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Flash Review, 10-24: S.O.S. Racisme
Racism Onstage at the Paris Opera Ballet

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2006 The Dance Insider

PARIS -- When racism rears its ugly head in a supposedly civilized setting, a sort of stunned, incredulous shock can set in. So it took me a minute Saturday night, sitting in my lush red orchestra chair in the ornate Paris Opera House, presided over by a colorful Chagall panorama of the arts painted around the chandelier, to realize what I was seeing up there onstage, a few minutes into Serge Lifar's 1947 "Les Mirages": Two characters straight out of an "African" "tribal" "sacrifice rite" from 1930s Hollywood, clad entirely in black body suits, hands and faces included. Eyes and lips in a pronounced white, of course. Making bugaboo facial expressions and doing some sort of stereotyped to the nth degree savage dance -- they stopped just short of scratching their crotches. (Just to make sure I wasn't seeing things, I checked the program after my premature but necessary exit: Ah yes, these would be "Les Negrillons.")

What is this doing on the stage of a theater in 2006? What was the Ballet's dance director Brigitte Lefevre thinking? (Obviously, she wasn't. Voila le probleme.)

On my wall is the second edition ever of Paris Match, and the first to feature just one person on the cover: Katherine (or "Kathrin" as they call her -- they Frenchify everything here) Dunham. It's dated April 1, 1949. I don't know if Katherine Dunham was here in 1947, but if she was, and happened to find herself at the premiere of "Les Mirages," she likely would have had a much more demonstrative response to offer than my polite exit from the theater.

Complain to someone here and they'll probably call up conservatives' favorite phrase for demeaning legitimate equal rights concerns: I'm being 'politically correct.' No, actually, I'm being civilized. The French establishment just loves to go about criticizing and judging other countries, particularly Turkey, for their alleged lack of progress. (And of course they love to dissect racism in the U.S..) But if this is the kind of racist garbage that establishment perpetrates as high culture, perhaps they need only look in the mirror to see the savages.

(Author's Note: See also my review of the Opera's performance of Rudolf Nureyev's staging of "Raymonda.")

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