Tokenism in Entertainment- Cavalia Odysseo

It’s never easy when my opinion is contrary to everyone else’s. It makes me wonder whether I’m being over-sensitive or over-reacting but I figure if I have a persistent feeling about something I should address it, after all my opinion matters. This is about entertainment and the critiquing of it. I’m not talking about needlessly criticizing of course, but being able to notice when something seems off. With that little disclaimer, I will continue.

My friend and I received free tickets to watch Cavalia Odysseo the other day. I didn’t know much about the show beforehand, only that a few people I know had been raving about it. It was basically a horse and acrobat show, sort of like Cirque de Soleil but with horses. The show turned out to be very aesthetically beautiful and the  horses were incredibly well-trained. The theme seemed to me to be for the most part very reminiscent of Tolkien’s Middle Earth, in fact a couple of the horse riders looked very elven.  Everything was going okay until after one of the “Middle Earth” acts a troupe of African acrobats came out, African acrobats who entertained the crowd with somersaults, African drums and songs, and who got the crowd to participate in singing an African chant (I’m not sure what language it was in, it might have been a West African one.)

At this point I’m sure some people are saying, “Rowena, not again with the race talks. What’s wrong with African acrobats performing?”  Well, that’s definitely not the issue. As homesick as I get sometimes, seeing African culture really makes me happy. The acrobats were great, had lots of energy and actually kept me alert after the slower parts of the show. My problem was with trying to understand why they were included in the show in the first place.

Firstly, the acrobats had absolutely no interaction with the horses, which made me wonder: where they there as an afterthought? They just seemed so anachronistic. I racked my brain trying to figure out a connection between Middle Earth and the African savannah and I could find none. Not that I’m a purist when it comes to entertainment; I can definitely see the appeal of fusing different styles of things together. The oddest mixes often work. Thinking back on my experiences eating Jamaican-inspired pasta dishes in the Bahamas, or listening to the Celtic and Indian Vancouver fusion band, Delhi 2 Dublin, reminds me of that.

However, the acrobats in this show did not fit in. If I were to be really critical I would say this is an instance of selling (exploiting?) culture.  I just felt that this was a dichotomy of the savage and the civilized, one that I’ve seen again and again. Perhaps people miss it because it’s so commonplace but it sticks out like a sore thumb to me and I’m getting so tired of it.

People often say “It’s just entertainment.” Well, how can it “just be” entertainment? No matter how innocent something appears to be the imagery and symbolism impact us. As I’ve heard said countless times, everything is symbolic. You can’t deny the symbols, what they mean and what they have been taken to mean outside of their original context.

People already know how I feel about stereotypes and representation/misrepresentation. Weirdly juxtaposing African entertainment in such a setting speaks volumes to me.  How blacks, Africans in particular, are portrayed in popular entertainment  is probably one of the reasons that when I’m in a group, people expect me to entertain them (and I honestly wish I was joking); after all I’m the one who is supposed to have “soul” and  “sass” (both terms people have used to describe me and other black people). Well, the media and other entertainment definitely perpetuates this. The “exotic” sells, does it not? I for one am quite fed up with the way Africans are portrayed, so uni-dimensionally. It definitely comes of as  tokenism, something I hope to address in a future post.

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17 thoughts on “Tokenism in Entertainment- Cavalia Odysseo

      1. It’s forbidden to notice I think. We (white people) always deny the racial stereotypes and framing that pre-exist and distort how any new text/artwork/news item etc with racialised aspects is seen, and when someone says ‘this is racist!’ they are told ‘you’re exaggerating!’ because the framework that attaches *connotations* is never acknowledged…

      2. That’s true. I was always worried about discussing race because I knew that people would accuse me of playing the race card. Now I think of all the times I suppressed emotions because I was worried of being perceived as a complainer. It definitely took its toll on me sometimes.

  1. Hey Rowena thanks for your thoughts! I completely agree with your sentiments.

    I’m a South African doctor in Canada, of East Indian background and I couldn’t help but notice the same dichotomy throughout the show. The show itself was beautifully done but the racial divide was appalling.

    What I found was that the African group was portrayed as primal savages (and dancing around like monkeys for the audience) yet the rest of the group as celestial Angels (performing acrobatic acts in the air and on horses)

    I mentioned to my girlfriend that I felt it was a racist show, but after a lengthy conversation we concluded that it likely was the product of a producer who had old ideologies and who lacked contemporary understandings of the world we live in.

    It’s a shame that this type of racial divide still exists.

    1. Hi Saf, thanks so much for your comment! It really helps me realize that I wasn’t being too sensitive about what I observed in the show. I think it’s easy for people to see images that paint brown or black people as bestial because those are the common images we have always seen, so people rarely even bat an eyelid (I think things are changing now, and that gives me some hope at least!).

      Thanks again for your comment, I truly appreciate it (I’m also based in Canada by the way, I know issues of race are rarely brought up here).

      1. I completely agree with you…and I noticed the same racist point of view and perception of the show; full of hypocrisy as if the African dancers replaced the natives. I felt really disappointed that your comments were made two years ago and the show is still using same racist presentation. My great surprise was to know that the show is financed by the government!!!

      2. Hi Iman, thanks so much for your comment. And it’s mindboggling that 2 years later the show is still on! Every once in a while I get a comment on here by someone who’s just watched it recently and we are always shocked about that:(

  2. Thanks for your essay. Cavalia is here in San Francisco next month, and I thought to take the granddaughters (horse nuts!), but the pictures and the video clips of the show disturbed me. I’ll wait for a different show.

  3. I just saw Cavalia after hearing rave reviews by multiple people I know, including those with transracial families and/or who have kids in progressive, social-justice focused school. I enjoyed a great deal of the show (the aesthetic, amazing feats, other wordly beauty of the horses…) but I was disturbed by the, well, segregation, and by the fact that not a single person who reviewed the show said a word about the race-related issues in the show. I found this post by Googling “racism + Cavalia.” Three related posts popped up (one a tweet that said, in a word, “most racist thing I’ve seen.” The moments that most troubled me (exemplars of a theme) were the black men as “back-up dancers” behind the white folks as they did performed fancy tricks on horses in the ring, and, on the carousel, when all the white (or at least not black) acrobats were in couples and the one black man was on his own. There were few moments when the black men “mixed” with the other performers. I just wonder how the producers missed this and kept wondering what the relationships were like behind-the-scenes.

    1. Thank you so much for commenting! I hesitated about writing this but, like you, I found so much of it problematic so I had to share my thoughts. I’m surprised that although it’s been 2 years or so since I watched it it’s still touring and the management haven’t made any comments about the exotification. Again, I really appreciate your comments, have a great 2016:)

  4. I too found this post by searching for Cavalia a+ Racist.

    I went to see the show last night. When the dancers first came on I was a little stunned in that their act did not seem to reflect any themes that were happening in the rest of the show. I was even bothered that they were not riding horses with the rest of the troupe. It almost seemed like an intentional metaphor. The more I watched the show, the more that I was bothered by some of the, what I felt like, intentional symbolism of white superiority.

    There was no plot line and so to keep the two troupes so segregated just made it feel wrong.

    I thank you for your essay. I think we should always state our opinions. if we are bothered by something observed, it is best to speak it. If we are just being sensitive at least we have the ability to speak it out loud and ask questions. The more is asked the more is known. I think the show was artistic and a work of art. I feel art can invoke different feelings in different people and these feelings are best shared.

    1. Hello Catherine, thank you very much for your comment! I’m surprised the show is still going on as it’s been a couple of years since I watched it. I’m glad to know I’m not the only one who saw the racial symbolism. I’ve definitely become more vocal when sharing my concerns now:)

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