production has now absolved itself of its sins. It does not, in fact, give the Pennsylvania Ballet a pass. This thin effort of layering a flimsy veneer of color upon the work does not hold up, nor does it provide any kind of answers to the innumerable questions raised by the decision to move forward with presenting this ballet. 

When asked about what he would have liked to explore more over the course of bringing the ballet to production, Mr. Corella lamented the lack of funds, resources, and time necessary for deeper collaboration. This response surprised us considering that the PA Ballet’s overall revenue in 2018 was $14,155,246, with the the Artistic Director receiving a salary $187,385. However, if the funds were not available to do the work real justice, why was it necessary to have La Bayadére as part of the 2019/2020 season? The decision to proceed without the crucial means needed to properly put up La Bayadére is thoughtless and does not serve the community at large. We are of the mind that because of this, it would have been much better to pursue another production. 

We demand the immediate cancellation of this production of La Bayadére, and that all involved dancers receive their full compensation for participation in the production. Should you decide to go ahead with the performance we demand the following:

  1. A statement in which the Pennsylvania Ballet takes full responsibility for its complicity in propagating the racist and stereotypical foundations of La Bayadére be read at the top of every single performance and included as an insert in every program. 
  2. The entire Pennsylvania Ballet organization, including its board, administration, and company undergo annual anti-racist and cultural sensitivity training by a reputable third-party organization dedicated to such work. 
  3. The PA Ballet, an organization that reported a total income of more than fourteen million dollars in 2018 make a $28,000 donation (0.02% of their total income) to the organization Philadelphia Asian Performing Artists-www.phillyasianartists.com .This money would be dedicated to seeding a dance-specific residency program for its many members who practice a variety of dance forms ranging from contemporary to culturally specific and ancient forms of dance from many Pan-Asian cultures.
  4. The creation of an actionable plan that ensures a substantial increase to the presence of people of color on every organizational level at the Pennsylvania Ballet, starting immediately. 

For any organization, what to speak of one like the Pennsylvania Ballet with its tremendous longevity, reputation, funding, social capital, connections, resources, seasonal subscriptions, infrastructure, influence, and capacity for community outreach to decide to produce a ballet that is utterly orientalist in every sense of the word is truly alarming.

This would be true anywhere. It is especially true in Philadelphia, a city with an incredibly rich wealth of diversity. Black and brown people, immigrant communities – these are the very wealth of the city of Brotherly Love. An organization like the Pennsylvania Ballet should enthusiastically take up the unique position it can occupy to responsibly serve the breadth and depth of the entire community instead of alienating its members by profiting off of gross misrepresentations and cultural appropriation.

We very much look forward to the Pennsylvania Ballet becoming even more of a pride of the city by taking up the mantle that it can and must.

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