The New York Times has published the latest installment in its running tally of alleged racism in the high arts: the Staatsballett Berlin (Berlin State Ballet) treated a black ballerina differently because of the color of her skin. Oh, wait! That was yesterday’s template. Today’s is that a black ballerina was treated the same as white ballerinas. The search for racism requires just such rhetorical nimbleness.
Since the nineteenth century, dancers in a corps de ballet often applied white body paint in works, such as Giselle or Les Sylphides, that feature a supernatural element. The intent was to create an impression of ghostly creatures from beyond the grave who might doom any red-blooded prince who crosses them. The use of white makeup was not a statement about white supremacy: there were virtually no black dancers in Russian or Parisian ballet troupes at the time against which a statement about skin color might be made. If one is looking for slurs, the body paint could be seen as anti-white, in its association of whiteness with death.
In 2018, the Staatsballett Berlin mounted Swan Lake, another ballet where white body paint has traditionally been used, in this case to increase the illusion that the dancers were swans. One of the company’s ballet mistresses told the company’s one black dancer, Chloé Lopes Gomes, to use the paint as well. Gomes says she told the ballet mistress, “I’ll never look white,” to which the mistress responded: “well, you will have to put on more than the other girls.”
This incident dominated the front page of the Times arts section and was flagged on the front page of the paper itself—it was that important. The Staatsballett Berlin issued a groveling apology, taking responsibility for society’s “structural racism.” The company has promised to hire the usual phalanx of diversity trainers to provide mandatory antiracism workshops. The organization will also examine its repertory for “outdated and discriminatory ways of performing” and will “re-evaluate” its “longstanding traditions,” it says.
The accusations and the self-prostration would have been the same had the scenario been flipped. If the ballet mistress had told Lopes Gomes: “Don’t bother with the body paint. You’re too black. It will never work,” this, too, would have been characterized as discrimination. Racism today is a non-falsifiable proposition governed by the principle: heads I win, tails you lose.
Classical ballet has largely escaped the revisionist destruction that hit the opera and theater stages years ago. Amazingly, audiences could still see Swan Lake and La Bayadere as their choreographers and composers intended them, with all the conventions and costumes of nineteenth-century fairytale intact. To be sure, feminists have been agitating against the ethereal body type championed by choreographer George Balanchine, sadly to intermittent success. But the adolescent politicizing that has been inflicted on defenseless operas has been absent from the ballet stage. That immunity has undoubtedly now ended. Expect to see classical ballets wrenched awkwardly into dumbshows about social justice.
Naturally, Lopes Gomes alleges another instance of bias: her contract was not renewed for the coming season. Never mind that 11 of her fellow dancers—all white—were also let go. If a white person is dismissed, not hired, or not promoted, it is assumed to be for cause. If a black person suffers a negative employment outcome, the only reason must be racism. Lopes Gomes offers no explanation for how her case differs from those of her 11 colleagues.
The destruction being carried on in this post-George Floyd moment cannot be overstated. Everything in the West’s cultural inheritance, whether in music, literature, or art, is coming down. A former director of the Paris Opera Ballet expressed the idea behind the assault. To defend an artistic tradition on the ground that it is seeking a stage illusion is “not a valid argument in a context in which one race had oppressed another,” in the Times’s paraphrase. But classical ballet has nothing to do with racial oppression; such an idea was simply not what its creators were trying to express. If the relevant “context” for all European art is what the Left claims is the West’s centuries-long assertion of white supremacy, then every Western artistic tradition must be overthrown, since there was never a moment when that “context” was allegedly not in play. (The inter- and intra-racial brutality, the lethal misogyny and homophobia, of the left’s favored victim groups have no such cancel power over those groups’ artistic output, of course.)
Narcissism is the operative trait of today’s victims, who think that everything is about them. It is not. Identity politics projects its obsessions onto an aesthetic realm that in many cases is alien to our worldview. One power of art is to allow us to escape our petty, narrow selves and to enter a world of human experience that we would otherwise never know. The imaginative conventions allowing this transport have their own logic. Visual and kinetic uniformity in a corps de ballet was an aesthetic ideal; it, too, had nothing to do with race. Yet that uniformity must now fall so that no individual ballet dancer feels that her precious diversity currency is devalued.
Contaminating our artistic inheritance with the poison of identity politics is no way to build new audiences or strengthen our traditions. It merely gives ignorant young people another reason to reject something precious and sublime.
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