Shades of prejudice
The word “racism” is fairly recent, and has connotations of violence and viciousness. The former “racialism” and “racial prejudice” were less strident and more inactive, referring to notion rather than deed. But deep down there is something more difficult to eke out, something more akin to a kind of racial conceit mixed with racial ignorance. Racism is a reactive surface thing, this other one goes deeper.
The current row about casting white actors in Asian roles in movies is not so much about race as the Hollywood star system, which transfers seamlessly to television, for which producers demand names the public knows. There aren’t many black ones, you can count maybe half a dozen. How many Asian Hollywood box office stars can you count? That isn't top say that racial awareness isn't important to showbiz, just that money is more important.
Often it is art that can turn the spotlight on a social phenomenon that has been buried, and in her new dance the groundbreaking choreographer Shobana Jeyasingh bores right down into this. She is Indian, but British Indian, she says, with the accent on the British. She has been making dances for 30 years about things that she has observed and that have interested her. Early on she went to Cyprus, saw Byzantine churches and made a link with Yeats’s poem, Byzantium, which gave her one of her first successes. It was performed at Swan Wycombe in Buckinghamshire and a critic remarked on the lack of Asian faces in the audiences. She did the thing that artists are supposed never to do, she responded: “I said that the only Asians in High Wycombe are Pakistani taxi drivers and I didn’t see why Byzantium should be of interest to a Pakistani taxi driver”. The assumption then, and we’re talking about 1990, was that whatever the work of art, if it’s by an Indian only Indians would be interested in it. Twenty-seven years later, we’re thinking “Really?”
Her new dance, which gets its premiere at the Lowry in Manchester at the end of the month, tackles something more fundamental: age-old Western constructs that are still purveyed as Eastern tradition, feeding a prejudice which is a lie. The new piece is Bayadère, the Ninth Life.
The Russian ballet about the tragic love and death of a beautiful temple dancer was written in the 1870s, nearly 50 years after Goethe’s original poem had ignited a society lust for uncovering the supposed secrets of the harem. Plays and operas were written about the bayadère, and eventually one Paris impresario decided to bring four actual temple dancers from Pondicherry to perform all over Europe, including London. They were a critical flop because they did not conform to the European idea of exotic pulchritude and Eastern promise: critics were offended by the fact that they danced only with their feet, and one pronounced it “insufferably boring”. Audiences reached for their own version and Ludwig Minkus, a kind of Andrew Lloyd Weber of his day, gave them a ballet that is still performed as if it is an authentic glimpse at Indian life. The Bolshoi production still has dancers blacking up. “The truth is, the Bayadère is not a personage, she never has been” says Jeyasingh.
So what she is highlighting is a constructed alienation born from a fear of the unknown – the first stories of Indian temple dancers came via Marco Polo, not the most reliable of sources - and a lust for the forbidden exotic, for the glimpse through the keyhole of the seraglio.
“But there is a new way of looking at race, culture, ethnicity” Jeyasingh says, “and everybody is contributing to that. I see it every day on the Tube”. In Britain we are, despite the politics, starting to get it, she says. How long before it reaches the casting directors of Downtown Burbank?