kbarber

Fancy Free - threatening?

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After watching the clip above, I stumbled onto this as well, with commentary by Tyler Angle -- nothing specifically about the potential for aggression, but some interesting discussion of the ballet as a work about three guys.

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NYCB added "Fancy Free" to its repertoire in 1980, and Robbins, who was in charge of the revival, presumably selected the cast. With the exception (I think) of Kipling Houston, all of the cast members in the 1986 video I linked to above (Stephanie Saland, Lourdes Lopez, Joseph Duell, Kipling Houston, and Jean-Pierre Frolich) were in either the first or second casts in the original 1980 revival.

I'm guessing that the 80's cast danced the ballet the way Robbins wanted it to be danced then, for good or ill.

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I'm guessing that the 80's cast danced the ballet the way Robbins wanted it to be danced then, for good or ill.

Oh, I imagine so.

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The above comments are interesting, because I saw ABT dance it well before the 1980s. I saw nothing remotely threatening about it--it seemed quite lighthearted and carefree, but perhaps the 10980s/NYCB version is "darker".

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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.

Having just come across this discussion about a favorite ballet of mine, I just wanted to say that I think you're spot about this. I don't think Robbins is being misogynist at all with the handbag moment--he's just being true to life. The ballet is so wonderfully specific about its time (the 40s), place (New York), gender and age (guys in their late teens), situation (out in the world on their own for the first time: big stuff!), etc., that I feel sure Robbins meant this moment to be a little mean--because that's how inexperienced boys act, teasing instead of seducing, and showing off for one another and for one girl for whom they're all competing. You're right about the score, too: I always notice how there's a twitch of adolescent sexuality throughout, sometimes on the surface, sometimes below it. Eventually it comes to outright violence, of course--at which point Robbins has the girls stand up and walk out permanently on the boys, and good for them! (And boys being boys, after a moment of seeming reflection and remorse, they continue chasing girls, lessons unlearned.)

Anyway, this is just to say that I think the undercurrent of danger and violence is a deliberate theme and it gives the ballet more substance and interest than it otherwise might have--and makes it funnier and more touchingly real at the same time.

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This is an eye of the beholder opinion: I find the purse episode creepy and more telling about Robbins/Bernstein vs. a dramatic element that strengthens the work. I found it distracting when I saw this work at NYCB last year (I think it was last year).

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We're seeing it here in Seattle in the spring (gearing up for Robbins centennial, as I understand it) and it will be interesting to see how it looks to me now. It's one of those moments that could be played in a number of ways -- an example of the power of context, perhaps.

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This is an eye of the beholder opinion: I find the purse episode creepy and more telling about Robbins/Bernstein vs. a dramatic element that strengthens the work. I found it distracting when I saw this work at NYCB last year (I think it was last year).

I think Anthony's right. It's telling about the place, the gender, and the age of the characters - and most of all about gender relations of the time. The guys remind me of little boys who don't quite know another way to get the girl's attention. I haven't had any luck locating reviews of the premiere, but presumably that scene would have been harshly criticized if such behavior was censured at the time.

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Well it's not the Times, but I found this paragraph in an article from the Brooklyn Eagle of April 19, 1944:

Premiere of "Fancy Free" Acclaimed at the Met

Jerome Robbins' ballet of three sailors on shore leave in New York City, rightfully called "Fancy Free," had its world premiere with the Ballet Theater at the Metropolitan Opera House last night. It scored a hit with the audience for the scenery of Oliver Smith, the youthful spirit of the performance, with Jerome Robbins setting the pace, and popular atmosphere of Leonard Bernstein's music conducted by the composer. Of it more can be said at a later date, but it's good news to know of the existence of another highly entertaining work.

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Why does it matter whether a 1940s audience would have found the sailors' behavior offensive? There were a lot of things the audiences of yore didn't find particularly offensive that do trouble us now.

Three men harassing a woman on the street is not an image that warms the heart.

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Kathleen, absolutely right on! So then it becomes a theatrical decision about changing what was offensive in other times to something else for today's sensibilities.

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Looking at the 1986 City Ballet clip, the terrible moment comes at the end, in the pause just before the purse is given back, when one of the sailors holds the woman by the wrist. She wins and they pull back, but you feel that that's the moment everything could turn really violent - right then she could so easily be beaten up.

I don't think the ballet's successor the Comden-Green On the Town has anything like that in it ...

As men returned from war to assume the jobs women had been doing - was Robbins playing on the awkwardness and resentment of this? The fears that lead to Robbins's misogynistic The Cage? (Also In the Night as I remember it has a moment when the woman subjugates herself completely to the man.) Because Robbins did such at times brilliant ballets - especially with the great original cast of Fancy Free - and was so wildly successful, do we tend to overlook the uncomfortable details?

Added: looks like Fancy Free is on Miami's first program, with Swan Lake.

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"Art by committee"? A committee of the original artists and latter-day editors and censors? No. If you don't like it, if people protest, leave it alone. Hide it away, even. (As long as there's a good film or two for times when people have grown up and it can be staged again.)

The experience of art is a journey to another world - not the "world" of the 40's, but of Robbins's and Bernstein's imagination, drawing on some stereotypes of the times. These journeys are not always completely pleasant. (I'm reminded of the French word, "frisson," here, though it doesn't fit perfectly.)

Should Berg's opera, Wozzeck, be given with its original ending? The little boy on his toy "horse" goes off at the end, singing "Hop, hop. Hop, hop," if I remember correctly, innocently unaware of his mother Marie's awful death by drowning. But we are aware: And it's chilling. So let's censor it, and save people from the chill? And while we're at it, let's fix Berg's crazy harmonies, too. I think you can even hear Marie's drowning in the music, her sinking, down, down. Too disturbing! (Like Musorgsky's startlingly uncompromising and original tonality in Boris Godunov. Nice of Rimsky-Korsakov to make it sound more like Meyerbeer. Much more comfortable to the ear, right?) Doesn't the audience deserve a bland good time in the theater? No disturbing dissonance! Please!

Some art is disturbing - to people who haven't learned to distinguish between their "everyday lives" and the "life" of that fantastical place, the world of that piece of art, whatever it is. Some people are too eager to deprive themselves - and others - of the experience, for whatever reason.

Countless other examples could be added. I'm not opposed to a little bit of labeling, maybe - maybe - but I am to political correctness.

What about all those high Italian operatic tragedies, where the final curtain comes down on a stage littered with corpses. Can't have that? Disturbing? Does it "promote" capital criminality? How about "We'd like you all to know the singers are just pretending to die," over the public-address system, in case some of the audience (maneuvered into attending by clever tricks of marketing) doesn't know? No need, though, really, they get up behind that curtain, and then they take their applause at the end, like the cast of Fancy Free does.

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Jack, thanks for the perspective. it's an individual discernment or taste to decide whether a theatrical incident shows a larger artistic truth (my view of e.g., Wozzeck, Lulu, Don Giovanni) or is a local frisson (thanks for that word) merely illuminating the mind(s) of the authors.

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It's a "perspective" that's largely been lost, I'm afraid, that what art's "for" is to take us "out of ourselves," like a journey which makes us different - some insist, always "better," although I'm not so clear on their meaning there, but if my hunch about it is right, I think I agree - and along the lines of that old remark that "travel is broadening," except that the artist distills and concentrates the experience (if we get it) and gives us greater intensity (which may scare some people off).

Yeah, "illuminating the minds of the authors" seems to me a reduction and a waste, the stuff of Ph. D. dissertations, frankly. (If I mistake you, correct me.)

Lost things get rediscovered sometimes, though.

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I think we are agreeable. Although I think Bernstein and Robbins for the most part were very fine artists, it brings to mind Erick Hawkins' great comment - because he believed that the role of the artist is to be like a high priest dispensing universal truths - he said, (to paraphrase), "if you're going to get up and self-express, you might as well just get off the stage". Very funny!

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Along with commentary that is built into art -- using stereotypes of the East when the composer/librettist was really talking about their own societies, changing the location from Sweden to Boston to avoid censorship -- unexamined assumptions about privilege and the norms of the times are cooked in. There are enough arguments about the former and whether it's exploitation of the stereotyped characters. When the latter happens -- in "Fancy Free," when young boys appear in blackface, the characters of Isaac and Seyd-Pasha in "Le Corsaire," for example -- It think it's a legitimate discussion to call out the underlying assumptions that could be offensive for what they are. We're all blind in some ways, and just because an artist is great doesn't mean he or she isn't blind in a big way.

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Great comments, Jack.

Why does it matter whether a 1940s audience would have found the sailors' behavior offensive? There were a lot of things the audiences of yore didn't find particularly offensive that do trouble us now.

Three men harassing a woman on the street is not an image that warms the heart.

I think it matters for how we interpret the behavior in the ballet itself. Would the audience, and more importantly a woman on the street in real life, have understood it as harassment, as we would if it actually happened today, or would they have understood it as flirtation? Is it a form of flirtation that warms the heart today? No. Is it a form of flirtation that would have existed if not for an underlying sexism then? No. But would it have been perceived and intended as harassing behavior or rather, if you will, as a form of flirtation shaped by male privilege? We don’t have to like the behavior either way, but at least for me that makes difference for how we view it now, and for whether or not it should be cleaned up (since it's supposed to be comedy).

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Because Robbins did such at times brilliant ballets - especially with the great original cast of Fancy Free - and was so wildly successful, do we tend to overlook the uncomfortable details?

When the latter happens -- in "Fancy Free," when young boys appear in blackface, the characters of Isaac and Seyd-Pasha in "Le Corsaire," for example -- It think it's a legitimate discussion to call out the underlying assumptions that could be offensive for what they are.

Possibly. Or, because of our own cultural assumptions – underlying or right out there - we could be reading something into it that wasn’t there at the time, was never intended to be there, and wasn’t present with the original cast in the original time and place. (I should note that ambiguity does not exist with those kids in blackface.)

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That's my point: because of the blind spots of the times, different characterizations, stereotypes, and practices, including blackface, were generally accepted without scrutiny and weren't meant to make anyone in the audience think twice, be uncomfortable, or interpret them as a political statement.

I don't dispute that many if not most women in the time period in which "Fancy Free" was set did not view the sailors' actions through the same lens that many women now do. It does not mean, however, that the woman with the red pocketbook and her real-life contemporaries, were not put off by the behavior looking at it through their own lens and did not react to it by steeling up and/or feeling anger, annoyance, limited in their response, for example, or had not internalized it as the game you play to get by.

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For the record:

1) I don't think any work should be censored, altered, or mothballed because all or some portion of the audience finds its images, themes, materials, or content "not pleasant." I hope no one thought I was suggesting that.

2) I certainly don't think works of art should be altered years after their creation in order to make them more palatable. (They might be revised for practical reasons, of course. That's a different argument.)

3) That being said, I'm perfectly fine with discarding works of art that in some way, shape, or form debase or countenance the debasement of "the other," the powerless, or despised minorities.

4) There's a difference between artists using provocative or unpleasant images in order to challenge their audience's comfortable prejudices and artists trading on (or being blind to) baseless stereotypes.

5) Women have been putting up with a lot of fundamental disrespect that's been mislabelled as flirting, or as some kind of validation of their attractiveness, or as a solicitous regard for their presumed frailties for millennia. The fact that some of them might have accepted it doesn't make it less problematic.

Looking at the 1986 City Ballet clip, the terrible moment comes at the end, in the pause just before the purse is given back, when one of the sailors holds the woman by the wrist. She wins and they pull back, but you feel that that's the moment everything could turn really violent - right then she could so easily be beaten up.

To quote Margaret Atwood: "Men are afraid women will laugh at them. Women are afraid men will kill them."

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Women have been putting up with a lot of fundamental disrespect that's been mislabelled as flirting, or as some kind of validation of their attractiveness, or as a solicitous regard for their presumed frailties for millennia. The fact that some of them might have accepted it doesn't make it less problematic.

That reminds me of Sonya Yoncheva’s Desdemona in the Met’s current Otello, and of her wish, which she succeeded admirably at for the HD broadcast, to portray her as a strong woman. I haven’t seen FF live for quite a few years, but the role in question lends itself to that kind of characterization, and I imagine that’s how it’s being danced.

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I don't dispute that many if not most women in the time period in which "Fancy Free" was set did not view the sailors' actions through the same lens that many women now do.

Well.... up to a point. I expect that women back then knew very well when men were trying to intimidate them or pushing them around and weren't happy about it when it happened, although they may have been more accepting of it. If the women who were dancing that original didn't see the sailors' actions that way, it was probably because they weren't being played that way. I intended to return to the point Arlene Croce made earlier - that new inflections had entered the performance that weren't there previously. That doesn't mean the lighter interpretation is no longer acceptable, or that the scene can't be played lightly.

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Again, that's my point: women of the time might have been as angry or uncomfortable and as aware of the oppressive nature of the sexism involved, but they wouldn't see it through the lens of 1970's feminism or the waves of backlash that followed. The pill wasn't invented yet, and it was before Roe v. Wade. Their discomfort wouldn't have been part of public discourse, and they didn't have social media to discuss and state their case when the mainstream media belittled or ignored their anger and discomfort. On average the consequences of voicing their case were much graver then.

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That reminds me of Sonya Yoncheva’s Desdemona in the Met’s current Otello, and of her wish, which she succeeded admirably at for the HD broadcast, to portray her as a strong woman. I haven’t seen FF live for quite a few years, but the role in question lends itself to that kind of characterization, and I imagine that’s how it’s being danced.

The shrinking violet interpretation always puzzled me anyway, because it’s obvious that Desdemona is a strong woman, or she never would have defied her father and everyone else to marry the hunky black guy in the first place. Maggie Smith got that across very well in the Olivier Othello, although she was wrong for the part in pretty much every other aspect.

(On the other hand, Ophelia does not work as a forceful woman. She’s a frail flower that gets stomped on and it’s important that she be so. But I digress.)

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