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Fancy Free - threatening?


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#46 Kathleen O'Connell

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Posted 22 October 2015 - 01:07 PM

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." 



#47 kfw

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Posted 22 October 2015 - 02:51 PM

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. 


#48 dirac

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Posted 22 October 2015 - 02:59 PM

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.



#49 Helene

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Posted 22 October 2015 - 03:19 PM

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.



#50 dirac

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Posted 22 October 2015 - 03:26 PM

 

 

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.)



#51 brokenwing

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Posted 22 October 2015 - 06:48 PM

Kathleen, thank you for your wonderful commentary. Jack, as Kathleen later clarified, I don't think she was indicating that the work should be censored, nor should any work that is 'chilling'. The problem isn't that it's chilling, the problem is the commentary Robbins is or isn't putting into the work. Had he presented the purse snatching scene as intentionally disturbing, it would be one thing, but the viewpoint he seems to hold is that it's a perfectly acceptable to harass women in this capacity. We aren't meant to feel any ill will towards the sailors, and indeed, neither does the woman. She comes racing back in with them a scene later with a big smile on her face.

 

Granted, I've seen the scene done with more malicious intent and I've seen it done with less. It leaves me with a feeling of ickiness, no matter the case. I don't like seeing a work where the choreographer condones (near) violence against women.  

 

I have a very similar problem with what I consider to be one of the greatest musicals of all time, 'Carousel'. The most gorgeous melodies, characters that draw you in and captivate you... but then we're supposed to just be okay that Julie was abused and that real love understands that the abuse came from a good place. It drives me crazy! 

 

'Fancy Free' and 'Carousel' are both masterpieces, but it's difficult to not want to hit the fast forward button when the misogyny comes in, and I'd imagine it's difficult for many in a modern-day audience. How do we present these masterworks while not endorsing violence against women? It's not a question I have the answer for. 

 

Robbins is a big offender, in my book, for a number of ballets ('The Concert', 'In the Night', 'The Cage'), but that's another thread.



#52 sandik

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Posted 23 October 2015 - 02:35 PM

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.

 

Making changes in a work to accommodate contemporary concerns is ethically problematic, especially with an artist as detail oriented as Robbins -- he was very, very specific about what people did, both kinetically and dramatically.

 

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?

 

You put your finger on the problematic place, but I'm not sure that Robbins was trying to convey a sense of male resentment.  As I understand it, much of the byplay in Fancy Free came from behavior he observed in Times Square, and I think that in this case, the ambiguity is intentional.  The potential for someone to go "too far" is there, but they pull back from that moment.

 

"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.  ...

 

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.

 

 

There has been a great deal of discussion in the academic world about issues of "trigger warnings" -- the idea being that you can require a student to read something that might be disturbing if you give fair warning.  And like most discussions in the academic world, the solutions offered are often quite baroque.

 

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.

 

In my home community, we had a big discussion surrounding "yellowface" performance a couple of years ago (initiated by a traditional production of The Mikado).  It was a very difficult process, in part because it bridged the professional theater community, and the peculiar kind of pragmatism that actors have about casting, and the general audience for the producer, who has made a commitment to the D'Oyly Carte production style and felt that would justify practices that other people found offensive.



#53 cubanmiamiboy

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Posted 25 October 2015 - 04:49 PM

I just saw Fancy Free last night as part of MCB's Program I.  The business with the purse was done in a playful way.  The girl never gave the impression of being threatened, even smiling as she was trying to catch it.  Plus...the three sailors were danced by dancers who look VERY young...even younger than the girl-(and they probably are), so they didn't look menacing AT ALL.  People laughed about it.   I told my mother about this thread and she told me that this type of thing was very common when she was a teenager with the boys.



#54 nysusan

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Posted 26 October 2015 - 02:07 PM

I've been going to see ABT do Fancy Free since I was about 5 years old. I never saw that section as being threatening until about 5 or 6 years ago. I can't remember if it was ABT or NYCB but that playful encounter had turned into a near mugging. It's really dependent on the staging, coaching & the dancer's interpretation.




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