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Acocella on Ballet and Sex


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#1 sandik

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Posted 01 March 2005 - 09:52 PM

The Berkeley website has a webcast of this talk, which Rachel Howard mentions in her blog.

http://webcast.berke...ml?event_id=180

#2 carbro

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Posted 01 March 2005 - 10:58 PM

Wow, sandik! Thanks for that link! Now all I need is an hour and a half (almost) to set aside for it.

#3 Guest_nycdog_*

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Posted 02 March 2005 - 06:16 AM

Nice to see and hear Acocella but the lecture is vulgar and stupid.

#4 dirac

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Posted 02 March 2005 - 01:56 PM

The lecture proper runs just under an hour, and then there’s a question and answer period. I can think of many adjectives to describe Acocella’s writings and style, but “stupid” is not one of them. It certainly does not apply here. I don’t have time to comment in full right know, but I’ve listened to the entire webcast and seen bits of it. Acocella says that the lecture should have been called “The Use of the Female Crotch and Its Armature in Ballet.” She focuses for obvious reasons on Balanchine, but also discusses Ashton, Forsythe, and Armitage. She shows the audience excerpts from Balanchine, Ashton, and Armitage. Her subject is the use of the woman’s body in ballet, how this has changed over the centuries and the political, social, and aesthetic context of these changes. “You see the dance, and then you feel it,” she says, and her talk emphasizes kinetic as well as visual considerations.

Some eyebrows may be raised by her mention, at the conclusion of her lecture, of Balanchine’s reported preference for performing a certain chivalrous service.....

#5 dirac

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Posted 02 March 2005 - 04:33 PM

Forgot to add that the footage of Diana Adams and Arthur Mitchell in "Agon" is awesome -- especially Adams, not to take anything away from Mitchell --and Acocella's commentary on same excellent.

#6 Paul Parish

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Posted 02 March 2005 - 07:28 PM

I was there at the talk, and have to say that I thought it was a very good thing.

Acocella was -- among other things -- taking on the feminist critics who attacked Balanchine for exploiting the female body, and ultimately claimed that B gave women their whole bodies -- including the crotch -- to use as artists in a generous, free, and liberating way. (I can't remember her words exactly there.)

It was really valuable for her to do this in a university context, for that's where the criticism came from. (Acocella had been broght to Berkeley as the Avenali Lecturer in he Humanities.) It was particularly strong that Acocella could point out that in the 80's, when feminism was "first-stage," it was necessary for them to make these attacks on Balanchine (she's not opposed to consciousness-raising and all that) and handsomely pointed out that Ann Daley (sp?) who's a fine critic, has taken a more nuanced position since.

Also, for context -- Acocella's not keen on "academic" criticism, which she told a group of students a few days before, she considers to be toxic to the writer, the reader, and the subject. I agree with that assessment.

I'd say she's taking a humane position aligned with the "wisdom" tradition, and opposing those of the "knowledge" tradition, which is right now involved in polysyllabic theorizing and career-making, in shocking disregard of the evidence.

So it was a great thing that she brought her guns to bear on that.

It's also true, i so agree, it was wonderful -- and a rare privilege -- to SEE the Agon pas de deux with Mitchell and Adams, complete, entire, filmed within a year of the debut, in a very grainy but totally legible recording made by the CBC. She showed the whole thing.

If she'd had another hour, I wish she could have gone into all the issues raised by Allegra Kent's eroticism -- Bugaku, though, is not available on tape, but Kent's swooning manner with Agon IS something we can see (how she throws her head back, inviting Mitchell to drop her into those splits, and she goes all the way down). It would have enriched the talk without having in any way detracted from her point, that Balanchine empowered women dancers rather than demeaned them.

she did say somethig I couldn't agree with, that dancers don't/can't go past the 180 degree penchee. I have to disagree with that, I've seen Joanna Berman go past 6 o'clock, in Tomasson's Concerto in d, and Darci Kistler also in Bizet. But this is a tiny point.

#7 BalletNut

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Posted 02 March 2005 - 08:04 PM

For some reason, I got an error message when I tried to access the archived webcast, but from the sounds of things I'm glad someone finally got to give a talk, in an academic setting, specifically at a very "politically correct" school, refuting the oversimplified assertions about ballet and gender made by well-meaning theorists. I'm completing my Women's Studies degree right now (go me), and I've heard just about every feminist argument about why ballet is bad, in lots of nice convoluted theory-speak (or, as Paul puts it, "polysyllabic theorizing and career-making in shocking disregard of the evidence." Terms like patriarchal objectification and commodification of the female body, reification of the heteropatriarchy, etc :yawn: ) so it's good to have a refutation of that. Again, my computer wouldn't let me play the clip, so I'm basing this entirely on other people's comments. But, as I said, I'm glad that college students and other audience members got another side of the issue than the typical "second-wave" (first wave was the suffragettes, for what it's worth) feminist theorizing about Balanchine as the epitome of patriarchal oppression of the female body and the objectification of the ballerina, which is, more often than not, based largely on Dancing on My Grave. It's also nice to see more nuance making its way into feminist theory generally, and that it's starting to look a lot less black-and-white than it used to, so that it is possible to "justify" institutions and practices which may have traditionally been regarded as demeaning and oppressive in a new way. I could go on forever on a feminist approach to ballet, but I won't. I'm just sorry I missed this lecture, and I can't think of a better way to illustrate Balanchine, ballet and sex than with Agon pdd.

Thank you very much, Paul, dirac, and everyone who commented on this. What do other people think?

#8 bart

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Posted 02 March 2005 - 08:33 PM

Sandik, thanks for this link !!

What an interesting, edgy performance by Acocella. She appeared to be talking from notes rather than a script and to be extemporizing (parentheses within parenthesis, as she thought about things that needed further explanation or illustration). Also: Marvellous communication of the history behind the presentation of the female body from the 19th century through Balanchine (clips from Prodigal Son and Agon), with comparisons to Ashton and Armitage.

It took me a while to realize that her provocative label "crotch" actually refers to the "frank use of the female pelvis" -- and pretty much resolves itself into a discussion of the use of increasingly high extensions (to the 6 o'clock).

I loved her tributes to Balanchine, especially in the q and a. One questioner apparently thought she was claiming that this (sex/crotch/pelvis/etc.) was all Balanchine was about. She responded that this was just one of his colors -- then thought for a second and said, "but it is fundamental."

I hope, in rewriting and expanding this lecture, she develops her points about the kinetic response to dance, as well as her thoughts about Balanchine's special genius for training women and for "making them more brave and daring."

Edited by bart, 02 March 2005 - 08:34 PM.


#9 carbro

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Posted 02 March 2005 - 08:38 PM

I am about a third of the way through (just past the Agon pdd). It is coming through my modem very choppily, so I'll replay it later.

How can anyone who's seen the Siren say that Balanchine disempowered women???? And even in Agon, where the woman is less aggressive, she is not without will. But JA's observation that the criticisms had to be made makes perfect sense in the context of the times.

I'm glad that college students and other audience members got another side of the issue than the typical "second-wave" (first wave was the suffragettes, for what it's worth) feminist theorizing about Balanchine as the epitome of patriarchal oppression of the female body and the objectification of the ballerina, which is, more often than not, based largely on  Dancing on My Grave.

<{POST_SNAPBACK}>

Actually, BN, by the time Kirkland wrote her book, those arguments were old hat and already being reconsidered. Kirkland may have cloaked her experience in the conventional wisdom of the day, but her gripe seemed to me entirely personal.

she did say somethig I couldn't agree with, that dancers don't/can't go past the 180 degree penchee. I have to disagree with that, I've seen Joanna Berman go past 6 o'clock, in Tomasson's Concerto in d, and Darci Kistler also in Bizet. But this is a tiny point.

<{POST_SNAPBACK}>

I'm with you on that, Paul. Maria Kowroski has shown us 6:05-6:06 on several occasions. It might have its place in certain pieces, but I find it somewhat grotesque, especially in the white tutu-ed, tiara-ed Symphony in C.

#10 dirac

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Posted 03 March 2005 - 10:13 AM

As Paul notes, Acocella’s comments on feminist criticism of ballet was intelligent and nuanced. I do feel obliged to say, however, that I’ve had the privilege of reading a number of distinguished academic critics over the years on a variety of topics, and disagree strongly with any blanket condemnation of them as a group.


Parenthetically, I note that the correct word is “suffragists,” not “suffragettes” – although the latter term is often seen and heard, it’s a term of disparagement. (No offense intended, BalletNut – just pointing it out for the record. :))

#11 Paul Parish

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Posted 03 March 2005 - 10:42 AM

Dirac, thanks for that qualifying remark.

I regretted the force of my statement after I made it -- there is great academic criticism (Johnson, Coleridge, Bradley on Shakespeare; the best criticism of ballet has been by poets like Gauthier and Danby, but as academics go Garis is very very good). I too have benefited from a lot of it. I dislike the current fashions, myself, though here are some great exponents practising in them. It's a style that began in France, and the Ggreat French exponents were wonderful writers. (Barthes is virtually a poet.) Unfortunately the Americans in their wake mostly can't measure up; it's a style that is SO demanding that only a few critics can use it without being overwhelmed by the size of the nouns they're trying to heave about.

I must also say, that I only heard about Acocella's saying that "current academic criticism is toxic to the reader, the writer, and the subject' frm someone who was there and has herself a wicked way with words. But I am sure that she understood acocella and got the gist of it right.

And indeed, I'd recommen\d Acocella's writings in defense of AWila Cather to anybody who'd like to konw what these issues are, and also to get some familiarity with a great writer who's seriously overlooked these days -- "The Professor's House" is a book I read on Acocella's recommendation, and I'm really glad I read it.

Edited by Paul Parish, 03 March 2005 - 10:13 PM.


#12 bart

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Posted 03 March 2005 - 12:21 PM

Ballet Nut's (and others') descriptions of current feminist theorizing re ballet certainly makes it sound scarey, not to say ludicrous. They made me grateful to have been away from American universities for so long. Acocella seems to have said it all when she quoted one of the theorists and then commented, (I paraphrase), "could she actually have SEEN a Balanchine ballet?"

I appreciated Acocella's concern to keep everything within the framework of historical development (from the 19th century to today). Only when you understand the limited role of women in dance -- even after the ballerina became the central figure in the second half of that century (and Acocella was quite lively in her characterizations of those dancers) -- can you understand how liberating developments in the late 19th century, via Diaghalev, to Balanchine must have appeared.

These arguments -- and examples -- are not particularly original. What WAS novel (to me at least) was her very inventive use of the imagery of the crotch/pelvis (eg., the foutee is a "fantastic display of pelvic force"). She played upon, and developed, this imagery with the kind of invention that Bach might have applied to a simple melodic theme. The language made me see the clip from Agon very differently from they way Ihave seen this dance before -- and I don't imagine that I will ever watch a woman being promenaded in arabesque without thinking of Acocella fiddling with her eye glasses and pushing back hair on the right side of her face.

Incidentally, maybe it was the jerky (rather robotic) quality of the webcast imagery, but the excerpt from Prodigal Son seemed slightly laughable. Certainly the audience seemed to be laughing. Baryshnikov (in his bangs and wierd little tunic suit) had nothing to do. He appeared rather like a miniscule male preying mantis trying to climb around the body of the much larger, more powerful, and ultimately deadly (in nature) female. Well worth a snigger, in my book -- and bearing no relation to the Villella performances (live) I recall from an earlier period. The unchanging, unemotional facial mask of the female dancer,however, was worth the price of admission.

Query: Is Acocella the first to connect the Agon pas de deux to Balanchine's involvement (physical and emotional) in Tanaquil LeClercq's physical therapy after the onset of polio?

#13 carbro

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Posted 03 March 2005 - 12:50 PM

Incidentally, maybe it was the jerky (rather robotic) quality of the webcast imagery, but the excerpt from Prodigal Son seemed slightly laughable. 

<{POST_SNAPBACK}>

In his defense, those performances were recorded when Baryshnikov had been at NYCB only a few months. He'd danced Prodigal before, but he didn't really have time to find his way into the role.

Query:  Is Acocella the first to connect the Agon pas de deux to Balanchine's involvement (physical and emotional)  in Tanaquil LeClercq's physical therapy after the onset of polio?

<{POST_SNAPBACK}>

We've discussed it -->here. Maybe Joan reads us!

#14 Helene

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Posted 03 March 2005 - 02:24 PM

We've discussed it -->here.  Maybe Joan reads us!

<{POST_SNAPBACK}>


Or Robert Garis :)

#15 BalletNut

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Posted 03 March 2005 - 04:00 PM

Well, I know I said I wouldn't go on and on about feminist theory and ballet, but
I lied. :)

Ballet Nut's (and others') descriptions of current feminist theorizing re ballet certainly makes it sound scarey, not to say ludicrous.   They made me grateful to have been away from American universities for so long.  Acocella seems to have said it all when she quoted one of the theorists and then commented, (I paraphrase), "could she actually have SEEN a Balanchine ballet?"

<{POST_SNAPBACK}>


Contrary to appearances, there is not currently a monolithic body of academic feminist theorists whose word is law for everyone who studies them, and I'm not sure that there ever was. (I'm not accusing bart or anyone else of having the notion that there is, by the way. Just so that's clear.) While feminists who do not like ballet outnumber those who do (or at least they out-publish and out-shout the ones who like ballet), it's oversimplifying to conclude that ballet and gender equality are diametrically opposed and always will be. There's been a move away from accepting pronouncements that ballet is universally sexist, demeaning, and patriarchal, as gospel truth, because I've seen more emphasis on nuance, diversity of opinion, and "complicating essentializing narratives." (Would that there would be a move away from the "scary" academic-ese, but none appears imminent.)

by the time Kirkland wrote her book, those arguments were old hat and already being reconsidered.

This is probably true. Feminist theory, along with every other type of theory out there, is always reinventing itself. Unfortunately, a lot of students are unaware that these arguments are indeed "old hat," or at least based on outdated information. I remember a couple of years ago there was a discussion on Ballet Talk of an essay by an undergraduate sociology student (posted online by her university, I believe) whose aim was to demostrate Why Ballet Is Evil, and she relied primarily on Kirkland and Suzanne Gordon (I think that's her name) to support her thesis. It's been my experience that many college students, particularly in fields like sociology and women's studies, still support this assessment of ballet and Balanchine.

(I suppose now would be a good time to say--parenthetically--that, yes, it is suffragIST, not suffragETTE. I stand corrected.)

As far as Balanchine goes, I think the same could be said for his choreography as for feminist theory: it's not monolithic and requires a nuanced assessment. There's Agon, and Prodigal Son, and Bugaku, but there's also Theme and Variations, Serenade, and Liebeslieder Walzer. It's too large, complex and varied a body of work to be boiled down neatly into a single statement of his views on women.

I realize this has strayed somewhat from the topic of the actual lecture, but these issues and others come up quite a bit in some form or another. Personally, having seen the advertisements for this lecture series (and being unable to either attend myself or access the archived material online), I'm wondering what people were expecting when they came in, and whether the actual lecture met their expectations.


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