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Natalia

Racial and National Stereotypes in Ballet

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Wonder what [radical Islamists would] think of "Abdallah?"  :)   ....

Oh no. Then Bournonville will TRULY be 'in Hell.'

Edited by carbro

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tee-hee :) Very good, Natalia!

Re religious sensitivity, there are quite a few 19th and early 20th century ballets that would seem extremely insensitive to those whose cultures are portrayed in them. I was showing "Le Corsaire" to a class this week, and the kids wanted to know if this was what "Muslims were really like." To relate politics and religion to ballet, I wonder if these depictions of harems and eunuchs and slavetraders will go the way of the Blackamoor?

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To relate politics and religion to ballet, I wonder if these depictions of harems and eunuchs and slavetraders will go the way of the Blackamoor?

This is an excellent question, and I have no clue. I find that when I show Petrushka to students, I'm always giving the same pre-show talk that people do with Mark Twain -- the "context is all" speech.

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And what about Lankendam? In the libretto, he's Isaac Lanquendam, and a Shylockian Stage Jew.

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And what about Lankendam?  In the libretto, he's Isaac Lanquendam, and a Shylockian Stage Jew.

Actually, that was the only problem I had with the recent performances of "Le Corsaire" by the Riga Ballet in Lyon- the Lanquedem character looked really too much like some awful 19th century racist caricatures...

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I'm not sure I always know where the line falls between the offensive and the innocuous. For example, I am usually at least a little uneasy at the Chinese Dance in Nutcracker. But why is that different from, say the French Marzipan or the Spanish Chocolate (frequently danced by blondes sporting their natural color), which no one (I assume) thinks twice about? One reason is makeup and the racial factor, but even if not performed in "yellow face" would it still have the same effect, i.e., the reference to stereotyped national gestures which we find in all national dances?

Generally, I am willing to accept older stagings as exemplars of their times, and what we see as racist or offensive on other counts I take as evidence of our more aware and evolved society. Or what I hope is a more aware nd evoloved society.

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One reason is makeup and the racial factor, but even if not performed in "yellow face" would it still have the same effect, i.e., the reference to stereotyped national gestures which we find in all national dances?

I think the line is between whether the gesture is authentic and contextual -- an authentic gesture, like sticking out the tongue in Maori dance and ritual, can be given exaggerated weight, for example -- or whether it's shorthand for a cultural stereotype.

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Another question is how we stereotype performers based on their ethnicity. For instance one of the reasons I love Altynai Asylmuratova's Nikya so much is her exotic, Asian looks. Is that racist? One of the joys of Maya Plisetskaya's swan is her narrow, long face with the sharp nose that really makes her look like a bird. Those are somewhat "stereotypical" Jewish features. Is that racist?

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Contemporary political correctness is a maze full of rotating knives, if you ask me -- a small thing can become a BIG DEAL at the slightest misunderstanding, and since tempers are short nowadays, it's wise to be careful. About the only breather one gets is when something funny happens, like the recent brouhaha over the Chinese actresses playing geishas, which made it clear that many Asian folks think they can tell "classic Japanese" features from "classic Chinese" features (while "studies show" that they can't).

I'll bet you a pastrami sandwich at the Carnegie deli that if we went there we could get an argument going as to whether or not Woodie Allen was MORE the guy in the Jewish joke than Philip Roth.

Any self-respecting culture is constantly classifying and ranking and testing itself. The idea of classic can't be separated from the idea of a type - 100 years ago many people were sure they could tell a Gallic nose from a Roman one. I often think I can rcognize a Russian face -- Soloviev, I firmly believe, had a classic Russian peasant face, and Kyra Nichols, I'd venture with some confidence to say, has a well-bred Russian face. Soloviev's face was actually important to some of his roles, like the hero in "The Little Hump-backed Horse,' in which he had to be a national hero.

And re giving offense, one question is who it is one's trying to avoid offending -- the moderate or the extremist? I'd guess that Balanchine's Arabian dance from the Nutcracker wouldn't be offensive to Westernized Arabs (he actually toned down the HOT Arabian number that Gloria Govrin had wowed the husbands with when he changed it to the one being danced now) but it might to fundamentalists.

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For a pretty chaste (but possibly inaccurate) Arabian dance, see the Vainonen Nutcracker. Carbro, the Chinese Tea dance makes me uneasy too, especially the Royal Ballet's old version (I can't remember whether the new one is the same). Another thing that bothers me is the Bolshoi's Bayadère, which includes eight or so children in blackface performing rather clumsy, stereotyped movements.

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One reason is makeup and the racial factor, but even if not performed in "yellow face" would it still have the same effect, i.e., the reference to stereotyped national gestures which we find in all national dances?

I think the line is between whether the gesture is authentic and contextual -- an authentic gesture, like sticking out the tongue in Maori dance and ritual, can be given exaggerated weight, for example -- or whether it's shorthand for a cultural stereotype.

It seems to me that a common stereotype about stereotypes is that they're automatically and by nature patronizing. To my mind, exaggerations and simplifications are just ways of drawing clear characters sometimes, so I don't have a problem with them in principle, even where they're inaccurate.

I wouldn't want to see a Blackamoor, because whites really did think of blacks as happy-go-lucky and simpleminded. But -- I'm thinking of the Nutcracker -- we never thought of the Chinese in this way, nor did we see Arabs as simply sensual. In my opinion, now that racial and ethnic prejudice is so widely and officially seen as benighted and shameful, the sort of stereotypes we see in a cheerful light in the Nutcracker are harmless, powerless shape our perception of the actual races and cultures portrayed. We're schooled nowadays not to settle for simplistic understandings of other cultures, and we're schooled enough to enjoy a dance as a dance despite a few stereotypes discarded in the real world. I’ll wager that few ballet-goers have to ask the the same question Alexandra’s students did.

canbelto, can't imagine why it would be racist to notice, even incorrectly, that something one enjoys is distinctively ethnic.

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To start with - the Chinese dance in Nutcracker.

No, I never really liked it either, not because I thought it was insulting to Chinese.

But, I am not a great fan of Nuts to start with -then I think that the "Chinese" music is rather poor and so is the choreography. Purely an artistic sentiment on my part. Then I have never understood why one so seldom sees the "Kingdom of Snow" part of Nuts. Many years ago I saw Toni Lander doing that, just wonderful!

Coming back to what would be insulting ethically speaking - hard nut to crack.

Maybe, today we are all getting much too sensitive to things ethical, why not just accept old fairy tales as old fairy tales - many of them terribly cruel. But there are other cruelties today.

Maybe I should quote the late Swedish author Fritiof "The Pirate" Nilsson. He said: "If I write about a needle there will always be some one-eyed bastard who will want to sue me".

What bothers me more is that in some productions Giselle's mother is made to look more like she is Giselle's great grandmother than anything else. For crying out loud, Giselle is in her late teens, her mother ought to be in her early forties at the most, hardly an age to be decrepit. :thanks:

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Another thing that bothers me is the Bolshoi's Bayadère, which includes eight or so children in blackface performing rather clumsy, stereotyped movements.

I had the same reaction to Bolshio's Bayadere, Hans, and the Pharaoh's daughter blackamoor - the slave which gets sentenced to death by a 'snake'. (Although the Bolshoi's 'animals' always serve to crack me up.)

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Rearding the blackamoors. In the U.S., with our history of slavery and deeply bred racism towards people of African descent, this would be truly offensive.

In Russia, where blacks were almost non-existent (and therefore plausibly could be perceived as exotic), and where Pushkin's maternal grandfather (?), an Ethiopian enslaved as a child and sold to Peter the Great, could rise to become a confident of Tsars and a major-general, perhaps other cultural standards apply.

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And in Nutcracker, where the entire second act divertissement is one long string of product placement, things like the Chinese dance featured identifiable trademark items in the characters who danced. The original seems to be about the Mandarin and the Phoo dog from the Ty-Phoo box. Balanchine continued the tradition with the little red lacquer chest with brass fittings that signify Swee-Touch-Nee.

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Chinese is one of the best htings in Helgi Tomasson's new nutcracker -- it's got a dragon (in five parts, really adorable) chasing an acrobat, who does tons of pirouettes, the "Chinese splits' jumps, and both the dancer and the head of the dragon lean in for the bow.... Tomasson uses the Chinese pageantry that we see here in SF on Chinese new Years in a respectful and playful way.

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I recently saw a work by Hong Kong native Abby Man-Yee Chan, which featured this program note:

Nutcrackers Chinese Dance: This is the first time I saw a dance which showed a western view of Chinese. I asked what the two fingers represented in this dance since I never saw this movement in Chinese dance. I was told perhaps they represented chopsticks.

Do you guys think they represent chopsticks?

Paul Parish: Tomasson's version sounds interesting. I wonder if I'll ever see it.

I agree with many, the context is important. The ballets we're talking about pandered to European orientalism, plain as that. kfw suggested that "we never thought of the Chinese in this way, nor did we see Arabs as simply sensual," but from what I know, the audiences they were made for most certainly did. And if "we" refers to Americans, this country does have a history of bitter racism and stereotyping of Chinese people, although the "sensual" stereotype of Arabs is, it seems, more distinctly European.

I admit I respond much more strongly to blackface onstage than orientalism. I saw the Bolshoi's new (new being key here-- it's not like there was much historical accuracy to hide behind) Pharaoh's Daughter, and I just thought, WHAT are they doing with those children in blackface? They were mere divertissment, not crucial like Petrouchka's Moor, and the whole display seemed completely unneccessary. I guess, again, it's context. I can see how the Russians, having a very different racial history, might have found this an innocuous anachronism. Orientalism, on the other hand, is somewhat more distant to our contemporary culture-- but only somewhat. Just watch a trailer for Memoirs of a Geisha. I do think orientalism in ballet should be handled with sensitivity: stay true to the original work, but remember that you are performing for a contemporary audience.

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I am not sure what the pointing fingers really meant at the time to the choreographer, however when performing the Chinese role in a ballet as a child I always told it represented the very long finger nails of Chinese scholars. Having more experience now with choreograpy it have become clearer that often choreographers will put something in the hands of dancers or have them maintain a particular form to the hands when dancers may not have the greatest coordination and usage of port de bras. Perhaps this may have been the case at the time of this choreography? :):(

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I agree with many, the context is important. The ballets we're talking about pandered to European orientalism, plain as that. kfw suggested that "we never thought of the Chinese in this way, nor did we see Arabs as simply sensual," but from what I know, the audiences they were made for most certainly did. And if "we" refers to Americans, this country does have a history of bitter racism and stereotyping of Chinese people, although the "sensual" stereotype of Arabs is, it seems, more distinctly European.

Thanks, whitelight, for reviving this topic. The debate on orientallism (and Edward Said) goes on and on. I've always felt that there is a kind of disconnect between the upperclass orientalism that entered the higher levels of western culture (glamourous at best, silly at worst) and the truly vicious "yellow peril" treatment of the Chinese especially that found its voice in the popular press and was exploited by certain western governments for ends of their own.

Of course both approaches have in common a deep ignorance of the vairious Chinese cultures -- "I don't know; I don't need to know; I don't want to know."

Does anyone know whether the hand gestures in the Chinese dance were created for the Nutcrcker, or whether they drew on previous stereotypes? In other words, which came first: chicken or egg?

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