Paris Opera to seek out new talent in diversity drive

Paris Opera dancers perform at the Palais Garnier during a dress rehearsal of "Giselle" in January last year.
Paris Opera dancers perform at the Palais Garnier during a dress rehearsal of "Giselle" in January last year. Lionel BONAVENTURE AFP/File
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Paris (AFP)

The Paris Opera vowed an overhaul of its recruiting practices on Monday as it launched a drive towards greater diversity in the heart of its elite ballet company, orchestra and dance school.

The issue has already sparked fierce debate in France with right-wingers accusing the Opera's new director-general Alexander Neef of bringing American-style culture wars into the cloistered world of its arts scene.

But with Black Lives Matter protests roiling France, and deepening debate over its colonial legacy, Neef remains unrepentant about the need for greater diversity, and in an online press conference on Monday, vowed a shake-up of the 350-year-old institution.

A new report by historian Pap Ndiaye and rights advocate Constance Riviere set out recommendations including an active effort to send recruiters out into the world in search of new talent, rather than relying on dancers coming to them.

"The objective is not that the school recruits less talented students to meet diversity objectives, but to search for great students wherever they can be found," the authors said, calling for decentralised exams in towns across France and its overseas territories.

They said attention was needed on the sensitive question of "anatomical criteria" in the selection process -- to move beyond "old and tenacious ideas" about black bodies as somehow ill-suited to classical dance.

It also touched on the tradition of "ballet blanc" (white ballet) -- scenes in which dancers all appear in white tutus. Black dancers have at times been expressly excluded, despite Ndiaye pointing out there was never any reference to skin colour when they were originally designed.

- 'Not the conclusion' -

Paris Opera will appoint a dedicated "diversity and inclusion officer", Neef said, following the lead of New York's Metropolitan Opera which named its first person to that role last month.

A consulting body of experts from inside and outside the Opera will also look at what these issues mean for its repertoire.

In 2015, the Opera's ballet director Benjamin Millepied met resistance after he ended the use of blackface for "La Bayadere" and renamed its "Danse des Negrillons" ("The Dance of the Little Negroes") as "The Dance of the Children."

Neef himself made waves recently when he told Le Monde newspaper that "some works will no doubt disappear from the repertoire."

There was a typical outcry as politicians leapt on the suggestion that audience favourites such as "Swan Lake" and "The Nutcracker" might face the chop, even though the Opera made it clear that there has "never been any question of dropping (Rudolph) Nureyev's works" -- a point reiterated by Neef on Monday.

Far-right leader Marine Le Pen has nonetheless slammed what she called "anti-racism gone mad".

And Le Monde's editor-in-chief Michel Guerrin warned that France was "slowly going down the American road, consisting of the runaway self-censorship of artists and programmers in order to avoid trouble."

Neef said Monday that there were no plans to "rewrite the librettos", but that broader change was vital.

"The Opera's engagement on diversity is necessary, more than ever," he said.

"This report is not the conclusion of a process, but the start. It is something that will live with us for years."