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Alla

Zimmer on ballet's dead women

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This piece by Elizabeth Zimmer gets at something I've been thinking about while reading Sally Banes' book "Dancing Women: Female Bodies on Stage," and it's something my modern-dance-fan friends say all the time. They can't appreciate classical ballet because they find the stories absurd, even offensive. Sure, the second act of "Giselle" is beautiful, but they can hardly sit through it because of the things it suggests about women (e.g., women whose love was never consummated become vampires, or vengeful anti-nuns, or whatever).

Personally, I don't have huge trouble with these stories or "views of women" (but then, I like Jane Austen, too :) ). I see them simply as part of ballet's heritage, and it can be fascinating to get inside the ideals and symbols and values (both cultural values and dance values) of another age for a couple of hours. I guess I just don't respond with a strongly "political" consciousness to the classics. What to say to people who find it almost impossible to like or even appreciate classical ballet because they just can't get past the "dead sweeties"? Do others here share Zimmer's dilemma?

http://www.villagevoice.com/issues/0133/zimmer.php

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i've always felt that you have to look at things like that through two sets of eyes: your own and those of the period. it's a pity that she doesn't seem to be able to do that, because i think that when you aren't you miss a lot. her criticism might be more valid if such a ballet were produced for the first time today, but even then if it were addressing a situation that was foreign to us but familiar to another place, it would be just as valid. so i think the criticism is ultimately misdirected. to the people that i know that make the same complaints about the stories, i make the point i just did. my feelings, anyway.

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I agree with Mme. Hermine's "two sets of eyes" idea... Alla, do your friends feel the same about older books or theater plays, for example?

Also a way to work around the problem might be to encourage them to see plotless works first- and then, hope that they will appreciate the beauty of movement enough to get really interested, and that it will motivate them to bear the "cliches" of some full-length works... Also there are works like "Coppelia" or "La Fille mal gardee" which do not involve young women expiring for love! :)

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Alla, thanks for posting this -- and for the responses. This idea has been beloved in certain university circles for decades now, an unfortunate (to me) byproduct of feminism. It's a position that I find intellectually offensive, and I can't find another way of saying that. To me, it shows lack of imagination, disregard of history and inability to process symbolic ideas -- all of which is fine (and not offensive) in the casual theatregoer; nobody has to like everything. But when it's written by academics and critics, grrrr.

To me, one of the most important aspects of education is to examine a work and place it in context -- and teach that context. Not that the people who wrote/choreographed a work were stupid, or evil, and degraded women for fun, but something a bit closer to the way those people -- both women and men -- thought.

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I also think that kind of reaction shows a certain lack of imagination. "I can only indentify with people who look like me." In Giselle, it is Albrecht's situation I tend to react to, his faults and desperation, and the awful longing in the second act to see someone who is no longer living one last time.

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I can only say that sometimes I think as Zimmer does, and sometimes not. I think it's impossible for us to see a work of art exactly as a contemporary audience would have. "The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there." I don't necessarily regard it as a failure of imagination or sympathy to be disturbed by such things, depending on the nature of the complaint and how it's expressed. I have no problem with "Giselle" or "Bayadere," but if I went to the ballet and was exposed to nothing but a continuous diet of stories about wronged women who die for love while the men feel bad I might get fed up eventually. The fact that the Wilis were left at the altar and are mad as hell about it does reflect certain old fashioned cultural assumptions about women, just as the pale frail heroines Lillian Gish used to play for D.W. Griffith do, and nineteenth century literary heroines such as Esther Summerson and Fanny Price. There's nothing wrong in acknowledging this and analyzing it, or even being annoyed by it. It would be wrong, not to say silly, to lambaste the creators of "Giselle" for not being as enlightened as we are, or to say that's all there is to "Giselle," or Romantic ballet (or D.W. Griffith, or women in 19th century literature).

Good topic, Alla. Thanks! :)

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Thanks for all these robust opinions!

dirac, that assessment seems incredibly sensible. And I agree with Alexandra that in this and many other academic/critical takes on the classics, there's a lack of appreciation for the complex contexts of these works. What bothers me is the assumption that works of art which seem to say things we may now disapprove of therefore become fair game to be mocked and savaged, or simply ignored. Dances (modern dances, too) have their framework of conventions, just like poems and plays and paintings do. If one is going to look at a classic ballet, the least one could do is let one's mind and emotions play within the ballet's conventions for a little while, rather than instantly rejecting them as not being in line with our (supposedly openminded) 21st-century ideas! That approach just seems to end in more ignorance for the ballet-watcher, rather than more understanding. As dirac says, a classic might be problematic for this person or that person, but that doesn't mean there's not more to it than whatever was found offensive. Starting from a position of such suspicion seems unfair both to the ballets and to the readers.

Having said all this, I do want to be fair to Elizabeth Zimmer. She started out covering modern dance, and that's still her main interest. Not to make excuses for what still seems a misguided point of view, but maybe it complicates things if you come to classical ballet from the direction of modern dance, rather than starting out with an interest in ballet.

[ 08-15-2001: Message edited by: Alla ]

[ 08-15-2001: Message edited by: Alla ]

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There are two books with which I am familiar that show how one can view culture through the prism of art and hundreds (or thousands) which show the opposite.

Many academics want to blame those who lived in the past for not solving problems that exist now—they seems to resent those who came before them for leaving such an untidy world. If we, in our enlightened state, can see how stories like “Giselle”, “Carmen” or “La Traviata” not only reflected institutional sexism but also helped to sustain it, how on earth could the men (of course) who created them not see the same thing? If Verdi was so great, why did he write an opera based on such an outrageously male-dominated text as “The Lady of the Camellias”? And how could he do so without undermining it through his own commentary? By the way, I realize “institutional sexism” is probably such an outdated term that by using it I have unconsciously thrown my lot with the oppressors.

There are ways to look at works of art as expressions of the culture from which they came and to draw conclusions about that culture. I would disagree that academics and academic critcs may not understand the complex context of the works they criticize and posit that they prefer to impose their own context on the work--a context which in many cases is apparent only to the critic. Even after one reads the aricle or chapter in question, the connection still remains murky.

One work that does this very well is “The Runaway Bride: Hollywood Romantic Comedy of the 1930s” by Elizabeth Kendall, who is known to many people on this list for her dance criticism. In this book, Kendall analyzes what she calls Depression romantic comedies and shows that they “contained real wisdom about the relations between the classes and the sexes—and real wit about the persistently hopeful naivete of us, the Americans.” If you enjoy movies like “It Happened One Night”, “My Man Godfrey” or “The Lady Eve” and actresses such as Irene Dunne, Claudet Colbert, Barbara Stanwyk, and Carole Lombard (which is like asking if you like breathing) this is a book for you. Kendall shows how the concerns of an entire generation can be seen in these movies, and does so in beautifully written prose.

Another is “Opera, or the Undoing of Women” by Catherine Clement. Clement is not a musicologist, but a French critic of philosophy who loves opera. While it may seem a bit off-putting that she has also written books on structuralism, Marxism and psychoanalysis, (this book is dedicated to Claude Levi-Strauss) she writes well and really knows her stuff. She covers many the undone women—Carmen, Butterfly, Liu, etc., and how their treatment reflects the social and philosophical currents of European thought at the time they were written. Her synopses of plots, often less than a page long, are delicious.

While Alla’s initial comment was a response to a Village Voice article, much of what annoys many of us (or at least me) are academic writing--serious and detailed enough to be published between hard covers—that simply restates received knowledge.

[ 08-19-2001: Message edited by: Ed Waffle ]

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Ed, I will have to run out and get the two books you mentioned. Having not been removed from university life for too long, I remember only too clearly having the feminists bent on revisionism speaking up in the classroom and not having their ideas challenged by anyone. The women were afraid to not show female solidarity and the men didn't want to come across as anti-women. I hope that we are getting to a point where we can discuss the many issues at stake and am looking forward to seeing the opinions expressed in the above two books.

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I think it's important to try to be alert to a work of art's implicit assumptions because art is a very powerful means of communication; the images that it leaves with us and the emotions that they provoke become part of our mental "furniture" and have the capacity to influence the way we perceive the world or think about things, perhaps without our even being consciously aware of it. This doesn't mean that one needs to stop seeing and enjoying Giselle; but I do think one needs to be alert to the work's social and cultural assumptions and its (overt or implied) worldview and I think one is justified in making value judgements about them. Some people may find that worldview more troubling or irritating than others do, and that's fine with me. (In fact, I find their expressions of irritation or outrage a useful trigger for me to examine some of my own assumptions. "HMMM," I think, "maybe I should be more perturbed about this myself." One does get used to how the furniture looks when one lives with it day in and day out, even if it's pretty ugly ...)

I would find it extremely difficult to sit through a ballet (or a play or an opera or a novel) that had as one of its central premises and plot drivers the notion that, say, people with brown skin were inferior to people with pink skin and that their subjugation was therefore not only wholly justified but a thing to celebrate. No amount of trying to view the work through the eyes of another age or trying understand its context or trying to appreciate its purely formal beauties would make me more comfortable with the work or with the fact that some people enjoyed seeing it again and again or any less angry that it was still in the active repertory. I'm not sure I'm comfortable denying those who find Giselle's images of women offensive a similar response.

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True. Viewers might not be inclined to talk reasonably of "historical context" if, to take a far-out example, "Giselle" had a corps of deceased Jewish moneylenders, determined to wreak revenge upon Christians who welsh on their debts.......

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Especially the Welsh :)

I disagree. The great Greek tragedies are firmly rooted in the notion that there are those born to rule and those born to be slaves -- it's not a racial issue, but the notion of superiority, that some people were born to be one thing and others another, is absolutely central to those dramas. Their view of women doesn't comport with ours, either. They're still great works of art, and while it's necessary to explain the world view that underlies them to new readers or audiences, I think attacking them is not particularly helpful.

Dirac, if you take your scenario and do an ethnic switch (Mad Christian Wilis attacking poor Jewish Giselle) you may just have the next "rethought" Giselle, and it will be your fault :)

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It is of ocurse a difficult issue, and like most people, I guess, I end up defending art I like, which includes almost all of the 19th century. In terms of ballets dead or etherial women, yes, it comes with the 19th century attitude, but it was also just physical--women could dance on point and were able to more convincingly portray exotic beings. And the idea of noble self-sacrifice was not just confined to women--there are all those poems about dead and dying heroes, charging into the valley of death, with a breathless hush in the close, playing the game. The whole Christian ideal is a man sacrificing himself. 19th century art is full of dead heroes, male and female. Ballet has more female ones, probably because ballets were made for women.

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Social life has changed; business life has changed; family life has changed, to some extent. But I don't think love has changed much since Giselle and Albrecht, do you?

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In the opera world, there are many patrons who will totally reject any production of a "classic" opera if the setting is changed from the original. I find this interesting on two levels: one, that their primary interest isn't the music and two, that the context into which that music has been placed can be extremely important to people.

My initial reaction to Alla's first post was "why can't her friends just enjoy the visual aspect of Giselle." However, after reading everyone's extremely insightful posts I realize that separating the two is probably impossible. Like a painting or opera, a ballet cannot be disentangled from the culture (or individual mind) that created it and best that we can do is to either educate ourselves about the context or speak more carefully if we decide not to.

I have not had a chance to see Sylvie Guillem's Giselle but is there a whole lot of "updating" happening in the ballet world?

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Many of my thoughts about this issue have been expressed by Dirac and Kathleen O'Connell. And Ed Waffle, too, referred quite accurately to the complexity of the original contexts of works of art. I want to emphasize that complexity. It's a cop out to assume, "well, that's what the attitude was the in 1830's Paris" etc. -- the 1830's (for example) were, in many ways, as heterogeneous as today. There were royalists and liberals and proto-communists, feminists and misogynists, colonial adventurers and critics of colonialism etc. Even artistically there was quite a bit of diversity throughout the century -- Sand was writing at the same time as Flaubert, Zola at the same time as Mallarme [imagine accent]. Ballet-wise, one of the important 'contexts' is always formal -- the development of the technique etc., but also the 'grammar' of the steps -- and also other ballets. Economics, too; who's footing the bill? And that certainly complicates how one thinks about content or story. So,of course, it is important to keep the 'original' context of a work in mind, but it is also important to acknowledge that artists were making choices, 'artistic' choices, in a context that was not simply 'given' as any one, simple thing. A literary example: Robert Southey (he wrote "The Three Bears") wrote a letter to Charlotte Bronte basically saying that women shouldn't have literary careers; well, Robert Southey began HIS career as an admirer of Mary Wolstonecraft (she wrote "A Vindication of the Rights of Women) -- even dedicating a poem to her. So, on the one hand, yes, he's expressing banal nineteenth-century attitudes towards women, being 'a man of his time' -- how can we accuse him of sexism?!? but on the other hand, he was a man who had been deeply immersed in other perspectives. There were reasons (more context) why he, in particular, changed his opinions, which was his right certainly, but my point is simpler: context is much thicker, wierder, and even contradictory than people tend to realize.

Greek tragedy is a very powerful example. 5th century Athens may have been more homogeneous than 21st-century internet communities -- though I'm always a little suspicious of imagining the past as simpler than the present...But, even so, I believe that understanding how Greek Tragedy installs certain heirarchies (Gods/mortals...men/women...Greeks/everyone else!)is absolutely essential to understanding their power as 'great art'! And I don't think it amounts to attacking a work to recognize that what is most wonderful about it may also be implicated in what is most terrible about it. That is, after all, one of the lessons of Greek tragedy: that -- however enlightened one is, one cannot always avoid being implicated in crime.

As for the nineteenth-century ballet repertory, what I find worth analyzing (I assume Zimmer does this (?)) is not merely that the ballerina is a figure of (exotic) otherness -- sylph, dryad, wili, and ultimately death -- but that this scenario leaves the man as the one who must struggle as a human being -- i.e. he becomes the real subject of the story (though not necessarily of the dancing). This is what all those modernized Swan Lakes focusing on Siegfried's psychology have been able to develop. (Many twentieth-century story-less ballets actually follow this pattern in their abstract distillations of story elements.) One might argue that the fact that the ballerina remains the primary dancing figure, the DANCING subject, somewhat complicates how one might analyze, absorb these ideas/figures. Ballet is not just the content of its stories, and very few Siegfried-centric Swan Lakes seem to work as well as the more traditional productions. But I think it's a very tricky argument...certainly not one I'm prepared to sort out.

[ 08-25-2001: Message edited by: Drew ]

[ 08-25-2001: Message edited by: Drew ]

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