Misty Copeland Calls Out Russia's Bolshoi Ballet for Use of Blackface Costumes
By Desiree Murphy
Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images
Misty Copeland is giving fans a glimpse into what she calls "the reality of the ballet world."
The 37-year-old ballerina recently took to Instagram, calling out Russia's Bolshoi Ballet company for using blackface in their production of La Bayadère.
In the photo, reposted from a since-deleted account, two young dancers can be seen in full costume and body paint, loosely inspired by eastern cultures. It's a costume the Bolshoi Ballet has been using for years.
Fans began leaving comments within minutes of Copeland bringing attention to the racially insensitive stage wear, writing things like, "This is so so so wrong," "Disappointed, but never surprised by racism in our world anymore," and "I wish some people would understand that skin color isn’t a costume and it isn’t something you can just wash off."
"There's no way on earth, with the access we have to the media, social media, educating and exposing ourselves to the world, that they [Bolshoi] would be blind and ignorant enough to not know that this isn’t acceptable," Copeland wrote in response to one of the comments. "I'm tired of giving the oppressors the benefit of the doubt. They need to be exposed, called out educated and more. I have lived in the ballet world for 25 years. I have silenced myself around 'them,' made them feel comfortable and suffered in silence. At 37, I feel ready and free to stop."
"I get that this is a VERY sensitive subject in the ballet world. But until we can call people out and make people uncomfortable, change can’t happen," she added on Twitter. "It is painful to think about the fact that many prominent ballet companies refuse to hire dancers of color and instead opt to use blackface."
Patrick Frenette, a professional ballet dancer in the corps at American Ballet Theatre with Copeland, also chimed in, providing additional context. "I am going to do my very best here to provide a little balletic backstory for anyone that is as outraged about this as I am. These blackface costumes are from the ballet La Bayadère, which is a ballet representation of Indian and other eastern cultures," he shared. "There are temple dancers, rajahs, sacred fire oaths and other loosely-inspired eastern themes."
"Over the years, some ballet companies have grown wise to the cultural and racial insensitivities of this ballet, and have elected to no longer perform it. At American Ballet Theatre where @mistyonpointe and I work, no such atrocious costumes are present," he added. "The responsibility, or lack there of, falls on the Bolshoi Ballet and their school for allowing such racist and hurtful make up and costumes to be presented on stage in this day and age."
Frenette continued on, claiming that "these dancers in school are not given a choice."
"You are handed a costume and told to go on stage and do your very best," he explained. "Let us work together to try to hold the ballet company responsible, because that is where the blame here lies."
The Bolshoi Theatre, however, dismissed Copeland's criticism, arguing that La Bayadère has been performed that way thousands of times in Russia and abroad.
"The Bolshoi Theatre will not get involved in such a discussion," theater director Vladimir Urin told Russia's RIA Novosti news agency. "Finding some sort of deep insults in this is simply ridiculous. No one has ever complained to us or saw … an act of disrespect."
Copeland made history in 2015 by becoming the first African-American woman to be promoted to principal dancer in American Ballet Theatre's then-75-year history. Since then, she's been lending her support to other dancers of color who are also making their mark in the industry, like 11-year-old Charlotte Nebres. The young ballerina is making history herself this holiday season for being the first black dancer to be cast as the lead role of Marie in New York City Ballet's The Nutcracker.
"To me, it just feels like when I dance I feel free and I feel empowered," Nebres told The New York Times. "I feel like I can do anything when I dance. It makes me happy, and I’m going to do what makes me happy. You don’t need to think about anything else."⠀
Copeland also recently praised Francesca Hayward, a Kenya-born ballerina who is currently a principal dancer for the Royal Ballet in London. She's also featured alongside stars like Taylor Swift and Jason DeRulo in the new Cats movie, out Friday.
"This is everything! You are showing what we as dancers are capable of and the opportunities that are possible," Copeland captioned a video of Hayward's appearance on Jimmy Kimmel Live. "Hollywood once nurtured artists to be well rounded and fully capable of dancing, singing and acting. And here you are. ??"
"As a black woman, I'm so proud and honored to be witnessing this moment in time," she continued. "You are showing not just brown girls and boys, but proving that what our predecessors sacrificed for was not in vain. They worked so hard to create opportunities and infinite possibilities for us. ????"