Jump to content


Political correctness and ballet


  • Please log in to reply
22 replies to this topic

#1 Estelle

Estelle

    Platinum Circle

  • Foreign Correspondent
  • PipPipPipPipPipPipPip
  • 1,706 posts

Posted 30 May 2002 - 08:17 AM

Originally posted by Calliope

I look forward to the day when a woman heads a ballet company for a length of time.  How we'd answer these questions.


Do you mean "as a choreographer"? Because there have been several examples of female artistic directors, at least in Europe (Lefevre, Hightower and Verdy in Paris, Haydee in Stuttgart, Pietragalla in Marseille, Glushak in Toulouse,
Terabust in Milan, Bjorn in Denmark and Finland, Gielgud in Denmark and in Australia... and also
in the past Dame Ninette de Valois, of course).

"Politically correct" isn't a common notion in French (here when people use "politiquement correct" it usually sounds negative, like "very conventional" or "hypocrit"...) but the questions Leigh asked are quite common. I've sometimes replied to "ballet is relevant" something like "is Mozart relevant?" (and often the people who ask such questions about ballet criticize classical music far less, perhaps because it's not narrative). Also, not so many people ask "why do basketball players have to be tall?" or "why do swimmers have to be tall with muscular shoulders?"...

(Leigh, it seems that we posted at the same time :) )

#2 Estelle

Estelle

    Platinum Circle

  • Foreign Correspondent
  • PipPipPipPipPipPipPip
  • 1,706 posts

Posted 31 May 2002 - 12:16 AM

Originally posted by Leigh Witchel
I don't think people who say these things are either unenlightened or malinformed.  The aesthetics of ballet do require explaining.  


I agree with that. The "why are women so thin" is a question I've heard several time from (well-meaning) people who had attended their first ballet; for example I remember attending a perfomance of a Lyon Conservatoire with a friend and her boyfriend, and his first reaction at the intermission was "but they are so sick! Are you sure they're healthy? It's worrying to watch them." while my friend and I, who were more experienced hadn't thought about it...

Also among your initial questions, I think that there are some which are related to the art form itself ("what makes ballet relevant?"), and some others with the organization of companies etc.
("why are there so few minorities?") and the answers are different. A bit like my field of research, mathematics: asking if mathematics are relevant/ useful is a criticism of mathematics itself, while asking why there is less than 20% of women among the French mathematicians is IMO a valid question (but the fact that some changes might help doesn't mean that mathematics itself is bad).

vagansmom, I agree that some people criticize some aspects of ballet while accepting the same things for art... That's one of the reasons of my question "Is Mozart relevant?". I think that, in France, ballet isn't generally as "high art" as much as classical music, painting or literature, and so people criticize it more easily...

Leigh, I agree also that it's good to insist on the positive aspects of a work. Because convincing people that works of the past don't have to be judged by today's standards isn't enough to make them feel like seeing it... For example, a few years ago I had tried to read some novels by the Frnech novelist Henry de Monfreid, but found them awfully racist and colonialist, I realized that part of it could be explained by the fact that it had been written in the 1930s, but the book was so unappealing to me that I didn't finish it; on the other hand one of my favorite novelists is the Hungarish author Gyula Krudy, though I do find some of his books misogynic, there is so much else to enjoy in his works that it's enough for me to appreciate them.

So for example when some people tell me "but the plots of ballet works are stupid, they're simplistic fairy tales", instead of trying to convince them that fairy tales can be great I try to convince them to see a non-fairy tale ballet, or to enjoy some other aspects of fairy-tale ballets like the musicality, the great technique of the dancers, etc. (hoping that, if they get attracted to ballet enough, they might reconsider their initial views).

#3 Mel Johnson

Mel Johnson

    Diamonds Circle

  • Moderators
  • PipPipPipPipPipPipPipPip
  • 5,311 posts

Posted 30 May 2002 - 02:06 PM

Back to ballet itself, rather than the management and adminstration thereof:

Isn't judging works of the past by the standards and moral climate of today considered "presentism"? And like all those other "isms", isn't that Politically Incorrect?;)

#4 Mel Johnson

Mel Johnson

    Diamonds Circle

  • Moderators
  • PipPipPipPipPipPipPipPip
  • 5,311 posts

Posted 30 May 2002 - 06:09 PM

That could be "presbychoreophobia" (fear of classic dance) and thus Politically Correct because it's a mental illness. Wacko is SO in!;)

#5 dirac

dirac

    Diamonds Circle

  • Board Moderator
  • PipPipPipPipPipPipPipPip
  • 25,081 posts

Posted 30 May 2002 - 11:23 AM

I think we should try not to be too defensive here; it's perfectly fair to ask why "ballet is woman" and yet (notwithstanding the examples given above of women running companies and choreographing), the great names in ballet choreography have been men, for example, and why it is that retired dancers who run companies in general tend to be ex-danseurs, while their former partners tend to wind up running the school when they run anything. It's also perfectly understandable that someone would go to the ballet and wonder why quite a few of the women have scrawny arms, jutting collarbones, and sticklike legs, or why African-Americans are out in force for Ailey or Bill T. Jones, while at the ballet it often seems to be ain't-nobody-here-but-us-prosperous-white-folks, and could it be possible to bridge that difference somehow? It's not attacking ballet to ask Leigh's questions; it's just, well, asking the questions.



For myself, I use the term "politically correct" sparingly, if at all. It once had its uses as a characterization of excessive forms of sensitivity in relation to racial/sexual matters, but nowadays it seems to be deployed as a denigration of virtually any such sensitivity.

#6 dirac

dirac

    Diamonds Circle

  • Board Moderator
  • PipPipPipPipPipPipPipPip
  • 25,081 posts

Posted 31 May 2002 - 10:40 AM

Moira, thank you so much for your thoughtful post, and for de-lurking. Hope to hear much more from you! Your points about the value of a liberal education are well taken.


It certainly is depressing to look back on all of those unhappy ladies of ballet, living and dying for love. I think it depends on whether you see the glass as half empty or half full. You could regard those heroines and those stories as relics of a bygone time, or as symbols of transcendence. Hearing from both sides increases our understanding (and certainly makes for, ahem, lively discussions)!

#7 Leigh Witchel

Leigh Witchel

    Editorial Advisor

  • Editorial Advisor
  • PipPipPipPipPipPipPip
  • 3,466 posts

Posted 27 May 2002 - 08:43 PM

No, it made sense, Ballet Nut.

The problem is, it's hell to answer. I think the question is analogous to asking what to do about Shylock, or the relationship of Petruchio and Katharine in Taming of the Shrew. But those are only specific instances, and I think you were asking a broader question.

I think it's important to believe that classicism can reflect every society it lives in - that it never becomes irrelevant, simply because it does step out of time. It's also important that while we do create ballets and classicism for our time, we recognize the timeline we live on. Something came before us, something will come after us, we can't know the future, but we can at least know what came before us.

As to Politically Incorrect ballet - I think everyone has got to find their own way, and there will be huge debates. I also agree with you that they should be discussed openly. It's better for everyone. A classic example are blackface roles. Other people might still stage them, I would be inclined not to - it doesn't bother me that a divertissement from La Sonnambula once done in blackface has been changed - but I could also argue for a setting where the blackface was part of the decadence of the Baron's household. If nothing else, as you implied, taking it for granted is not a good option.

#8 Leigh Witchel

Leigh Witchel

    Editorial Advisor

  • Editorial Advisor
  • PipPipPipPipPipPipPip
  • 3,466 posts

Posted 29 May 2002 - 08:03 PM

I know this is a tough topic, but I hope it provokes some discussion, so here are some questions.

You're taking an intelligent, well-meaning friend to the ballet. At the end of it, s/he asks you any of the following questions:
  • Why are the women always so thin? Do they have to be?
  • Why are there so few minorities involved?
  • How come the men manipulate the women but not the other way around? Why are the women always muses and never creators?
  • Why does it have to emulate as politically repressive system as monarchy? Why isn't ballet more egalitarian?
  • It just doesn't seem relevant. What makes ballet relevant?

It wouldn't hurt to have some answers handy, now would it? (For those of us who are Jewish, it reminds me of the "What says the Wise Child?" section of the Haggadah!)

#9 Leigh Witchel

Leigh Witchel

    Editorial Advisor

  • Editorial Advisor
  • PipPipPipPipPipPipPip
  • 3,466 posts

Posted 30 May 2002 - 08:16 AM

To be fair, women have headed ballet companies, both here and in other countries. Ninette de Valois at the Royal Ballet, Marie Rambert at Ballet Rambert, Brigitte Lefevre at the POB (and several other female directors there previously), Virginia Williams at Boston Ballet as well as Anna Marie Holmes, Lucia Chase at ABT, Victoria Morgan at Cincinnati Ballet are some names that come off the top of my head. Certainly the power is disproportionate, but it isn't unheard of.

#10 Leigh Witchel

Leigh Witchel

    Editorial Advisor

  • Editorial Advisor
  • PipPipPipPipPipPipPip
  • 3,466 posts

Posted 30 May 2002 - 08:24 AM

I'd add to "Is Mozart relevant" the fact that I think classical ballet goes beyond relevance by stepping outside of time. Formalism (something that encompasses more than just the classical here) remains durable because of its abstraction. It becomes a text that can be reread 200 years later, just like Mozart. The Four Temperaments was choreographed in 1946, and I think it has an amazing impact even today. Perhaps that isn't relevance, but it certainly is durability.

Anyone care to add to the handy answer on relevance or try for some of the others?

#11 Leigh Witchel

Leigh Witchel

    Editorial Advisor

  • Editorial Advisor
  • PipPipPipPipPipPipPip
  • 3,466 posts

Posted 30 May 2002 - 07:50 PM

I don't think people who say these things are either unenlightened or malinformed. The aesthetics of ballet do require explaining. It's not that hard to make a case for misogyny in ballet, which is the reason I posed those questions. The point shoe essentially hobbles a woman's foot. There's basically only a limited pallette of roles for a woman within it.

I think the most honest and respectful response is one that acknowledges people's reservations and tries to illuminate what's positive about it. Pointe work, to use the same example, doesn't allow a woman to do certain things (walk normally onstage or bear weight) but it does enable her to do certain things (balance or turn) beyond what is possible without it.

#12 BryMar1995

BryMar1995

    Member

  • Member
  • PipPip
  • 38 posts

Posted 30 May 2002 - 07:52 AM

Yes, Leigh, it would be great to have some answers to those questions handy, because the art is under a lot of pressure, even under attack, as being anachronistic, stagnant and oppressive. Why do I have to constantly apologize for my art? It is what it is! We can also ask if those who work in classical ballet will be able to or even feel compelled to make ballet harmonius to the current paradigm (Politically Correct ballet, what would that be? Does anyone do it now?) Or is classic ballet unable to bend and flow with the times? What will the direction be for ballet in the 21st century? Evolution, revolution. or oblivion? Ballet has always had its reformers, Noverre, Fokine, Balanchine, Tudor, and DeMille. Can ballet be reformed to be more PC? Does it need to be? With the exception of Forsythe's radical revisionism, reform attempts always seems to lead to a hybid/fusion of ballet/modern. Some feel that these options are inadequate or usuitable.

I wonder sometimes if ballet is and easy target for today's PC witch hunts. Does Opera, Theater, Music or the plastic and visual arts get the same knocking? Does it depend on what lens we are taught to look at art through? Having worked in a modern dance university environment, I know that a lot of misiformation about ballet is being spread as knowledge. It comes out mainly as Modern = good, Ballet = bad.



Rick

#13 Kathleen O'Connell

Kathleen O'Connell

    Gold Circle

  • Senior Member
  • PipPipPipPipPipPip
  • 762 posts

Posted 31 May 2002 - 04:14 PM

I can't figure out quite how to tie this thought to specific posts in the rest of the thread, so I'll just leap in ...

In terms of its perception by various "publics" (the audience for "mass entertainment," the academic world, etc.) ballet may be encumbered by the very visibility of its "oppressions": the toe shoes, the thinness of its artists, its distortions of the human body, etc. are all right out in front for everyone to see and are part of its presentation. The "oppressions" inherent in other art forms may be less apparent: when was the last time you worried about the toxic materials many visual artists are literally up to their elbows in day in and day out? (My mother-in-law is an artist: I've seen what's in her studio and I can't figure out why she doesn't glow in the dark.) Wander the halls of any music conservatory, and you'll note in short order that every string student sports an angry looking red bruise under his or her left chin from 3+ hours a day of practice. When a famous rock guitarist was asked to give his advice to young aspirants, his comment was: "practice until your fingers bleed." (He might have added: "and wear earplugs on stage to ensure you're not hearing impaired by 30.")

My point is, most (I would say all) art forms 1) require a considerable level of effort and discomfort on the part of their practitioners, 2) present a "distorted" (perhaps "heightened" would be a better term) version of human experience, and 3) rely extensively on conventions peculiar to the art form in question in order to do so. And I think that the depth of one's pleasure and appreciation depends on the extent of one's familiarity with (and comfort with) the conventions in addition to one's knowlege of the form's materials generally. (For example, many people who are knowlegeable about and enjoy classical music can't stand opera. In some cases this is because they just don't like the sound of a classically produced voice, which seems very "unnatural" to many people. In others it's because they aren't comfortable with opera's various conventions as a dramatic form -- e.g. its often overt and in some cases sensationalized emotionality. As a well-indoctrinated fan, I really don't "see" this latter convention "from the outside" so to speak -- but my husband does and it drives him nuts. But I digress ...)

I think that the conventions of ballet can be a barrier to its appreciation and make it easy to dismiss by someone whose appreciation of other art forms is quite sophisticated. The plot of a story ballet is really just an armature to support an expression of some facet of human existence via the materials of ballet as an art form -- but if one isn't familiar with ballet's conventions or materials, one might be inclined to think that a response to the story in and of itself was the point of the evening (as it is in a play, for instance) and one would be justifiably disappointed at the end of a long evening of swans in tutus and von Rothbart waving his cape. Even when distilled into a "plotless" ballet, some of these conventions can still be baffling: at the end of Ballo della Regina, a friend I'd dragged along turned to me and said "was that a coronation or a wedding?" I suggested that it was the celebration of a magnificent woman, but that didn't seem to help her sort things out. Her comment at the end of Opus 19 / The Dreamer was "well, I guess they ended up together after all." As an art form, ballet was simply opaque to her at an emotional level, if not formally (she picked up many of the formal characteristics right away, but didn't know what to make of them: "do they always try to look so light? Why?" she asked. It was a good question and I didn't really have an answer.)

I also think that the "serious" version of all art forms just isn't that easy to get into because it does take time and effort to master its conventions and to learn how to appreciate its subtleties. (Even a popular form like rock has a serious version with a tiny audience -- as any devotee of the Obscure Alternative Band You've Never Heard Of But Really Should Know Because They Are Taking The Guitar Anthem As Far As It Will Go And Subverting It At The Same Time And Besides They Can Really Play Not Like That Swill on K-Rock will tell you. And it will usually take at least three beers for them to get to the end of the lecture.) Anyone familiar with the prices of tickets to sporting events or pop concerts knows that mere expensiveness isn't necessarily a barrier to entry.

Enough! I don't think I even came close to addressing the central topic of the thread, so I think I better stop. And besides, I have to go practice now ;-) ...

(For the record, I can't sit through either "The Merchant of Venice" or "The Taming of the Shrew" without gritting my teeth and clenching my fists; my traversal of "Paradise Lost" was frequently interrupted by a savage hurl of the book to the other end of the room out of sheer irritation. "Incoming!' my roomate would bellow.)

#14 Calliope

Calliope

    Gold Circle

  • Member
  • PipPipPipPipPipPip
  • 805 posts

Posted 30 May 2002 - 08:10 AM

I think you can take just about anything and make it politically correct. But considering nothing about politics is correct....

I look forward to the day when a woman heads a ballet company for a length of time. How we'd answer these questions.

Did Graham have these problems?

Ballet is in a sense a field of dictators, an AD, a choreographer a composter and a dancer. All doing what they individually think is correct/right.

#15 Calliope

Calliope

    Gold Circle

  • Member
  • PipPipPipPipPipPip
  • 805 posts

Posted 30 May 2002 - 09:55 AM

Sorry I did mean a female choreographer.


0 user(s) are reading this topic

0 members, 0 guests, 0 anonymous users


Help support Ballet Alert! and Ballet Talk for Dancers year round by using this search box for your amazon.com purchases (adblockers may block display):