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Should 19th century ballets be updated?


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#1 Alexandra

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Posted 19 April 2001 - 09:37 AM

And if so, how?

This question has come up before in discussion of new productions, and it's usually been centered on productions that add dramatic elements (usually para-Freudian) or change the libretto. In the Giselle discussions, aanother aspect of this, namely, should ballets and/or ballet conventions be adjusted to be more in sync with contemporary sociology or politics. (This wasn't the example, but it's a clear one: Can "Petrouchka" still have its Blackamor, or must that be changed today? The Danes' "Far From Denmark" and "The Whims of Cupid," both with blackface characters whose blackness is essential to the plot, have produced vehement reactions among those who think these ballets should no longer be performed. There have been articles written by feminist academics for the past 20 years on how the entire Balanchine repertory is sexist and we cannot tolerate the strong man/weak female paradigm any longer, that all the 19th century classics, with their paternalistic view of women, are no longer relevant to our times.

What do you think about this? (I'm going to stay out of this one this time. I've spoken on it so much that my views are known--I think changes in the name of politics is the dance equivalent of bookburning--but I think it's a question that should be aired.) I hope the people on both sides of this issue will speak out.

#2 Kristen

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Posted 19 April 2001 - 12:53 PM

No, no, a million times no. Is there any need to update Beethoven's 5th - do we really need to hear Juliet say - "Where you be's, Romeo?? Leave the classics alone.
Kristen

#3 enterachilles

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Posted 19 April 2001 - 02:12 PM

This is really a challenging question...

I cannot say Yes or No clearly, partly because I sometimes enjoy attractive new productions of classics as well as so-called original versions.

Considering theatre plays, you can also see lots of 're-interpretation' Greek dramas and Shakespeares in the context of Feminism or post-colonialism nowadays. The problem in the discussion of ballets would be, however, that they do not have absolute original, such as written texts.

That's why I always find it difficult to know; how 'original' this Swan Lake is.

As far as Romantic ballets go, I would imagine how difficult it would be to make a contemporary version of, for instance, Giselle, as the concept of these ballets can be clear in the historical context of Romanticism, the idea not close to us living in a contemporary society. In that sense, Romantic ballets without Romanticism sound pointless.

Interpretation by the audience, however, cannot help being updated.

#4 Drew

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Posted 19 April 2001 - 02:55 PM

I don't believe in book burning, but I don't believe in ignoring the racism in books (including great books) either. I wouldn't change Petrouchka, but in discussing it I wouldn't pretend the blackamoor figure didn't have a very troubling genealogy. About twenty years ago I was in the Paris Opera library and came across a print of a scene from some stage adaptation (ca. 1820's) of (I think) Paul et Virginie, in which a black native had discovered a mirror for the first time and was gazing at it in idiotic delight -- the pose of legs and arms was exactly the same pose (wide open second position, arms lifted up, palms outward) as used by Fokine's Blackamoor. Even if one doesn't find the story/figure in Petrouchka particularly offensive (some might) it is clearly alined with a whole tradition of depictions that have to do with the way certain types of racial "stereotypes" were perpetuated -- and perpetuated in the context of colonialist fantasy. Doesn't mean Fokine wasn't a great choreographer, doesn't mean Petrouchka isn't a fabulous ballet, doesn't even mean one shouldn't keep staging it -- but doesn't mean one should ignore those histories either.

I tend to take these things on a case by case basis, and I was less sympathetic to arguments about "preserving" The Whims of Cupid, since when I saw it, the girls were on pointe!And if the producers think it's acceptable to update the technique in a ballet whose one claim to fame is that it is -- supposedly -- the oldest ballet continuously in repertory in its original choreography, then I think they open themselves to the charge that they can afford to change other elements as well. (And make a video for historians with all the "old" elements preserved...) Also, when I saw it, it didn't strike me as a particularly interesting ballet in any other respect, so I wasn't as moved by the imperative to preserve it as a living theatrical experience. But this was many years ago, so who knows what I would think if I saw it now.

With the nineteenth-century classics, I confess I like a balance -- that is, I enjoy the fact that there are some updated productions -- and would love, for example, to see Guillem's take on Giselle -- but it definitely is important to ballet as an art form that the major classical companies take the duty of preserving their traditions pretty seriously, especially the actual choreography and basic staging elements. But ballet is alive and onstage and what we see today has been through so many changes that unthinking purity for the sake of purity seems sort of pointless to me. (On the Giselle threads it has been discussed that some of the Albrecht solos were added in the 1930s -- personally I wouldn't like to see those solos disappear in the name of tradition, but that means I may need to be a little more open to interpolations some present day Albrecht might want to add. Of course, like most fans I'm more accepting of the changes that HAVE occured than the ones that will occur.) In any case, he ideal is to have a traditional production in which the traditions can really come to life.

But say, to take (I hope) an innocuous example. Alexandra has mentioned the color symbolism of Giselle's blue dress, and I know I'm just plain used to seeing Giselle in a blue dress, so when I've seen productions in which it's different, I have had to make a little adjustment. But in a contemporary production -- still a traditional one -- if there's an interesting designer who is trying out a different color scheme, this does not seem to me to be in any serious or substantive way disruptive of the ballet's deeper meanings. Don't get me wrong -- I LIKE my Giselle in blue (which I do, for example, associate with the Virgin Mary) -- but it wouldn't be the sort of thing that seemed to me to profoundly alter the concept of the ballet, and if a serious designer were trying out a different schema, I'd say let her/him try...

#5 cargill

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Posted 19 April 2001 - 03:24 PM

I think the issue is how and why they are updated, because clearly they will be. I absolutely loathed Zakarhova's Aurora, because her extensions looked grotesque and vulgar, and showoffy. It looked like she was a little dog and the princes were convenient fire hydrants. However, in 20 years or so, when everyone over the age of 2 can scratch their noses with their big toe, it probably won't look so odd. After all, the wilis dance in Giselle that looks so quaint and romantic and authentic to us was put in by Petipa because his dancers had developed a much stronger point techinique than those in the 1840's. But in the meantime, I am a rabid reactionary.

But there two issues to this question, I think--changing the steps because of the technique, which I suppose is inevitable, and changing the interpretation or approach to appeal to so-called modern sensibilities, which I think is generally not a good idea. After all, if the work is great, or even good, the director should try to communicate that to the audience, not simply go with whatever seems to be popular. That was one reason I didn't like Peter Schauffus' Napoli, where the 2nd act was a dream--the whole point of Napoli was that those people really believed in magic (as so many people did), and a good production can convince the audience that these are real people. Copping out with dream sequences (in any ballet, including Nutcracker) just shows that the producer doesn't really believe in the work, which will kill it faster than any so-called old-fashioned approaches.

I am just waiting until some modern director can get his hands on Fancy Free and tries to make it relevant, because we all know that WWII is about as meaningful to today's audience as the Punic Wars. Physical assault , robbery, and drug use (who nowadays believes soldiers just chew gum, anyway)for a start.

#6 4Ts

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Posted 19 April 2001 - 03:59 PM

I think this is a very interesting topic. I think the first poster's comment about Beethoven's 5th was not well taken for several reasons. Absolute music is very different from theatrical experiences with music like opera and ballet, and Beethoven's symphonies are not subject to Jungian reinterpretations, removal to other centuries, locales, etc. We are now well into the "original instrument" reforms, in which performers and scholars try to create a performance experience more like what they think was heard when the old music was originally performed. But these efforts can't help but be influenced by 20th and 21st century experience. We really can't go back, even if we wanted to. There are electric lights now.

(I think perhaps the moderators should strike the first poster's attempt at dialect humor. Even if not intended, it comes across as prejudiced and vulgar.)

I agree entirely with Drew on all important points. I think subtle reworkings, which go on constantly and are an accepted part of ballet interpretation and production, have a large cumulative effect on what we think of as "classic" and integral to old ballets. Newer, more radical reinterpretations seem to us radical because our experience is with old reinterpretations that have gained a classic status for us. I don't mean to say that therefore everything is equal and all interpretations are OK. Rather each interpretation must make logical, historical and aesthetic sense.
In opera, the "big thing" a few years ago was reworkings of Mozart operas in modern contexts. The Marriage of Figaro was done in Trump tower. Why was a Count, a Countess, servants, the issue of a Count's right to the services of every pre-nuptial girl, all argued and sung in Italian in Trump tower? No good reason. It didn't make the slightest sense.
But the Firebird in the Amazon rain forest might make sense. One might say, "OK, but don't call it the Firebird if you are going to change it that radically." But it might have enough of the what's essential to the Firebird to make the changed context interesting and to add beautiful new things as well.
These reinterpretations fail or succeed on artistic grounds and shouldn't be condemned or approved categorically.

#7 BalletNut

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Posted 19 April 2001 - 04:35 PM

As technique and aesthetic standards change over time, the way a ballet looks will change too. One only has to compare pictures of Pierina Legnani in Swan Lake with pictures of Makarova or Guillem to get a sort of idea about how the ballet has changed with the dancers who perform it.

What troubles me, though, is the effort of choreographers to "modernize" ballets in less than subtle ways. A non-ballet example of this would be the MTV-esque Romeo And Juliet with Leonardo DiCaprio. It is neither necessary nor effective to incorporate supposedly modern themes into ballets [or plays, musicals, operas, etc] that have already proven themselves to be timeless. If a ballet like Giselle or Swan Lake has survived for over a century, there must be something about it that is worth preserving.

#8 Diana L

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Posted 19 April 2001 - 05:14 PM

This may sound naive on my part, but what makes it a classic? Is it the first choreographed version?
If that's the case, then it depends on the first time an individual has seen it.
This may seem minor, but I saw a picture of "Concerto Barocco" where the women were wearing black costumes. That made me wonder who changed that and why and if the original choreographer makes the changes, well then is it a classic or does the new one become the classic?
I think I just tied myself up into a knot!

#9 Leigh Witchel

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Posted 19 April 2001 - 05:17 PM

I'm not going to talk about reconceptions, that's a different discussion, but on the question of changes to a production to accomodate contemporary morals, I am in favor of them. Ballet is a living art, it owes a duty to the audience in the theater watching it and the society we all live in as well as to history. I agree with Drew on the need for sensitive evaluation of each ballet as the issue arises. Noone wants to rewrite wholesale classic works, but I can tell you as a Jew it is interesting indeed to watch The Merchant of Venice and know it's Shakespeare. Rewriting it isn't a solution, nor is deleting it from the canon, but you had better set the play to be making a more universal point than the plot on stage, or else it seems only like anti-semitism.

The POB's production of La Bayadere has eight children in black body stockings and kinky wigs. It's just thoughtless, nor does it feel integral to the ballet. The blackamoor's dance in La Sonnambula has been taken out of blackface at NYCB and presents to me a more complicated issue. I don't miss it, but I never saw the dance in blackface. To me, you have two choices in dealing with it: Take it out of blackface (simpler) or really emphasize the blackface as yet another facet of the decadence of the Coquette's party. It's a workable and probably better solution artistically but one which would take reasonable discussion and education to the audience.

Then again, if I were setting my own Nutcracker, I would try to tone down the stereotypes I see in the Chinese Dance. I've always wanted to put a Chinese Dragon there (you could do a great dance with the legs!) instead of the usual mincing and coolie hats, which (much as I love the mushrooms in Fantasia) I think is an outdated stereotype, nor do I think anyone has produced deathless choreography to that brief piece of music.

*

I just had an interesting conversation with a friend that added a few points - he strongly believed that stereotypes in older works should be left as they are, to bear witness, as it were. His examples were Gone With the Wind and Birth of a Nation and he felt it was important to let people know that people really felt like that and that those stereotypes are an ongoing struggle still.

However, when I mentioned the Chinese Dance in Nutcracker to him, he shrugged and smiled. "How about the mice in the Nutcracker? Wanna change it because it's anti-rat?"

#10 Alexandra

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Posted 19 April 2001 - 05:49 PM

I can't resist a comment on the Chinese dance in Nutcracker, which almost invariably includes people pointing their fingers to the sky and bobbing their heads back and forth. A hideous stereotype perpetrated by Imperialist dogs, or something taken from traditional Chinese dance??? The Central Ballet of China toured this country a few years ago with a Chinese folk story ballet and one of the divertissements included.....a couple who pointed their fingers to the sky and bobbed their heads back and forth. A friend of mine dashed backstage afterwards to ask where this dance came from? Traditional Chinese folk dance, was the answer. Did you like it?

Which is only to say that sometimes contemporary meddling in political matters to "set things right" aren't done from a knowledge base.

This has been a good discussion (which I hope will continue) and there have been a lot of interesting points raised. There is the problem of the Eye of the Beholder. As long as we, the audience, think of ourselves as a collection of Targeted Groups, it's going to be easy to find insults. If feminist politics were applied to theater, you could get rid of nearly the entire repertory. I wonder if we can get past looking as Shylock merely as a Jew? Reading that play as a teenager, I really only thought of him as -- not even a mean man, but one with a closed heart, which was opened by his daughter's love. The Shylocks I've seen have been so different, it's the actors who've made that character live.

I would hope that "The Whims of Cupid" would stay around long enough so that we look at those dancers in blackface gnawing on the arms of those who are not with the same eyes that see the Quaker Dance (sexually repressed hayseeds, the one really intentionally nasty caricature, I think) or the Norwegian Jumping Dance (oh, those cute brainless Norwegians). The latter two no longer "register" on the insult scale. Perhaps in another 100 years, neither will the former? It will all just be a dance from 1787. Doris Day is growing on me as I get older :) (I'd take it off pointe, too, although I could argue the other side of that coin and say that preconscious changes have become fabric of the cloth and thus should be allowed to stay.)

I wanted to pull out one thing that Drew said, "Of course, like most fans I'm more accepting of the changes that HAVE occured than the ones that will occur." I think that's an important point. (Several other people mentioned, too, in effect, just which "Swan Lake" are we changing.) Some changes we don't even know are changes, some changes we do, and recognize as anachronistic -- the Soviet tendency to mock anything royal, for example. My objections to changes are more to the gratuitous "I'm the artistic director and I can do anything I want" kinds of changes, and to those that, IMO, are done without realizing what they're changing (the excision of Benno from Swan Lake being an example).

of things that have changed by themselves. In the 18th century, Harlequin was THE big star and his biggest jokes were tripping a) cripples and B) blind men. At some point, these jokes were no longer considered funny by some great mystical consensus and dropped. If one of these had become a repertory staple, would changing the blind man to a bad man be okay? (I would argue yes, because the point is getting a laugh.) I think Leigh's point about it being possible to keep the blackamoor's dance in Night Shadow as part of decadence is a good one also. That, to me, is a change without changing.

#11 Dance Fan

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Posted 20 April 2001 - 12:14 AM

One could argue that it is important to maintain the racial and ethnic stereotypes presented in classic ballets because they do indeed bear witness to prevalent attitudes when the works were created. But when those works were choreographed, ballet companies were all white. Would one expect Edward Liang to dance the Chinese Dance in NYCB's "Nutcracker", or Aesha Ash and Albert Evans to perform the Blackamoor pas de deux in "Somnambula"? Perhaps they would not mind, but it is possible that casting them in this manner might cause them and members of the audience great emotional distress. I was shocked by the performance of a black male dancer, in drag and on pointe, as the "maid" in Mark Morris' "The Hard Nut". We are not yet in such enlightened times that such casting could be considered innocuous.

#12 Alexandra

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Posted 20 April 2001 - 12:56 AM

I hope nothing I said was taken as being in favor of racial-casting -- I agree totally, Dance Fan. Once upon a time, ABT put two black dancers in Chocolate in Baryshnikov's "The Nutcracker." I never knew whether it was by accident or design, but I thought it unfortunate, let's say. (That production also had a Blackamoor doll which I do not believe was in the original Nutcracker, and I don't see any reason to introduce a stereotype that may have once been used innocently into a contemporary production.)

We're in an age where everything is being examined (a good thing, on balance, I think) and therefore people are perhaps more aware, and more sensitive, to certain issues and it's difficult to know what will offend someone and what will not. I was talking to some people today who had been at the weekend performances of "Giselle" here, who told me they'd overheard comments at intermission about the Christian symbolism in "Giselle," that it was offensive. (I don't know whether these were offended Christians or offended non-Christians.) This is perhaps a good example. I would argue that the Christian symbolism is so integral to the ballet that it could not be excised. (Likewise, the Blackamoor in Petrouchka, and all the ethnic characters in "Whims of Cupid.")

One of Drew's points that I forgot to mention was about that Blackamoor. I don't know how one would deal with that -- would program notes be adequate? Or preview and review pieces in the press? Is it necessary to have a disclaimer, as sometimes appears on Mafia films? (And on PBS specials during the Bicentennial, I remember seeing: NOTE: there are no black or female representatives at the Continental Congress because in those times....)

I wonder if one of the results of the "it offends me" problem -- and I do not mean to disparage those feelings in any way -- is that we will go back to a literate elite who have the knowledge to appreciate such works in context and The Rest of Us, those who don't.

Back to Dance Fan's question: could we perhaps reach a time when it WOULD be appropriate to cast a Chinese dancer in the Chinese dance in Nutcracker not because he was Chinese, but because he had a technical requirement for the role? (I just remember that Joffrey used to cast Christian Holder as the Blackamoor when it did Petrouchka; the 1970s way of getting around blackface.)

#13 Drew

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Posted 20 April 2001 - 03:13 AM

I actually think that the Chinese folk dance performed by the Central Ballet of China might bear a little more research. In countries that have experienced various forms of invasion/colonialism etc. even their "own" experiences of their traditions often pass through the mediations of foreign eyes and representations. (No "tradition" is really all that pure.) This can happen in more or less complex ways -- as in famous ruins in India now thought of as distinctively national monuments, but initially preserved by orientalizing British colonials. A cruder example would be certain "Indian" dishes that are more like hybrid colonial cuisine.

It may be the case, too, that -- whatever the background of a particular dance or image and even if it is entirely "authentic" -- if it has become a cliche or "coolie stereotype" for Western audiences in Western works like The Nutcracker, re-choreographing it through another type of prism -- like a dragon dance! -- might still be worth doing. (Anyway, I hope one day to see Leigh Witchel's version...)

I have often felt something similar to the idea expressed by Leigh's friend that one does a disservice to history (and art) if one modifies away all the troubling/conflicted contexts that inform many great works. But there is always a kind of risk involved in the ongoing life of those works -- not just a risk of misunderstanding or people's feelings being hurt, but a risk of real identification and inspiration by what is most problematic about the ideas embodied. I've never seen Birth of a Nation but I've read many descriptions of just how exciting the KKK sequence can be...It's precisely for that reason that I think it remains important for people who care about the arts to be fairly conscious and vocal about what is problematic, and not to assume that just because something is "great" that its more troubling aspects can or should be ignored or idealized into something else. (I personally am rather doubtful that Shylock's Jewishness can be altogether universalized away.) It IS a fine thought to imagine, as Alexandra suggests, a future in which what I'm calling troubling will seem merely quaint or so far distant as to be of "merely" historical interest.

I guess no-one wants a "sanitized" art free of all potential conflict -- well, maybe the Mayor of New York does -- but to me, that means that as a ballet lover my responsibility is to worry about the implications more rather than less.

P.S. I don't think ballets are reducable to "contexts" or to "ideas" etc. -- reading myself over, I was worried I sounded that way...

[ 04-20-2001: Message edited by: Drew ]

#14 4Ts

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Posted 20 April 2001 - 08:32 AM

Before, I said that reworkings of stories, in part or whole, are part of theatrical tradition, that it’s healthy and that the success of any is based on the reworking’s intrinsic aesthetic worth and integrity. But at the same time, I feel that there are reworkings done principally to make them more accessible to an audience, or simply to introduce novelty. I think one can expect – almost categorically – bad results from these kinds of adaptations.

Perhaps the makers of such productions start with low expectations of their audience. The audience, they may believe, won’t be able to understand or sympathize with characters from another time or place. I think that is false, and it’s actually pretty easy to “get” the context of Giselle or Swan Lake or the Marriage of Figaro. The adaptations then take on some of the quality of “dumbing down” exercises, and a lot of the intrinsic quality of the original gets lost. The Trump Tower Marriage of Figaro is a good example of how bad this can be.

Of course, such productions are not created by people who think of themselves as being unable to appreciate art in its original context. They understand the original perfectly well but are now perhaps bored by it and want to do something “new.” Here’s what’s wrong with this: 1) The changes will be superficial - dress ‘em differently, stick ‘em in a different place, put a spaceship on stage – these kind of things create “cognitive dissonances” with what stands in the original – and add nothing or create confusion. 2) The adapters are starting out from a position of distrust of the original and perhaps with a feeling of superiority over their audience. Could anything good come out of that?

#15 Alexandra

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Posted 20 April 2001 - 10:21 AM

Originally posted by 4Ts:


Of course, such productions are not created by people who think of themselves as being unable to appreciate art in its original context.  They understand the original perfectly well but are now perhaps bored by it and want to do something “new.”  Here’s what’s wrong with this: 1) The changes will be superficial -  dress ‘em differently, stick ‘em in a different place, put a spaceship on stage – these kind of things create “cognitive dissonances” with what stands in the original – and add nothing or create confusion.  2) The adapters are starting out from a position of distrust of the original and perhaps with a feeling of superiority over their audience.  Could anything good come out of that?


No! [good could come out of that; YES! to your thoughts :) ) Add to this the pressure from critics, and perhaps others -- administration, audience -- to do something new. "We don't want that same old production." Updating productions is problematical. One of the best/worst examples is the Royal Ballet's "Sleeping Beauty." The Oliver Messel production lasted 20 years; it was beloved. By the 1960s, however, the designs seemed a bit fussy, and there was a sense that the production needed to be refreshed. There have been three? Four? productions since, and none have been as generally satisfactory as the Messel. But the Messel wouldn't have survived 55 years.

On Drew's point about "Birth of a Nation," I finally saw that, on video, a few years ago. I was raised as a Confederate, taken to "Gone with the Wind" the way another child would be taken to a Passion Play, and my aunt had been in the audience the first year of "Birth of a Nation," where Confederate soldiers shot up the screen during that KKK sequence. I also admire Griffith as a filmmaker. I'm glad I saw it, I don't want it to be burned (and I know Drew wasn't suggesting that), but I found it so stereotypical and so dated in every way -- camera, acting, script -- that I had to work very hard to try to realize why it had been considered great. To me, that's an argument for keeping something that becomes considered repugnant. Otherwise, it could grow in legend -- the great lost work of art, etc. I think one has to trust history.

On the Chinese dance, anything can bear more research, but I wonder if an inauthentic dance could have survived the Cultural Revolution, when the Chinese examined their art very thoroughly and purged anything impure? I think Drew's point that something that could be authentic could become a stereotype is a good one, and it raises another sticky question. If the Outsider appropriates something and turns it into a cliche, does this force the Insider to change it?

I don't think 19th century choreographers used folk dance and folk traditions of other countries to mock those countries. It was partly a result of their great curiosity about how other people lived -- and they weren't always superior. Bournonville's letters home to his wife about what he was seeing in Naples are full of admiration; he was entranced by those people. His point of view is of a Dane -- he'll say "us" and "them" -- but there's no condescension.

I think 19th century choreographers would use, say, a Mexican hat dance to "represent" Mexicans because they had to have something that was instantly recognizable to their audiences. Eventually, the only Mexican you'd see in a ballet (I'm making this up; I don't know of any Mexican hat dances in a 19th cenury ballet) would do a hat dance. I wouldn't consider this offensive, because I give great weight to intent, but others care much more about results.


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