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Acocella on Ballet and Sex


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#16 Old Fashioned

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Posted 03 March 2005 - 05:00 PM

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.

#17 BalletNut

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Posted 03 March 2005 - 06:17 PM

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

#18 bart

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Posted 03 March 2005 - 06:29 PM

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, 03 March 2005 - 06:31 PM.


#19 Leigh Witchel

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Posted 03 March 2005 - 09:33 PM

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.

#20 Paul Parish

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Posted 03 March 2005 - 10:26 PM

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.

#21 dirac

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Posted 04 March 2005 - 09:48 AM

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.

#22 atm711

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Posted 04 March 2005 - 11:28 AM

– 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]

#23 Paul Parish

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Posted 04 March 2005 - 08:11 PM

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.....

#24 Mel Johnson

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Posted 05 March 2005 - 04:50 AM

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}>


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.

#25 BalletNut

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Posted 05 March 2005 - 12:04 PM

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...

#26 carbro

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Posted 05 March 2005 - 02:33 PM

OK, that was quite   :tiphat:

Back to Acocella...

<{POST_SNAPBACK}>

Yes, back to Acocella -- after noting that the prohibitionists (who followed the abolitionists and preceded the suffragists) had their era. The motivation for banning alcohol was the number of women who suffered abuse by husbands who drank.

Of course, it would be amiss to disregard Abigail Adams' admonition to her husband during the Constitutional Convention to "remember the ladies" and grant them full, equal legal status. She was the grandmother of us all, but there were not enough of her to comprise a movement, alas.

But back to topic, I have no doubt that Abigail would have been appalled and offended by Acocella's subject matter!

#27 Herman Stevens

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Posted 06 March 2005 - 01:54 AM

It's an interesting talk, particularly in the exposition part. Thanks for posting the link. Towards the end when things are supposed to come together my feeling is they fall apart, mostly because suddenly the talk turns out to be about two things - not just the liberation of the crotch, but also ("wouldn't it be nice?") whether Balanchine was a nice guy contrary to what some of the eighties feminists said.

I think we're sufficiently far removed in time to stop caring about the latter point. Is a Mozart opera better or worse for WAM being a nice person? I don't think so.

Resting even the tiniest bit of an argument on what "a friend of a friend of Balanchine's" said about what happened in the Balanchine bedroom is ridiculous. Presenting it as a semi-joke and nonetheless running with it is not a great way to go. It's also a strange throwback to eighties feminism, when non-penetrative forms of sex were considered to be more OK than the real McCoy.

But it doesn't matter; one thing we may safely assume about Balanchine's sex life, and that is he didn't have sex with friends of his friends, so what do they know?

I thought the idea that Agon is in some way referring to caring for LeClerq didn't add up to much, particularly because J.A. says herself that Balanchine's eroticism always includes feelings of caring and tenderness and anxiety anyway. She also enumerates, eloquently, the many losses Balanchine suffered before he even got the New York City, which somehow informed his art.*

Ultimately the argument is Balanchine revered and liberated the ballerina, and in his art this is obviously very true. Adducing material from his real life, both private and as a ballet-master doesn't really help, since it is equally true that in that realm he tried as hard as he could to restrict his ballerinas' lives to Balanchine dancing - no babies, not even boyfriends if he could help it.

Though of course even these matters are just anecdotal. Allegra Kent could come back every time she'd done and had another baby.

All in all I loved the talk for its frankness in plumb stating watching ballet is an erotic experience, and rejecting the modernist "abstract" attitude. We live in a world where we're 100% surrounded by the most brutal sexual imagery, and ballet would be a completely chaste art? And what's so good about that anyway?

It's interesting to note, in Q & A time, that people are still so excercised about bad Balanchine and his thin tall ballerinas. As Acocella notes, thin started with Pavlova and the Diaghilev ballerinas. And it's so US-centric. When I lived in America in the nineties (not in NYC) I was often surprised how pleasantly chubby dancers looked, compared to the rail-thin girls in Paris, Russia and the rest of Europe. So what are people talking about?

* Am I the only one who, on first seeing the Agon pdd, was vividly reminded of the childhood sex exploration games, "now I was the doctor and I'm going to have to look under your clothes"?

#28 Marga

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Posted 06 March 2005 - 11:24 AM

Though of course even these matters are just anecdotal. Allegra Kent could come back every time she'd done and had another baby.

Ah, yes, but at a cost, which she details wistfully and poignantly in her autobiography.

#29 dirac

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Posted 07 March 2005 - 10:54 AM

Not to beat a dead horse, but when Acocella referred to the first and second wave of feminism, clearly she did not mean to suggest that feminism didn’t get underway until 1967. She was speaking only of the contemporary movement and changing perceptions related to ballet.

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...


Yes, indeed.

#30 atm711

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Posted 07 March 2005 - 11:24 AM

With all this talk about Balanchine and the crotch, what I found most disturbing was the clip from Ashton'sMonotones. The female dancer, clad in a white long-sleeved, long legged leotard, with a white cap on her head, and white pointe shoes, raises her leg to 6 o'clock while being slowly turned by two men---I thought, How Grotesque! she looked like a flag pole.


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