20 years of stories not told elsewhere: When Blackface (& body) reared its ugly head onstage at the Paris Opera Ballet

By Paul Ben-Itzak 
Copyright 2006, 2019 Paul Ben-Itzak

From the Dance Insider Archives: First published on October 24, 2006. Today’s re-publication (to which the only addition is the term ‘lilly-white’)  sponsored by Slippery Rock University Dance. To learn how to obtain your own copy of the DI / AV Archive of  2000+ reviews of performances, exhibitions, films, & books  from around the world by 150 artist-critics,  e-mail  paulbenitzak@gmail.com . 

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 Marc 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 petrifying example of racist stereotyping doing on the stage of a theater in 2006? What was the (lilly-white) Paris Opera Ballet’s dance director Brigitte Lefevre thinking? (Obviously, she wasn’t. Voila le problème.) (Incidentally — or not so — Serge Lifar was condemned for collaborating with the Occupiers after World War II.)

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 the magazine spelled it — 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.