‘Brownface' Issue Keeps Young Berkeley Students From Performing in Ballet

A handful of young ballet dancers in Berkeley were invited to dance with a world class ballet company, only to ultimately be cut from the performance.

The issue centered around a scene that calls for dancers to alter their skin color in what some are calling a brownface controversy.

The performance of "La Bayadere" ran through last weekend, but it didn’t include one portion of the ballet that traditionally uses dancers wearing dark-face makeup along with dark sleeves and tights. The change meant some young local dancers lost their chance to dance with the pros.

Initially, it was an exciting opportunity for a group of young ballerinas from the Berkeley Ballet Theater. They were invited to dance alongside the world class Mariinsky Ballet Company in "La Bayadere" at UC Berkeley’s Zellerbach Hall.

But Berkeley Ballet Theater Artistic Director Robert Dekkers had concerns.

"The values that we have here in Berkeley sometimes are put at odds with sort of the traditions of classical ballet," Dekkers said.

Dancers in the 140-year-old ballet have traditionally worn makeup and costumes that darken their skin.

"We definitely voiced concerns with racially stereotypical costuming and were told that wouldn’t be part of the performance," Dekkers said.

Cal Performances says it tried to adjust the scene to include the young dancers, but a spokesperson told NBC Bay Area, "since the company was unable to make costume adaptations so close to the performances, the difficult decision was made to cut the part of that scene that might have been unacceptable to our community."

Some UC Berkeley students feel removing the scene was the best choice.

"I think it was a good thing they nipped it in the bud now so they won't have to deal with it later," Phillip Burns said.

Erika Bontrager added: "Race is such a sensitive topic, especially in the liberal bubble that Berkeley is today."

Cal Performances told NBC Bay Area it was a historical performance, not an adaptation, so they used original costumes and scenery dating back decades. That included the controversial outfit with dark sleeves and tights.

Four other young dancers from Berkeley Ballet were in a different scene, and they did perform.

Contact Us