Drew

Burke on Ballet & Violence against Women

30 posts in this topic

Posted (edited)

Siobhan Burke, uneasy at depictions of violence against women in Ratmansky's Odessa, takes up the issue more generally in a recent critic's notebook in the New York Times. I haven't seen Odessa and am not altogether sure what I think about her various ways of posing the issue--but certainly found the essay worth mulling over. (She doesn't mention McGregor--but McGregor is one choreographer who came to my mind.) Any thoughts?

 

https://www.nytimes.com/2017/05/15/arts/dance/no-more-gang-rape-scenes-in-ballets-please.html?_r=0

Edited by Drew

Share this post


Link to post

Posted (edited)

It's an interesting take on the ballet, to be sure. I've not seen Ratmansky's Odessa myself, but have read various people's impressions of the piece, and knew that it may be referring to gangster culture in Odessa. It's interesting that MacCaulay didn't mention any explicit 'rape' sequence, and I have to wonder if that's because many people see that section of the ballet as purely psychological, or metaphorical. Burke's ending comment is something I'll always agree with (no matter what the subject matter is):

 

"Mr. Ratmansky’s work often rewards multiple viewings, and if I see “Odessa” again, it’s possible I’ll understand it differently. What my first viewing inspired is a hope that if choreographers are going to engage with the all-too-present issue of violence against women, they do so in a responsible way that tries to shift the paradigm of what we face out in the world — that proposes some alternative, or at least offers a substantive critique — instead of replicating what we’ve seen enough of."

Edited by pherank

Share this post


Link to post

Posted (edited)

Interestingly, in today's FT, Apollinaire Scherr makes this observation about "Decalogue":
 

Quote

At one point even Sara Mearns, set apart at the start by a solo that the ensemble surrounded in attentive stillness, joined other women to snag Gonzalo Garcia and carry him aloft. (He looked properly menaced, as the many ballerinas put in a similar position do not seem to have the liberty to do.)

 

And this topic kinda ties in with our discussion some months ago about the potential violence in the purse snatching scene "Fancy Free." ... The unpleasant thing I've noticed most in contemporary ballets is how women are treated like furniture to be moved about – especially in Christopher Wheeldon's work, though in his case perhaps not out of misogyny as out of a lack of imagination, or maybe just recycling what's around. Balanchine sometimes uses women as devices like pencils with which describe arcs around the stage – in "LIebeslieder" and "Violin Concerto", but the woman always seems to be the one in control, and the one whose imagination the ballet is really about.

 

RAkU has a rape scene in it involving a monk backed up by some sort of soldiers and the audience here in San Francisco seems to love it. In the 70s I think it would have been booed. We've regressed.

 

Edited by Quiggin

Share this post


Link to post
13 minutes ago, Quiggin said:

Interestingly, in today's FT, Apollinaire Scherr makes this observation about "Decalogue":
 

 

And this topic kinda ties in with our discussion some months ago about the potential violence in the purse snatching scene "Fancy Free." ... The unpleasant thing I've noticed most in contemporary ballets is how women are treated like furniture to be moved about – especially in Christopher Wheeldon's work, though in his case perhaps not out of misogyny as out of a lack of imagination, or maybe just recycling what's around. Balanchine sometimes uses women as devices like pencils with which describe arcs around the stage – in "LIebeslieder" and "Violin Concerto", but the woman always seems to be the one in control, and the one whose imagination the ballet is really about.

 

RAkU has a rape scene in it involving a monk backed up by some sort of soldiers and the audience here in San Francisco seems to love it. In the 70s I think it would have been booed. We've regressed.

 

 

"perhaps not out of misogyny as out of a lack of imagination" - That's what I tend to think.

 

In the case of RAkU, the ballet involves a very traditional Japanese story approach and I think it is effective and believable. The ballet is true to its narrative roots. Audiences are not "loving" the rape (which is not all that explicit btw) - they are loving the artistry that goes into the storytelling/dancing.

 

Is Balanchine's Bugaku pornographic because it references the sex act? When is the distinction important to make and when is it obtrusive and hampering worthwhile human expression?

Share this post


Link to post

Posted (edited)

1 hour ago, pherank said:

In the case of RAkU, the ballet involves a very traditional Japanese story approach and I think it is effective and believable. The ballet is true to its narrative roots...

 

Is Balanchine's Bugaku pornographic because it references the sex act? When is the distinction important to make and when is it obtrusive and hampering worthwhile human expression?

 

I saw Bugaku only once 20 years ago and it was one of the few Balanchine ballets I didn't like – Variations on a Porte et une Soupir was the other. It was too stylized – like the strangest Ikebana floral composition  – and I have to admit I'm a bit prudish. (I didn't like the Cage but neither did Stravinsky, so.) Maybe I'd feel differently today.

 

I do think if you put certain images on stage or on screen – even if the cavalry does come in and everyone is happy in the end, the images stay deep in the unconscious and somewhere give people permission to act badly. Macaulay asks,  “Must works of art only depict people behaving correctly?”  Not necessarily, but there's good taste, in the sense of a kind of moral good taste.

 

But RaKU wasn't a Japanese story – like one by Ozu or Kawabata or even Mizoguchi – it was a Japanese news item choreographed by a Russian-American with a score borrowing from various ethnic and contemporary sources. Anyway I only brought it up because it was one I could immediately remember. 

 

 

Edited by Quiggin

Share this post


Link to post
16 minutes ago, Quiggin said:

 

I saw Bugaku only once 20 years ago and it was one of the few Balanchine ballets I didn't like – Variations on a Porte et une Soupir was the other. It was too stylized – like the strangest Ikebana floral composition  – and I have to admit I'm a bit prudish. (I didn't like the Cage but neither did Stravinsky, so.) Maybe I'd feel differently today.

 

I do think if you put certain images on stage or on screen – even if the cavalry does come in and everyone is happy in the end, the images stay deep in the unconscious and somewhere give people permission to act badly. Macaulay asks,  “Must works of art only depict people behaving correctly?”  Not necessarily, but there's good taste, in the sense of a kind of moral good taste.

 

But RaKU wasn't a Japanese story – like one by Ozu or Kawabata or even Mizoguchi – it was a Japanese news item choreographed by a Russian-American with a score borrowing from various ethnic and contemporary sources. Anyway I only brought it up because it was one I could immediately remember. 

 

 

And I mentioned Bugaku for that same reason - the creator was not actually Japanese and his impressions were going to be coming from an outside culture. I don't have problem with that because it's called the 'artistic process', and artists are pulling inspiration and learning techniques from all over the place and from all eras.

But I tend to argue on the side of the artist - if someone wants to take a swing at working with themes/stories/techniques etc. that are identified with a particular culture, I say, have at it. But please make it work! And please do so in a responsible way to tell the audience something worthwhile about the human condition. The criticism is going to come, no matter what.

 

Siobhan Burke was pointing out that she was seeing an awful lot of gratuitous references to something that was abhorrent to her. And that's fair for her to say. I just don't like to see a lot of censorship happening. Ballet seems to be under an unusual amount of pressure to conform to social norms and to always present a happy face. Other art forms don't always play under those same set of rules. It's just an interesting situation.

 

Share this post


Link to post

Posted (edited)

I don't think Burke is advocating censorship. Any criticism that makes a strong case about certain types of art is making an intervention, saying something about what the critic thinks the art should or shouldn't be, and there should be room for critics to make those interventions. They aren't government ministers. That is, if artists shouldn't be censored then neither should critics who write about art....I also think artists who take on serious subject matter should get serious responses. Which is different from getting a pass.

 

I agree that ballet IS under tremendous pressures of all kinds--economic first and foremost--which often pushes it to the mere 'entertainment' side of the spectrum. I think one of Burke's points is that violence against women for entertainment purposes is problematic (not unlike some of the complaints about 'rape' as mere plot device and ratings grabber in a lot of television shows).

 

 I am not sure how pervasive I think the problem really is...as a fan of classical ballet my tolerance for--and pleasure in--exquisite idealizations and otherwise symbolically deployed women (an issue Burke touches on as well) is obviously very high, though I think one could at least make a psychological case for why those figures remain so powerful even if one doesn't actually want to LIVE in Aurora's kingdom.

Edited by Drew

Share this post


Link to post

If you didn't move from the times article to the instagram post and the ongoing--well I'm not sure what to call it--with Macaulay, it is probably worth reading

Share this post


Link to post

I thought the reference to violence against women in Odessa was somewhat oblique.  In contrast, when I saw With a Chance of Rain at ABT (you know, the one where James Whiteside grabbed Misty's boobs and played with them) I was immediately enraged and angry.

Share this post


Link to post

Maybe I'm naive, but I didn't once think of gang rape during the scene in question in Odessa.  At least not a physical rape.  I thought of it as depicting a woman who had no control over her own fate.  She was imprisoned by her place in that culture.   I really don't mind ballet getting dark, so long as it's not obscene, like Abatt described above with the Scarlett piece.  

Share this post


Link to post
28 minutes ago, Kaysta said:

Maybe I'm naive, but I didn't once think of gang rape during the scene in question in Odessa.  At least not a physical rape.  I thought of it as depicting a woman who had no control over her own fate.  She was imprisoned by her place in that culture.   I really don't mind ballet getting dark, so long as it's not obscene, like Abatt described above with the Scarlett piece.  

 

See, I don't find the (ugh) "boob jiggling" obscene because if I recall correctly, the woman wasn't bothered by it. This can be problematic in itself, but the female dancers were not treating this as a moment of offensive groping (so far as I remember it, I saw it once and thought it totally unmemorable as a piece). So while you might find it obscene to see boobs grabbed on stage, I personally would find it less offensive than the repeated trope of a woman being physically abused/manhandled by a group of men against her will (which it sounds like this was since she apparently slapped one at the end?)

 

I'm not for censorship either but I have to say I also find I'm rather over rape/abuse of women as a plot device in new ballets. (And I adore Ratmansky).

Share this post


Link to post

Posted (edited)

There is a scene in the ballet Manon where she is passed among the rich male customers in a series of overhead lifts.  Manon does not object, since she is a courtesan.  But does the fact that she doesn't object in the context of the ballet being performed make it less offensive, or less objectifying?  The objectification of women in opera and ballet has a long history, and is present in some of the famous works (Traviata, Manon to name a few).  Does the fact that those women don't object and in fact have chosen a life of objectification in exchange for financial benefit change how we feel about what's on stage?

Edited by abatt

Share this post


Link to post

Manon is very much about the life/conflicts of a courtesan and Macmillan actually shows the sleaze and exploitation of that world. I don't much like Manon (for other reasons) and Macmillan's oeuvre as a whole may raise questions about how he depicts/views women, but I don't think the scene in Manon where she is passed around is casually or idly sensational. I think it has a more or less serious point. I have more questions about the scene with the prison guard in the final act...but I allow that Macmillan is partly making a ballet ABOUT how these women were treated. Elsewhere, in other ballets, Macmillan's gaggles of happy whores have sometimes seemed more pointless or excessive to me. But that's an aesthetic objection too. 

Share this post


Link to post

Posted (edited)

9 hours ago, aurora said:

 

See, I don't find the (ugh) "boob jiggling" obscene because if I recall correctly, the woman wasn't bothered by it. This can be problematic in itself, but the female dancers were not treating this as a moment of offensive groping...

 

I'm not for censorship either but I have to say I also find I'm rather over rape/abuse of women as a plot device in new ballets. (And I adore Ratmansky).

 

I'd say this is actually worse, since in the world created by the choreographer, there is potentially nothing the woman he puts on stage wouldn't object to and nothing that's out of bounds--the male choreographer can recreate any kind of pornographic act he pleases and present it in such a way that the actress or ballerina "isn't bothered by it." This is at the heart of the problem with using only or predominantly male choreographers--or writers, or directors, or any other thing you care to imagine--some of them treat the dancers/actresses they work with like blow-up dolls. what ballerina would risk her job objecting? Dancers/actresses always say the same thing about this issue--"he's a joy to work with! I was empowered! he's pushing boundaries!"
I can't blame them for this, bc honestly, what else can they say? I always disregard these kinds of statements, sometimes the actress may actually believe them and sometimes they're required to say it for publicity, but they're always made under a *kind* of duress, anyhow.

 

"Until mankind is peaceful enough not to have violence on the news, there's no point in taking it out of shows that need it for entertainment value"   -Cher

I find it predictable that Macaulay is arguing the same point, with about as much validity, as the titular character in Clueless (an aptly titled movie and character)

Edited by jkr3855

Share this post


Link to post

Not just Manon, and for the record it's the scene of rape with the gaoler I see as violent, but that's nothing compared to the gang rape in Judas Tree about to be inflicted on us in yet another revival. 

 

MacMillan goes back to violence against women again and again, whether it's Stephanie's horrific wedding night in Mayerling or Rose being slapped around by a would-be suitor in Prince of the Pagodas, not to mention The Invitation, a ballet specifically about rape.

 

I make that 5 - 1 against Ratmansky.

Share this post


Link to post
On 5/16/2017 at 2:57 AM, Drew said:

..as a fan of classical ballet my tolerance for--and pleasure in--exquisite idealizations and otherwise symbolically deployed women (an issue Burke touches on as well) is obviously very high, though I think one could at least make a psychological case for why those figures remain so powerful even if one doesn't actually want to LIVE in Aurora's kingdom.

 

I don’t have a problem with the idealization either. For one thing, people do idealize each other in romance. That’s not all of life, but it’s a good and universal part of it, and it’s a form of wonder, reminding us of things greater than ourselves. Second, if idealization is also a form of blindness – no one lives up to what they’re romantically conceived to be – still it’s akin to and often leads to a more lasting good: a deep respect rooted in the determination to see and remember the best in people even when they’re at their worst. Third, in Balanchine’s case especially we can see how he was drawing from his own history, from having been separated at a young age from his mother. So in that way too it’s true to life, not ideologically determined.

 

Having said that, it’s true that historically the woman on the pedestal was actually in a circumscribed and subservient position vis a vis the men who put her up there.

Share this post


Link to post

Assuming that the Odessa scene is actually meant to invoke an interior psychological state, (historically) what ballet scenes do people think are particularly effective at representing a psychological state or process?

Share this post


Link to post

Posted (edited)

2 hours ago, pherank said:

Assuming that the Odessa scene is actually meant to invoke an interior psychological state, (historically) what ballet scenes do people think are particularly effective at representing a psychological state or process?

 

A little to the side of your question, but concerning "interior psychological states:" I love Ratmansky including some of his 'portraits' of women. For example, the final pas de deux for the Prince and Cinderella in his version has a moment showing Cinderella suffering what seemed to me a brief episode of PTSD amidst her otherwise happy ending. It perfectly fits the agitation of Prokofiev's score at that moment, and I found it a rather daring touch--part of Ratmansky's modern/ironic approach to the fairy tale story of the girl who finds her prince -- or whose prince finds her. (I suppose it's possible I misunderstood, but I can think of other examples I have really enjoyed and admired--including a lot of humor in his portraits of both men and women.) 

 

But I do not think that the fact that a scene of violence against women represents "an interior psychological state" simply does away with the question of how/why violence against women is being depicted. (Same for violence of any kind, but just to stick to issues Burke is raising...) To speak in the abstract since I haven't seen this ballet: a dream or daydream of violence would still raise questions for me, e.g. whether it was a revealing meditation on the psychology in question or a throw away excuse to show a woman being manhandled or, for that matter, neither of those but something entirely different that might carry with it a compelling artistic vision on the one hand -- or an exploitative one on the other,  That is, I don't think saying "dream sequence" in and of itself does away with Burke's concerns.

 

 

Edited by Drew

Share this post


Link to post

From Burke's article:

Quote

This prompted an expansive thread of comments, including by my colleague Alastair Macaulay, who had reviewed “Odessa” for The New York Times. He asked whether my call for “no more” was a call for censorship: “Must works of art only depict people behaving correctly?”

 

A really impressive missing of the point.

Share this post


Link to post

Here's what Sara Mearns thinks of Burke's piece.

 

 

 

 

Share this post


Link to post
3 hours ago, dirac said:

From Burke's article:

 

A really impressive missing of the point.

 

I think the conversation at least got Macaulay thinking - his latest piece deals with the "Frivolities of Ballet, the Contradictory Art":

 

"It’s insensitive to issues of religion (some productions include parodies of Muslim worship) and race; its presentation of women is alarming. Apart from its famous pas de deux, the ballet used to be largely unknown in the West. In recent decades, however, productions have proliferated, a trend I find both bizarre and depressing.

The central problem of “Le Corsaire” is how it halts the plot to present us with a spectacular — and happy — harem. The 18th century had made dramas out of harems (Mozart’s opera “The Abduction from the Seraglio” is the most famous); there the main issue was liberty: Western women had to be freed from imprisonment, while the Islamic characters showed differing degrees of clemency and cruelty."

Share this post


Link to post
59 minutes ago, volcanohunter said:

Here's what Sara Mearns thinks of Burke's piece.

 

 

 

 

 

It doesn't sound as if Mearns really read the piece, or at least the wider point Burke was trying to make didn't sink in - she seems only concerned with one tree in the forest. Also, first it's just a beautiful dream sequence and she can't imagine what Burke is on about, and then she asks pretty much the same question Macaulay did. But Burke never wrote that ballet should never tackle anything unpleasant. Macaulay and Mearns make her sound like one of those theatergoers of legend quoted as saying, “I don’t want to go to the theater to see rape and murder and violence – I can get all that at home.”

Share this post


Link to post
1 hour ago, dirac said:

 

It doesn't sound as if Mearns really read the piece, or at least the wider point Burke was trying to make didn't sink in - she seems only concerned with one tree in the forest.

 

Mearns is responding only to the issue raised with Odessa, that's true, but she is living with that ballet at present. Perhaps, she'll have an opinion about the broader issues later on, as people continue to talk about this. As you say, the broader issue will have to sink in.

Share this post


Link to post

Posted (edited)

I haven't seen the ballet but I thought Burke explained her point well. 

 

She challenged the shallowness with which she perceived the violent acts against women were handled in the work. That's a valid critique. 

 

Women's role in ballet is complicated, but I do feel in this day and age some new works can feel dated on the gender front when choreographers unconsciously rely on the - not sure what to call it - antiquated standard ballet vocabulary (ie woman suffers violent act and in response slaps the man in the face and everything carries on; uninventive choreography that relies too much on the male dancer showing the audience how bendy the ballerina is and so forth.)

 

Of course she is not saying only good acts or simple issues should be the subject of ballets, and it's a logical fallacy to argue from the premise that she did, as Macaulay and Mearns have done. 

Edited by elena

Share this post


Link to post

Burke, Macaulay and Mearns each have their own relationship to the Odessa ballet, which was central to the Burke article. And so each person has their own viewpoint regarding that artwork. Burke used a scene in the ballet as a jumping off point to discuss what she feels are the many "images of violence against women" in contemporary ballet. Macaulay gets to defend himself in the NYT, so I won't say anything about him here, but I can make a good guess as to what Mearns was feeling:

She had just spent weeks working in conjunction with Ratmansky on the Odessa ballet, and judging from her remarks on Twitter, felt that it was a strong piece that they all had high hopes for. And certainly, the creators may have hoped to hear some excited conversation regarding the ballet, but what they got after the first positive reviews was Burke's scathing piece with Odessa set firmly at the center of it all. It's pretty obvious that Mearns thinks that Burke got the piece all wrong, which is a valid issue of another kind, and the ballet creators/preformers no doubt feel that their artwork has been hijacked for someone else's agenda. They are going to feel hurt, and they are going to be pissed off. And it hardly matters if Burke was on a righteous crusade or not - the creators/performers of the art piece are going to feel they have been unfairly maligned even though they performed with only positive intent.

As a boss of mine used to like to say, "feelings are facts too!" - I hated hearing that, but he wasn't wrong.

Share this post


Link to post
  • Recently Browsing   0 members

    No registered users viewing this page.