Sign in to follow this  
Followers 0
sandik

Acocella on Ballet and Sex

39 posts in this topic

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

Share this post


Link to post

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

Share this post


Link to post

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.....

Share this post


Link to post

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.

Share this post


Link to post

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.

Share this post


Link to post

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?

Share this post


Link to post

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

Share this post


Link to post

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.

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.

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.

Share this post


Link to post

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. :))

Share this post


Link to post

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

Share this post


Link to post

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?

Share this post


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

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?

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

Share this post


Link to post

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?"

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.

Share this post


Link to post

I like this observation she made (I think she was quoting someone else, but I didn't catch the name): "Things that are covered can be more suggestive than things that are open." Rewatching Elusive Muse earlier today, before listening to the Acocella lecture, I was just thinking to myself how much more sensual a sheer skirt covering the legs is than tights-and-leo only. Also makes me think back on an article written in the New Yorker awhile ago about how in some Middle Eastern cultures, men's obsession with the extreme covering of the female body can be viewed as a form of pornography.

Share this post


Link to post

Reminds me of the quote, "What a man enjoys about a woman's clothes are his fantasies of how she would look without them." :)

Share this post


Link to post

Thank you, Carbro, for the link to the earlier thread about Agon. It was fascinating. These archives are a phenomenal cultural resource, especially for those of us relatively new to the forum. How very broad the cultural spread and resonance of intelligent dance criticism can be.

Arthur Mitchell's memories were especially interesting. I remember seeing the ballet several times as a teenager in the late 1950s and there is no way to express how strange and wonderful the juxtaposition and contact of black (male) and white (female) bodies was even for those of us from relatively liberal northeast suburban backgrounds. It was impossible NOT to see this dance as "about" respect, trust, partnership and a powerful kind of equality. This was possibly even more striking and disturbing than a conventional "romantic pas de deux" would have been -- something this dance quite deliberately was NOT. That was (and is) my single most powerful kinetic memory (in Acocella's sense) of Agon. And it had nought to do with crotches.

Edited by bart

Share this post


Link to post

Bart -

Regarding Arthur Mitchell's memories, they are deeply interesting, but I'd just be a little cautious if you're looking for facts beyond impressions. He said things at the Agon taping by the Balanchine Foundation that could not have been true. He's one of the people that taught me (by example) that oral history still needs to be fact checked.

Share this post


Link to post

Yo Bart, I think Acocella's audience was self-conscious and laughed because we were a lecture-audience, as opposed to an opera-house audience, who sit there in the dark and can be kinda anonymous...... it was nervous laughter, it felt like to me, and as she pointed out how hte siren sat down on his head, it was just amazingly obvious that the ballerina HAD indeed just sat down on his head...

so you had to laugh. But it wasn't the inability of the dancers to control hte mood rather, CAcocella's audience was looking at a 2-dimensional video under lecture-conditions, where laughing was a way of encouraging Acocella to go ahead with her bad self.

And let me second Leigh's feelings about Mitchell -- His memories are fanciful, entertaining indeed but not to be trusted. My jaw dropped the night he was talkng about Agon and said that' well, no, tanny had not come down with polio yet....."

She most certainly HAD by that time.

AND i have to say, Garis's idea that the cavalier's manipulations of hte ballernia's legs in Agon have SOMETHING to do with the physical therapy Balanchine was doing with Tanny's now-paralyzed legs, is absolutely compelling to me. Garis made the suggestion diffidently, used a great deal of tact -- which may have been necessary at hte time, when it was a new and maybe shocking idea. But to my mind anybody looking at the ballet now and thinking about how Balanchine was spending maybe an hour a day trying to get his wifes legs to move on their own power again (in hte 50's they seem to have thought that maybe you could regenerate the nerve-paths by manipulating hte muscles) -- to my mind that idea just seems compelling.

Share this post


Link to post

Yes, it sounded as if the lecture audience was laughing at the openness of the sexual reference and the dominance of the Siren -- they seemed to start laughing when von Aroldingen wraps her leg around Baryshnikov's waist and he gazes up at her, stunned.

Fortunately, the comments from Mitchell cited by Acocella that I recall had less to do with matters of fact than matters of style: that Adams was insecure about her technique (hardly seems justified!) and this lent the pas de deux a sense of precariousness that is lost today – the women who dance it now have a confidence in their ability and technique that detract from the aura of danger and tension that the dance should have for maximum effect.

Share this post


Link to post
– the women who dance it now have a confidence in their ability and technique that detract from the aura of danger and tension that the dance should have for maximum effect.

I am astonished by today's ballerinas and soloists who have the rock-solid steadiness to hold a balance, it seems to me, until they CHOOSE to end it and the music is running out. This aura of danger and tension did not only occur in Agon PDD; it was evident in most of the supportingPDD at the time. This rock-solid steadiness wasn't there in any abundance in the 50's, and I do miss it in Agon.

[Edited by Estelle to add a "quote" tag]

Share this post


Link to post

atm711, thank oyu for pointing that out --

that's a very important fact, the adrenaline-energy yuo feel coming form artists has a LOT to do with the emotions yu feel. When it's too easy, -- I often feel this in Swan Lake, actually, where the legs go up too easily and you dont feel the BACK working -- that the tragic feeling is smoething thie ballerina is not acquainted with.....

Agon is SO edgy, the tension is so important to it--

though in fact in the performance Acocella showed, when Mitchell fell down on the floor, Adams stayed up -- for QUITE a while she stayed on pointe in arabesque de cote and actually promenaded to croise before she cam down... s either he KEPT HIS HAND RIGHT WHERE IT HAD BEEN, or she was ready for anything...

but that's so much what that pas is about, I'll be there for you even if I'm falling down myself.....

Share this post


Link to post
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.

I might differ with this analysis as a matter of history. I believe that the very "first wave" feminists were people like Mary Wollstonecraft, who provided philosophy, and Lydia Marie Child, who provided practical advice in gaining women (and children) the ability to have free time, which could be spent on self-improvement, and for them to participate more fully in the rising middle economic class, as industry redistributed wealth in a developing culture. But this is a mere matter of labels. I believe that the growth of modern feminism can be found in the emergence and next development after the Enlightenment. I look, personally, to those women when seeking inspiration and insight.

Share this post


Link to post

Actually, you're right, Mel, and that's why the whole idea of dividing feminism into 1st, 2nd, and 3rd "waves" is problematic. It makes it seem like feminism "died" after each wave and nothing happened in between the waves, or that there wasn't anything going on before the "first" one. The truth is, there really isn't any definitive, agreed-upon boundary between the waves--which means, sure, the first wave could have included Wollstonecraft et al if you prefer, even if most Women's Studies departments define it with the abolitionists and suffragists. Some professors say the 2nd wave was from the 1960s to the late 70s, others say it's from the early 70s to mid 80s, and as for the 3rd wave, it's either from the early to late 90s or is just beginning now (2000s). :angry2: In other words, not as clearly defined as other historical periods. OK, that was quite :tiphat:

Back to Acocella...

Share this post


Link to post
Sign in to follow this  
Followers 0