kbarber

Fancy Free - threatening?

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I came across this statement in a review of Daniel Ulbricht's group at Jacob's Pillow:

"The second half of the program was devoted to Jerome Robbins 1944 classic Fancy Free, with music by Leonard Bernstein. This ballet (which inspired the musical On the Town) would never get past the 21st-century political-correctness censors. The three sailors pursuit of a couple of pretty women, meant to be playful, comes off at moments as threatening. "

http://blog.timesunion.com/localarts/daniel-ulbrichtballet-2014-jacobs-pillow-71614/34032/

Do you agree?

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Sailors on shore leave flirting with pretty women is fine. Three strangers snatching a woman's handbag on a city street and teasing her by tossing it back and forth to keep it out of her reach? That's not politically incorrect so much as plain old cruel and definitely threatening. We may know they're good guys, but she doesn't, and it's a sour moment. That the situation might ever have seemed "playful" to Robbins strikes me as a real failure of empathy on his part.

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I actually don't agree. I think that at one point there might have been a sort of assumption that sailors are nice guys and wouldn't mean anything other than being playful. How it's taken now, well that might be different.

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I'm sorry, but I can't see the way Robbins' sailors torment the woman with the red handbag as anything but mean. They may not have meant to harm her, but they had the power to humiliate her, and they used it -- perhaps thoughtlessly, which is almost worse.

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While some different casts make the torment more blatant and aggressive, the underlying disrespect is still there. Robbins may have been reflecting societal norms, but sensitivity isn't anything I'd have expected from him, based on the way he tormented dancers.

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I actually don't agree. I think that at one point there might have been a sort of assumption that sailors are nice guys and wouldn't mean anything other than being playful. How it's taken now, well that might be different.

I think that's very possible, Mme. Hermine. Another related possibility is that something has been lost in coaching transmission over the years, or lost and intermittently recovered. I recall that when Arlene Croce reviewed NYCB's Fancy Free from the late seventies/early eighties, she noted that the lighthearted casual style that ABT still had was missing from NYCB's version and specifically mentioned the red shoulder bag business ("These boys might be muggers."). These are basically nice boys, and the girls are also nice but savvy and can hold their own. But a casual throwaway style can be tricky to carry off.

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I'm sorry, but I can't see the way Robbins' sailors torment the woman with the red handbag as anything but mean. They may not have meant to harm her, but they had the power to humiliate her, and they used it -- perhaps thoughtlessly, which is almost worse.

I think they could only humiliate her if she took that as their intent. I agree with Mme. Hermine, and I wonder if that sort of behavior was not uncommon at the time - sexist and regrettable, yes, but unconsciously so on the guys' part, and not perceived as such by the woman, so not actually inflicting cruelty. But the moment makes me uncomfortable today.

In regards to dirac's good point about the style possibly having change over the years, I would think that the woman's acting would be even more important than that of the guys. I think I recall someone - Faye Arthurs? - at NYCB in the mid-nineties almost playing along, indicating that she was more or less amused. Still, one feels bad for the woman, and a little embarrassed - at least I was - for the guys, who are acting like boys.

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Another case of taking it "out of its time"---this was New York City during World War 2---and these young sailors could have been our brothers or cousins. Muriel Bentley, the original handbag girl portrayed her as an aloof girl who could take care of herself. Apparently it does not play too well in current times.

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I don't think we have a sense today of the level of enormous respect that Americans had for military service men who fought in WWII. They were considered the greatest generation, heroes who saved the world.

Today we always hear in the media about creeps in the military who do horrible things. There is less support for the Amer. military today because of these types of incidents. Also, the wars the US is involved in today are unpopular wars, which is unfairly reflected onto the military.

For these reasons, I doubt that people of earlier generations would have viewed Robbin's goofy fun loving sailor boys as a threat.

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I'm sorry, but I can't see the way Robbins' sailors torment the woman with the red handbag as anything but mean. They may not have meant to harm her, but they had the power to humiliate her, and they used it -- perhaps thoughtlessly, which is almost worse.

I think they could only humiliate her if she took that as their intent. I agree with Mme. Hermine, and I wonder if that sort of behavior was not uncommon at the time - sexist and regrettable, yes, but unconsciously so on the guys' part, and not perceived as such by the woman, so not actually inflicting cruelty. But the moment makes me uncomfortable today.

In regards to dirac's good point about the style possibly having change over the years, I would think that the woman's acting would be even more important than that of the guys. I think I recall someone - Faye Arthurs? - at NYCB in the mid-nineties almost playing along, indicating that she was more or less amused. Still, one feels bad for the woman, and a little embarrassed - at least I was - for the guys, who are acting like boys.

What do you think their intent might have been?

Also, would we be as comfortable giving their behavior a pass for being typical of their time if the victim of their prank had been African-American or Jewish?

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What do you think their intent might have been?

Also, would we be as comfortable giving their behavior a pass for being typical of their time if the victim of their prank had been African-American or Jewish?

Good questions, but I don't think your implied analogy holds. The guys are acting in sexist fashion, but not because they dislike women. In fact, they're acting like little boys who pester little girls and make them cry. They do it because they want attention. They do it because they like the girls.

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What do you think their intent might have been?

Also, would we be as comfortable giving their behavior a pass for being typical of their time if the victim of their prank had been African-American or Jewish?

Good questions, but I don't think your implied analogy holds. The guys are acting in sexist fashion, but not because they dislike women. In fact, they're acting like little boys who pester little girls and make them cry. They do it because they want attention. They do it because they like the girls.

They may like women just fine, but their behavior suggests that they don't fully respect them: how else should one interpret the freedom they seem to believe they have to take a (weaker) stranger's property away from her and then tease her when she tries to get it back? Casual prejudice isn't only a function of not liking the members of a particular group. It's tied up with respect and power, too.

I'm not suggesting that the handbag grab is on a scale with the depredations visited on African Americans, Jews, Japanese-Americans placed in internment camps, etc. -- the shameful list goes on and on -- just that there is nothing wrong with being repulsed by the sailors' behavior now, even if it was typical of its time. (And I'm not convinced that it was.) I see this episode as a failure of empathy on Robbins' part precisely because -- and perhaps just at that moment -- he couldn't see past the casual sexism of his day.

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Similar in my mind to the (whether alleged or not) circumstance of the sailor kissing the nurse in Times Square, I still do not agree.

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They may like women just fine, but their behavior suggests that they don't fully respect them: how else should one interpret the freedom they seem to believe they have to take a (weaker) stranger's property away from her and then tease her when she tries to get it back? Casual prejudice isn't only a function of not liking the members of a particular group. It's tied up with respect and power, too.

I'm not suggesting that the handbag grab is on a scale with the depredations visited on African Americans, Jews, Japanese-Americans placed in internment camps, etc. -- the shameful list goes on and on -- just that there is nothing wrong with being repulsed by the sailors' behavior now, even if it was typical of its time. (And I'm not convinced that it was.) I see this episode as a failure of empathy on Robbins' part precisely because -- and perhaps just at that moment -- he couldn't see past the casual sexism of his day.

I think we pretty much agree, and I especially like your last sentence. They're disrespectful of her as a woman, which is sexist. So was Robbins in choreographing that episode. But for me their behavior, even allowing for a difference in scale, does not bring to mind the way Jews, African-Americans and Japanese-Americans were treated, because I think the sailors interact with the woman in the first place because they're attracted to her, and they want to be with her. Yes they treat her as inferior, but they do so in that very different context. Also, as I said earlier, the incident makes me uncomfortable too.

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Another case of taking it "out of its time"---this was New York City during World War 2---and these young sailors could have been our brothers or cousins. Muriel Bentley, the original handbag girl portrayed her as an aloof girl who could take care of herself. Apparently it does not play too well in current times.

Just so. These are young men are teasing young women who can handle themselves. (I tend to see the shoulder bag girl as a little like Lorraine Bracco in Goodfellas, marching through a bunch of guys to tell off Ray Liotta for standing her up.)

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Go here for a video clip of the section of Fancy Free under discussion.

NYCB 1986 Lourdes Lopez / Joseph Duell / Kipling Houston / Jean-Pierre Frolich

I really do find it more menacing than playful -- there's plenty of menace in that music, that's for sure -- but of course your mileage may vary.

It also occurred to me as I re-watched it that Robbins and Bernstein might actually have intended the passage to have some darker undertones -- i.e., that they were aiming for something more complicated than the Hallmark Channel version of shore leave.

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Fancy Free is a great example of how an art work both illustrates and is defined by its time. Most of the productions I've seen, starting from the 1970s, have taken that interchange fairly lightly. As it starts, the boys (and they play often as boys in that moment) are teasing and the girl is amused. As the scene develops, the teasing becomes more aggressive and the amusement transforms into frustration. The redeeming aspect comes at the end where the woman stands up for herself more overtly and the men realize they've gone too far.

But I have seen this where the potential for confrontation goes further, and although I believe that you can frame the encounter in different ways, the potential for aggression is always there. Remember Robbins' work in West Side Story, and the implied violence in the confrontations between Anybodys and her own gang, as well as Anita trying to warn Tony that Maria's brother was looking for him.

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Yes, it was the NYCB production (although not that particular cast) that Croce was discussing in the review referenced in my earlier post. There is always the possibility that Robbins saw it and decided he liked it. I would suggest with all due respect that a cheerful, fancy-free version of "Fancy Free" would necessarily deserve the Hallmark Channel designation, however. LIghtheartedness isn't necessarily sappy (or aggressively hearty, which is a problem with the movie version of "On the Town").

Found the Croce quote in full:

NYCB dancers have no skill in the throwaway gesture. When the sailors tease the girl with the red shoulder bag, the action that at Ballet Theatre can look ad lib is so precisely set and executed that it becomes harsh: these boys might be muggers. And Martins and Saland massage the tender little pas de deux into an explosive sexual encounter.

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I didn't mean to imply that a purely lighthearted version of "Fancy Free" would necessarily be sappy. But watching the video, and especially, listening to the music again made me think that Robbins and Bernstein might have wanted theses sailors to have a little more edge to them than they would likely have had in a conventional musical.

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Found the Croce quote in full:

NYCB dancers have no skill in the throwaway gesture. When the sailors tease the girl with the red shoulder bag, the action that at Ballet Theatre can look ad lib is so precisely set and executed that it becomes harsh: these boys might be muggers. And Martins and Saland massage the tender little pas de deux into an explosive sexual encounter.

Interesting, because if we're going back to Martins and Stephanie Saland, Robbins was probably there coaching.

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Robbins may not have seen it the way Croce saw it, or not minded it, or maybe he over-coached, or a bit of all of those. Perhaps also a matter of casting. I have a hard time seeing Martins fitting easily into that role and Saland was perhaps too glamorous?

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I always thought that Croce put her finger on an interesting distinction. The ABT dancers had been performing this work in pretty much an uninterrupted line from the time it was made for them, and were coached by people who were coached by people -- they would be getting nuances that the NYCB dancers likely didn't get.

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Robbins may not have seen it the way Croce saw it, or not minded it, or maybe he over-coached, or a bit of all of those. Perhaps also a matter of casting. I have a hard time seeing Martins fitting easily into that role and Saland was perhaps too glamorous?

I recall Martins' sailor as being rather more knowing than he is often portrayed today. Think of something along the lines of the gypsy prince role Martins originated in Balanchine's "Tzigane" or his sailor in the Royal Navy section of "Union Jack."

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I see it as a flirtatious episode, in the context of its time. It certainly has never bothered me as a woman, although other things I've seen in entertainment certainly do. Definitely not threatening.

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The 1986 clip linked to above seems to me to reflect the new style NYCB was adopting then - remote and efficient - and I can see why some would pick up an air of remote and uncaring threat toward the girl in yellow - I think Houston barely indicates (in the closeup at 7:46) his character's moment of reflection with the slightest tip down of the head, but just barely.

I think once again that it depends a lot on qualities of the particular performance, and Robbins's presence was no guarantee that the original qualities would be restored. He had very different dancers in the mid-1980s from the mid-1940s, and probably felt very personally about them, too, and this may have gone some way to dissuade him from imposing another way on them; and he was always changing his mind anyway.

An extreme example of that, in another ballet, comes to mind. Around this time, or a few years before, both NYCB and ABT showed his Interplay, and the difference was vividly obvious from the get-go: At ABT, we saw the cast pose in silhouette against the illuminated backdrop when the curtain went up, while at NYCB, the stage lights had already come up, revealing the dancers more personally. The qualities of the dancing were different, too, in the way we're talking about.

There's another Fancy Free clip on YouTube which doesn't show the purse episode but does indicate some of the contrast in performing styles:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IQ_KFv8XVjI

(We are getting some ABT dancers' rendition of Fancy Free here in Chicago in August, at the Chicago Dancing Festival, and in October, when ABT puts on "An All-American Celebration". I'm looking forward to it; I think it's Robbins's best ballet, and I think they own it.)

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