Peter and the Inadvertent Racism

Early one morning, Peter opened the gate and went out into the big green meadow.

It was the smallest sort of racism. Subtle, unintentional. A youth ballet company, interpreting Peter and the Wolf alongside a regional symphony orchestra, donned costumes to represent their characters.

On the branch of a big tree sat a little bird, Peter’s friend. “All is quiet,” chirped the bird gaily.

The Bird wore a bright, feathered tutu; the Duck, a yellow-plumed tiara. And the Wolf was covered from head to toe in a mask and gray furred costume, complete with a tail.

The Bird and Duck argued and flapped their wings; the Cat skulked and stalked; Grandfather waved his cane and scolded Peter, who brashly ignored his grandpa’s warnings to stay away from the dangerous meadow. At the climactic moment, Peter and his forest friends captured the Wolf using a rope lasso lowered from a nearby tree.

Just then, hunters came out of the woods, following the wolf’s trail and shooting as they came. 

A phalanx of ballerinas — likely 12 or 13 years old — emerged from stage right, wearing black stealth leotards, night-vision goggles, and caps camouflaged with bits of flora. The resulting aesthetic was less Elmer Fudd and more paramilitary. They performed a lighthearted dance with their plastic rifles in tow, cocking them and popping imaginary bullets to the rhythm of the timpani. Suddenly sighting the Wolf, they spun around and pointed their barrels at the predator-turned-prey.

But Peter sitting in the tree said: “Don’t shoot! The bird and I have already caught the wolf. Now please help us take him to the zoo.”

The audience couldn’t see the dancer portraying the Wolf; she was completely hidden by her costume. So does it make a difference that this dancer — whose character is physically captured and bound by a rope tied to a tree, wielded by a white male; and who is held at gunpoint by what, for all appearances, could be a junior SWAT team — was the only Black dancer on stage?

It might be a stretch to point out far-removed imagery of lynching and police brutality in a regional children’s production of Peter and the Wolf. Maybe I’m a snowflake — oversensitive, bleeding-heart, a bit too eager to cry “Problematic!”

Or maybe the decisions we make in performing music — especially when performing for an audience of children — carry deeply rooted social meanings, however unintentional, that convey powerful messages beyond what our white-privileged minds can foresee.

The concert was performed for free for a predominantly Black and minority audience of Title I schoolchildren. Community outreach is so important in the arts, and this orchestra and ballet company should be lauded for giving these students the opportunity to experience music and dance beyond the classroom. The conductor, delivering closing remarks with charming enthusiasm, urged the kids to go home and tell their parents about the show they had just watched — to share their favorite character or instrument, and maybe ask to take music or dance lessons themselves. “One day, you could be on this stage,” he exclaimed.

And yet, there was no evidence on stage to support this hopeful possibility. The costuming choice left the production — a production the sole purpose of which was to perform as outreach to young audiences in marginalized communities — with zero representation of those communities on stage. The conductor was left urging these kids to get involved in an art form where they appeared not to be welcome. Where their presence — their bodies — would only be erased and covered. Invisible.

Of course, this was no one’s intention. “All is quiet,” chirped the bird gaily. But that’s what was presented on stage.

Even if the Wolf wore only ears and a tail, her skin visible to to the audience, offering a role model and a space for the kids to envision themselves performing ballet when they grow up — now we’re presented with another problem: a Black body bound by rope to a tree, guns pointed at her by a pint-sized police force.

There’s something to be noted about the image of young, white girls dancing with plastic rifles — literally playing with guns, performing for a community that is three times more likely to be killed by police, in a city where the homicide rate has tripled since 2009 — because to these white dancers, guns aren’t a threat. They’re toys. They’re not something to fear, but something to dance about — an immense privilege we as white performers benefit from and take for granted every day.

And maybe there’s something unsettling about children of any race “playing” with guns. Maybe it’s promoting gun violence, desensitizing kids to the image of a rifle pointed at a target. It’s not exactly a revelation that the Peter and the Wolf of 1936 is a bit outdated; and wouldn’t the storyline be unaffected if the hunters wielded slingshots, or bows and arrows?

But that’s another argument, for another day. Because the dancers we’re talking about didn’t hold slingshots; they held guns. And their costumes evoked something military and sinister, the night-vision goggles and camo-esque hats making for a sharp and unintended foray into verismo theatre.

Unintended — because no one on the production crew sat down and asked themselves, “How can we imbue subtle racism into this children’s concert?” The administrators and choreographers, like me, were white; why would any of this imagery occur to us as problematic, when it remains safely distant from our everyday lives?

All of this went over the kids’ heads, of course — there was a Duck and a Cat and a Wolf, and that was plenty to entertain them for a half-hour.

Over their heads, maybe; but the experience will stick with them, possibly for life. I can’t count the number of professional musicians I personally know who chose to enter the field because of a concert they saw on a kindergarten field trip. Just imagine the innumerable students in the audience at these particular performances who will never go into classical music or ballet because they don’t think they can – because abysmal representation and violent imagery stealthily and inadvertently colored their impressions of the art form as one that is distant and unwelcoming?

Maybe it’s time to give up Peter and the Wolf, or at least to rethink its complicity a gun-saturated society. But above all, it is vital that classical music decision-makers — especially when inviting our youngest listeners to experience this music for the very first time — open their eyes and minds to the subtle yet pervasive layers of privilege that, when left unchecked, will have lasting effects on the next generation.


Author’s Note:

I attended the performance described above one year ago, and have chosen to withhold the names of the orchestra and ballet company involved as this is a work of analysis, not of criticism.

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