Rethinking La Bayadère: The Norwegian National Ballet Sparks Debate About Preserving Orientalist Ballets

La Bayadère has dazzled Western audiences as the pinnacle of classical ballet since its debut in 1877, and it is set to take the stage once more in the Norwegian National Ballet’s spring season.

However, the ballet perpetuates harmful orientalist stereotypes with its portrayal of Hindu culture, as seen through the white, 19th-century European gaze, and it has drawn criticism from South Asian, Hindu communities. 

Rajan Zed, President of the Universal Society of Hinduism and a statesman based in Nevada, USA, urged the Norwegian National Ballet to cancel their production, scheduled for March 23 – April 7, 2022, stating that the taxpayer-funded organization “should not be in the business of callously promoting appropriation of traditions, elements, and concepts of ‘others’ and ridiculing entire communities.” 

Ingrid Lorentzen, the Artistic Director of the Norwegian National Ballet, does not believe that cancellation is the best solution. “The answer,” she says in her statement, “is to push and establish a reformation by creating new works that stand up to the old ones. I would rather use our force and momentum to create works for the future, rather than edit the past.”

Left. Ingrid Lorentzen. Photo: Norwegian National Ballet.
Right. Rajan Zed, President of the Universal Society of Hinduism

The Norwegian National Ballet last performed Natalia Makarova’s La Bayadère, with choreography based on Marius Petipa’s original 1877 production, in their 2019 winter season, and they are familiar with the criticism surrounding the orientalist work. In an email to The Oslo Desk, Lorentzen writes, “We need to look at the past with today’s gaze to understand more of ourselves and our time. This ballet, La Bayadère, is a fairy tale ballet placed in a time and a place that never existed.” 

In her opinion, the timeless ballet has survived through the centuries is because of its striking choreography, escapism, and abstraction that are “deeply human,” even with outdated stereotypes. She writes that Petipa, who also choreographed famed ballets Swan Lake, The Nutcracker, and Sleeping Beauty, and his ballets “are characterized by the views of that time and place,” and “its content must be viewed in relation to its time and be actively debated today,” as with literature, film, music, and other genres.

However, as Zed points out, continuing to perform these ballets with cultural stereotypes and offensive caricatures is harmful to viewers who identify with the culture being portrayed. Phil Chan, Chinese-American arts activist, author, and co-founder of Final Bow for Yellowface, has written and spoken extensively on the uses of caricature and stereotypes of Asians (yellowface) in classical ballets. His book, Final Bow for Yellowface: Dancing Between Intention and Impact, details his experiences working with top-tier international ballet companies on revising classical ballets like The Nutcracker and Le Chant du Rossignol. 

Phil Chan. Photo: Eli Schmidt

Like Lorentzen, Chan does not believe that canceling these ballets and erasing history is the answer either. “You need to know where we came from in order to look forward to seeing where to go from here,” he says. “You can’t rebel against ballet if you don’t know what ballet was. You can’t push ballet forward as an art form if you don’t know where we’ve already been as a technique.”

Chan is an outspoken proponent of adapting the classics to suit a modern audience. He agrees with Lorentzen that these classics must be put in context, but he also uses William Shakespeare’s timeless plays as an example of how people find “new ways, new dynamics, new reflections of our own humanity in this work that is over 400 years old.” He says, “The only way we’re able to do that is because we’re constantly shifting the context. That’s what keeps it alive.”

Chan explains that while a character on stage is fleshed out, three-dimensional, nuanced, and evokes empathy, a caricature is a two-dimensional, often stereotypical sketch of a character. He references the depiction of fakirs crawling around “like apes, savages, or cavemen” rather than as respected members of the community as one example of caricature in La Bayadère. To a Western audience who is uneducated about South Asian cultures, these portrayals exaggerate their differences and provide an inaccurate view. Even if the ballet is a fantasy, the fantasy is still heavily based on Hinduism.

The fakirs are just one of the problematic portrayals. In 2019, Misty Copeland, the first African American principal dancer at American Ballet Theatre, sparked a global discourse on La Bayadère after calling out two young Russian ballerinas who posted a photo to Instagram of themselves in costume for the ballet — in blackface. Their pale skin was tinted a dark brown shade, and their eyes and lips were exaggerated. It was blatantly, unapologetically racist. The ballerinas danced for the famed Bolshoi Ballet based in Moscow, who adamantly claimed that this was just tradition and not offensive. While the Norwegian National Ballet’s production does not include blackface, these associations highlight the extremes of offensive portrayal in the same ballet.

La Bayadère performed in 2019. Photo: Erik Berg / the Norwegian National Opera & Ballet

“Overall there is this underlying dynamic of this being a fantasy about India that has nothing to do with Indian culture,” Chan says. “It seems like for [Zed] and many other South Asian folks, it’s really hard to divorce… someone else’s fantasy of your culture from your own lived experience.” Ballet is a prestigious Western art form based on the white-washed foundations of European aristocracy. In order to stay relevant in today’s multicultural, globalized world, it must include artists of color and their stories, not retell the 19th-century European fantasies. 

La Bayadère is part of the “The Others” series, which the company website describes as a range of works that spans 150 years and questions “how we as a society relate to the classical cultural heritage, with the attitudes and stereotypes of the past.” The series includes A Swan Lake by Alexander Ekman (2014), inspired by the 1877 classical ballet Swan Lake, and new works may be added next season, such as Alan Lucien Øyen’s new work about American author and activist James Baldwin. All of the choreographers listed for this season are white.

Oda Tømte, press officer for The Norwegian National Ballet, writes that Lorentzen and several guests will speak about the problematic aspects of La Bayadère at a panel scheduled for 19 Mar. There will also be a podcast recorded, potentially in front of a live audience, exploring the subject matter. In early March, Theresa Ruth Howard, diversity strategist and consultant, will present a lecture for members of the Norwegian National Ballet. No Asian consultants were named in the response. 

Richa Chandra, a classical Indian dancer and founder of Indian Rhythms dance school in Oslo, feels that the Norwegian National Ballet overlooked the many talented Indian dancers in Norway who they could have asked to advise or consult their production. Even if the Norwegian National Ballet cannot change Makarova’s choreography, they could seek other perspectives for panels or for supporting the creation of new works. She has never seen the ballet but knows the story well, and she doesn’t see the appeal of a “sad love story” whose inauthentic fantasy elements are the primary appeal.

She also states that  “as an artist, as a choreographer, as someone who has respect for free creativity,” they chose to present this limited perspective. “They’re inspired by something from Asian culture, but they don’t know it well enough,” she says. “When you are standing there on stage and you’re promoting this to hundreds of thousands in Norway, then you have some kind of responsibility for how you present a different kind of art form.” 

Richa Chandra, a classical Indian dancer and founder of Indian Rhythms, dancing in Indian Swan Lake. Photo: Indian Rhythms

While she understands Zed’s outrage and perspective, as she shares many of his views, she disagrees that cancellation is the answer. Like Chan, she would prefer that they create new, authentic works and not tell more oriental Asian stories. When she choreographs crossovers with different art forms, she believes that “you need to know the rules before you break them.” In her dancing career, she has experienced how many dance companies “don’t go as far to know the rules — they just take the elements that look nice and put it into their A4 structure.”

With this mindset, change has begun among current choreographers. Chan is currently working with Indiana University on a Hollywood cowboy musical take on the basic premise of the plot. He takes the basic love triangle between – Nikiya, Solor, and Gamzatti and creates a new story suited to an American audience set to debut in 2024. Argentine choreographer Daniel Proietto takes a different approach that keeps the Indian cultural heart but decolonizes the European perspective. RASA (2020) adapts the story to modern issues of gender reassignment surgery and postcolonialism in the context of British imperialism in India. Proietto studied the martial art Kalaripayattu in India to infuse authenticity in the choreography, and he hired Indian dancer Shantala Shivalingappa as an artistic advisor.

Both Chan and Proietto’s works reveal that the key to revising classics is to replace caricature with character, not necessarily to cancel traditional ballets. “We have to shift how we preserve our repertory from being just a Eurocentric way of doing it, just assuming that these cultures are fantasies, to thinking about how do we keep the steps, keep the music but keep changing it so that it’s still relevant, still alive, still meaningful for people today,” Chan says. 

La Bayadère performed in 2019. Photo: Erik Berg / the Norwegian National Opera & Ballet

So, how to move forward? The Norwegian National Ballet is taking steps to address the historical exclusivity in ballet. Under Lorentzen’s tenure, they have begun colour-blind casting, which could be a step towards colour-conscious casting that embraces their artists’ identities.

They have collaborated with the Mela Festival, the Oslo World Music Festival, the Nordic Black Theatre, along with projects in various districts of The Municipality of Oslo. In terms of audience diversity, the Norwegian National Ballet says, “We rarely work to fill the halls with people with a particular background or nationality, but work extensively with children and young people, especially through various programs for the school system, so that those who are underrepresented with us today will be among our future audience.”

Tømte expresses their desire to evolve: “In addition to the work with the programming, and especially with creating new works that can stand up against the old ones, we work on developing ourselves, the organisation and how we should relate to ballet history.”

Perhaps this is the last time this version of La Bayadère will be presented without Asian consultation, and hopefully, the company will embrace the multiculturalism in their home city with original commissions. Paris Opera Ballet, American Ballet Theatre, and other major companies are already pledging to eliminate blackface, yellowface, and offensive caricature entirely from their stages.

Catja Christensen

Catja Christensen is a 3rd-year student at Connecticut College studying English Literature and Dance. Based on the East Coast of the United States, Christensen has interned with Final Bow for Yellowface (NYC) and The Washington Ballet (DC) and is currently an Opinions Editor at The College Voice independent student newspaper. As a biracial Filipina-American, Christensen is passionate about uplifting underrepresented voices and advocating for diversity and equity in the arts.