Stage Door News

Paris, FRA: COC General Director Alexander Neef pushes for diversity as head of the Paris Opera

Monday, February 8, 2021

The Paris Opera has vowed to overhaul its recruiting practices 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 rightwingers accusing the Opera’s new director general, Alexander Neef, of introducing American-style culture wars into its cloistered arts scene.

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

A report by the historian Pap Ndiaye and rights advocate Constance Rivière has set out recommendations including an active effort to send recruiters out into the world in search of 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.

The report also touches on the tradition of ballet blanc (white ballet) – scenes in which all dancers 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.

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 Bayadère and renamed its Danse des Negrillons (dance of the little negroes) as 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 leaped on the suggestion that audience favourites such as Swan Lake and The Nutcracker might face the chop, even though the Opera made it clear there had “never been any question of dropping [Rudolf] Nureyev’s works” – a point reiterated by Neef on Monday.

The far-right politician Marine Le Pen has nonetheless slammed what she called “anti-racism gone mad”.

Le Monde’s editor-in-chief, Michel Guerrin, said 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 on Monday 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.”

By Agence France-Presse in

Photo: Paris Opera dancers perform during a dress rehearsal of Giselle. © 2020 Lionel Bonaventure.