Russia’s Bolshoi Theatre says it will continue using performers who wear blackface make-up despite criticism from US ballet dancer Misty Copeland.
Copeland, an African-American ballerina, posted an image on Instagram of two white female actors in black body paint rehearsing for a show.
She said the Russian production of La Bayadère was racially insensitive.
Bolshoi Theatre director Vladimir Urin said the ballet had been performed the same way for many years.
“The ballet La Bayadère has been performed thousands of times in this production in Russia and abroad, and the Bolshoi Theatre will not get involved in such a discussion,” Mr Urin told Russia’s RIA Novosti news agency in response to Copeland’s comments.
Copeland, who made history in 2015 as the first African-American female principal dancer in the American Ballet Theatre, sparked a debate on social media after she posted the image last week.
“I get that this is a VERY sensitive subject in the ballet world,” she later wrote on Twitter, adding: “But until we can call people out and make people uncomfortable, change can’t happen.
“It is painful to think about the fact that many prominent ballet companies refuse to hire dancers of colour and instead opt to use blackface.”
Copeland, who has no involvement in the Russian production, reposted the photo after the original image, reportedly posted by a 14-year-old Russian ballet dancer, was removed from Instagram following a number of abusive comments.
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Since her post, which has accumulated more than 64,000 likes, Copeland has received widespread support on social media.
Some Russian theatre experts and ballet dancers, however, have been defending the Bolshoi production, suggesting that the use of black make-up was necessary because of a lack of black performers in the country.
“Finding some sort of deep insults in this is simply ridiculous,” Mr Urin said. “No-one has ever complained to us or saw… an act of disrespect.”
Russian ballerina Svetlana Zakharova told broadcaster Moscow 24: “There is nothing strange here, it’s absolutely normal for us… this is art.”
La Bayadère is a romantic tragedy set in India. It has featured performers in black make-up since it was first performed at the Bolshoi Theatre in St Petersburg in 1877.
Throughout her career, Copeland has been very vocal on the ballet world’s lack of diversity as well as race relations within America. She was considered a prodigy during her early days of dancing, despite not starting ballet until the age of 13.
In just eight months after taking up dancing, Copeland’s first show was The Nutcracker, where she performed the lead role as Clara.