Houston Ballet’s Planned Performance of La Bayadere Comes Under Fire

A Hindu rights activist based in Nevada is accusing the Houston Ballet of cultural insensitivity and is urging it to cancel its upcoming performances of La Bayadère, scheduled for February, saying the ballet set in India “trivializes Eastern religious and other traditions.”

La Bayadère, a ballet originally performed in Russia by the Imperial Ballet in 1877, is the story of Nikiya, a temple dancer who is loved by the High Brahmin — but does not love him — and is loved by and loves the warrior Solor. What follows is a passionate story of true love —thwarted to the max — ending in general destruction.

Originally staged with four acts, the ballet has undergone several revisions since its inception and the version presented by Houston Ballet which has been performed several times by the company is choreographed by Artistic Director Stanton Welch.

Rajan Zed, the president of the Universal Society of Hinduism, first issued a press release with his criticisms and then reached out to Houston Ballet directly. Its leaders have offered to meet with him virtually to discuss the ballet and are awaiting his reply. 

“It was highly irresponsible for a community organization to choose such a ballet which had been blamed for patronizing flawed mishmash of orientalist stereotypes, dehumanizing cultural portrayal and misrepresentation, offensive and degrading elements, needless cultural appropriation, essentialism, shallow exoticism, caricaturing, etc. Houston Ballet could do better than this to serve the diverse Houston communities,” Zed charged in his press release.

This is not the first time La Bayadère has come under fire in modern times.  Zed made a similar complaint to the Royal Opera House which hosted performances in 2018 in its London home. In 2019, American Ballet Theatre dancer Misty Copeland reposted a photograph showing two ballerinas with the Bolshoi Ballet in blackface as part of their performance of La Bayadère.

Contacted for a response by the Houston Press, Houston Ballet Executive Director Jim Nelson pointed out that “Many of the ballets and operas in the classical cannon were created in a time when knowledge of other cultures was extremely limited, which is why we take great care in addressing concerns regarding what we present today.

“Houston Ballet has been an industry leader in breaking boundaries with regard to inclusion, diversity, equity and access in dance. Stanton and I firmly believe that art is for everyone and everyone’s voice counts.

“While Stanton’s version of this classic was created without many of the controversial elements noted in the recent analysis of the ballet, we plan to bring in outside consultation before it returns to the stage, just as we have done with other ballets,” Nelson said.

“Houston Ballet has been an industry leader in breaking boundaries with regard to inclusion, diversity, equity and access in dance. Stanton and I firmly believe that art is for everyone and everyone’s voice counts.”

In his response, Welch said:

“I try to be respectful and diligent with all of my works through research and adaptation, to make sure they are made with love and detail to all the characters, places and times. We spend a great deal of time focusing on the acting of a piece, breathing life and not just characterization into these roles from Marie to La Bayadère. We always try to be open to discussion, while also reflecting the past as a teaching tool for our future.

“All ballets have to evolve into what is appropriate. Houston Ballet has always been a part of this process and will continue to reimagine past works and create new works to reflect this.”

Whether Houston Ballet undertakes any further revisions to the La Bayadère story or decides to retire it from its repertoire may be a moot point. As Nelson said, nothing right now is set in stone about the return of this ballet or any others to the stage of the Wortham Center.  And we all know the culprit there.

“We do not know with certainty when it will be possible to perform these full-length story ballets again due to the ongoing pandemic,” he said. 

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