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Kathleen O'Connell

Are there ballets that should no longer be staged?

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17 minutes ago, Stage Right said:

2. Most of the great classical ballets hail from times when views of men and women are very different than they are now. Will they become the monuments that must be torn down? Would that be right or wrong? How would we--you, I--feel about that? 

If a ballet in some way, shape, or form — e.g., through plot, theme, imagery, body language, what have you — explicitly, implicitly, or uncrtically expresses or embodies something now generally accepted to be reprehensible, then yes, it should be consigned to the archives and left there. I don't care how pretty the steps are, if a ballet were to, say, casually depict violence towards women or reinforce noxious race, religion, or gender-based stereotypes, there's no need to expend blood and treasure to put it on the stage.

We can start with The Cage

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I will never accept, “but they created great things...” as a justification, for anyone. We will never know how many potentially amazing things were never created due to the oppression of others, be it through racism, sexism, homophobia, etc. 

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1 hour ago, Kathleen O'Connell said:

If a ballet in some way, shape, or form — e.g., through plot, theme, imagery, body language, what have you — explicitly, implicitly, or uncrtically expresses or embodies something now generally accepted to be reprehensible, then yes, it should be consigned to the archives and left there. I don't care how pretty the steps are, if a ballet were to, say, casually depict violence towards women or reinforce noxious race, religion, or gender-based stereotypes, there's no need to expend blood and treasure to put it on the stage.

We can start with The Cage

I wasn't really thinking of ballets like The Cage--you have a good point on that one. I was thinking more of the great classical and Romantic ballets that often portray women as soft, gentle creatures, or as willis, fairies, swans, etc, and men as the strong tough fellows who to some degree influence their fate, or drive them to death and insanity (Giselle), etc. I suppose we could call those gender stereotypes. No overt violence, but it certainly could be seen to lurk under the surface, depending upon your point of view. Do we really want to get rid of all of those, and with what would we replace them?

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Just as a point of information, Robbins did not understand why people were upset by The Cage. He viewed the plot as not too dissimiler from Giselle. I guess I would agree with that view of the plot/theme,  but Giselle is so bathed in beauty and so tragically romantic, with more character development, that it doesnt hit you in the face as much. I can hardly stand to watch The Cage but Giselle is another matter. 

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3 minutes ago, Stage Right said:

I wasn't really thinking of ballets like The Cage--you have a good point on that one. I was thinking more of the great classical and Romantic ballets that often portray women as soft, gentle creatures, or as willis, fairies, swans, etc, and men as the strong tough fellows who to some degree influence their fate, or drive them to death and insanity (Giselle), etc. I suppose we could call those gender stereotypes. No overt violence, but it certainly could be seen to lurk under the surface, depending upon your point of view. Do we really want to get rid of all of those, and with what would we replace them?

In the case of ballets like Giselle, La Sylphide, and Coppelia, for example, I look to the works' overarching themes and the moral universe in which their stories take place. Albrecht may drive gentle Giselle to madness and death, but the ballet makes it pretty clear that he's wronged her, and that it's only her great moral strength and capacity for forgiveness that saves him. Coppelia's Swanhilda is the smartest (and bravest) person in the village; the men, not so much. La Sylphide is morally quite complex: we can admire James' longing for the ideal while condemning both his abandonment of Effie and his literally poisonous attempt to physically possess the Sylph. (I think it's one big giant allegory about art and imagination, but that's for another thread.)

Raymonda? I don't think we need that one and I'm on the fence about La Bayadere.

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1 hour ago, AB'sMom said:

I will never accept, “but they created great things...” as a justification, for anyone. We will never know how many potentially amazing things were never created due to the oppression of others, be it through racism, sexism, homophobia, etc. 

It’s no justification certainly, but in my opinion the isms are just the easy wrongs to spot and categorize. Every single work of art was created by someone who hurt and wronged other human beings, because every single person hurts and wrongs other human beings. Reflecting on that can help us empathize with rather than other-ize the oppressor, as is our first instinct, and by doing so can ease the discomfort of loving, say, the music of Wagner.

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2 minutes ago, Olga said:

Just as a point of information, Robbins did not understand why people were upset by The Cage. He viewed the plot as not too dissimiler from Giselle. I guess I would agree with that view of the plot/theme,  but Giselle is so bathed in beauty and so tragically romantic, with more character development, that it doesnt hit you in the face as much. I can hardly stand to watch The Cage but Giselle is another matter. 

Giselle gives us a reason for the Wilis and their fury: abandonment at the altar was a very serious matter for a 19th century woman and it was something society had every reason to discourage. The insect women in The Cage are killers just because ... they're women.

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35 minutes ago, Stage Right said:

I wasn't really thinking of ballets like The Cage--you have a good point on that one. I was thinking more of the great classical and Romantic ballets that often portray women as soft, gentle creatures, or as willis, fairies, swans, etc, and men as the strong tough fellows who to some degree influence their fate, or drive them to death and insanity (Giselle), etc. I suppose we could call those gender stereotypes. No overt violence, but it certainly could be seen to lurk under the surface, depending upon your point of view. Do we really want to get rid of all of those, and with what would we replace them?

Not that this is a simple question, because it obviously isn’t, but one thing I at least don’t want to get rid of in any ballet is idealization. It’s not that women are only soft and gentle, or that all are or should be. But love idealizes (for a time), and we need ideals, and behind the ideals is something real.

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Kathleen, You make some good points about Giselle vs Cage.  Balanchine also analyzes The Cage in 101 Ballets I believe, and if memory serves saw it as in the lineage of strong females. These are complicated issues. 

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1 hour ago, Olga said:

Kathleen, You make some good points about Giselle vs Cage.  Balanchine also analyzes The Cage in 101 Ballets I believe, and if memory serves saw it as in the lineage of strong females. These are complicated issues. 

There's nothing complicated about The Cage:wink:

ETA: It speaks volumes If The Cage is Balanchine's or Robbins' (or anyone's) idea of what a society populated by strong women would be like. 

Edited by Kathleen O'Connell

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Kathleen, As I have indicated I do not care for Cage. However, given what else is going on in some ballets, I stand by my view that it is complicated. Why shouldn't women have the same range of good and evil as men? Do youthi k sexual enslavement by men (Corsaire)  is ok? Why should we have these ballets that consisting of little more than  the manipulation of women's bodies by men (McGregor)? These are rhetorical questions.  Anyway, I find it didficult  to fully express myself but it may be the repulsion we feel at the Cage is indicative of the double standard for women. On the other hand, it could be the revulsion we feel at the thought it might be the projection of Robbins' neurosis. In any event, sanitizing  and regulating artistic expression is a complicated matter.

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30 minutes ago, Olga said:

Kathleen, As I have indicated I do not care for Cage. However, given what else is going on in some ballets, I stand by my view that it is complicated. Why shouldn't women have the same range of good and evil as men? Do youthi k sexual enslavement by men (Corsaire)  is ok? Why should we have these ballets that consisting of little more than  the manipulation of women's bodies by men (McGregor)? These are rhetorical questions.  Anyway, I find it didficult  to fully express myself but it may be the repulsion we feel at the Cage is indicative of the double standard for women. On the other hand, it could be the revulsion we feel at the thought it might be the projection of Robbins' neurosis. In any event, sanitizing  and regulating artistic expression is a complicated matter.

Of course women are as capable of evil as men, but that's not what The Cage is about. (Robbins and his contemporaries left behind enough commentary on the work for us to know what was on his mind.)

Enslavement of any kind is never OK. 

I've made no secret of my impatience with McGregor's deployment of women's bodies, and I'll state it again: it's a blight on the art form. Ditto for Wheeldon and Martins' substitution of the extreme manipulation of the female form for actual choreography. I'd happily chuck most of it into the bin with Corsaire

How we deal with historic works is indeed complicated, and The Cage, which was made 66 years ago, is now a work from history. We do need to parse our classics with a full awareness of the time and place in which they were made, and it's a delicate dance. But we're allowed to walk away from art that speaks against our values, irrespective of its craft or formal beauty. 

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On 12/20/2017 at 6:26 PM, Kathleen O'Connell said:

How we deal with historic works is indeed complicated, and The Cage, which was made 66 years ago, is now a work from history. We do need to parse our classics with a full awareness of the time and place in which they were made, and it's a delicate dance. But we're allowed to walk away from art that speaks against our values, irrespective of its craft or formal beauty. 

When to walk away?? That's a tough one for me, because I love ballet including nineteenth-century ballets. Thinking this over...great works of art from the past are always going to include elements at odds with the present including some that seem especially fraught or even offensive. (There is variability across different traditions too. What is fraught in New York may be less so in Moscow whether for good or bad reasons.) Our own present art works will look similarly problematic to the future.

But real works of art aren't simply blueprints of ideologies. That's why they survive through time -- even when their belief systems seem like claptrap, and even when they embody something a particular audience now openly rejects. No traditional Sleeping Beauty worth its salt isn't partly a celebration of absolute monarchy.  But the ballet lends itself to layers and layers of interpretation and layers and layers of pleasures beyond its celebration of absolutism -- it's not a treatise on monarchy.

However, I agree that at certain moments certain kinds of ballets, certain forms, certain subject matter seems much more fraught or much more explosive. Since ballet is a performing art aimed at living audiences,  performing traditions change. For that reason, I personally feel that a little tweaking of what appear to be egregiously problematic and/or fraught elements in older works is acceptable --especially now that we can have notated or filmed records of any cut elements for future artists and historians to judge.  I know that's not a view shared by everyone and it opens up the question of who gets to decide. But it seems to be reasonable enough to say, for example: in the United States in 2017 we prefer not to have dancers (children or adults) in blackface make-up in Bayadere.  At the same time, some elements of older attitudes are baked into the cake--just as they are baked into fairy tales; I'm inclined to say one can learn how to read them and even to ask harsh questions about them while not necessarily casting them aside or walking away from them.  (New works have to prove themselves...and companies also need to think about the context of productions: I confess that reading about three ballets with rape scenes being put on at the Royal Ballet within the last two seasons--two within the last two months--gave me pause.)

In any case, to respond to some concerns that I think were being raised elsewhere in this discussion [which began on another thread discussing the Martins' investigation at NYCB], I don't think great classical ballets, including Balanchine's, are at any risk of being banished from the repertory if today's dancers and today's workplace standards require a different professional ethic than Balanchine himself practiced.  if today's ballets take a different view of gender. There are people, maybe not many, who admire Adrienne Rich and still read Petrarch. And I don't think choreographers who emerge today are going to find themselves unreasonably limited because they are given a clear set of rules for professional behavior which differs from the one he lived by.

Edited by Drew
To clarify allusion to earlier discussion.

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Stravinsky himself was uncomfortable with The Cage. When he gave permission to City Ballet to produce it, he thought Balanchine was going to be the choreographer and was surprised when it turned out to be Robbins. Robert Garis says that when Stravinsky saw The Cage, he may have thought that "Robbins had made a ballet with the wrong meaning... and may have disliked having the intensity of his allegros in the Basler Concerto distorted, overread, and overemphasized to imply the menace and horror of Robbins' scenario..."

The Cage also comes out of a period of general misogeny in the arts in the early fifties – when men, in the general emptiness of the post-war period, seem to think women could stifle their creativity. Look at (or rather don't look at) deKooning's awful Marilyn series, or Norman Mailer's writings. Robbins have been playing with, and egging on, that sentiment that to create his own mask – to  protect his own sexuality.

 

Edited by Quiggin

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4 hours ago, Kathleen O'Connell said:

Giselle gives us a reason for the Wilis and their fury: abandonment at the altar was a very serious matter for a 19th century woman and it was something society had every reason to discourage. The insect women in The Cage are killers just because ... they're women.

And their deadliness is inextricably intertwined with sex. It's rare to see fear of female sexuality expressed so graphically, although I doubt Robbins understood what he was telegraphing. I wonder if perhaps these days its obviousness may render it harmless (?) It's so blatant I can't imagine anyone taking it seriously now, but I could be mistaken.

You could argue that it's an important ballet in terms of Robbins' career and sensibility and so should be revived now and then for that alone. However, if it was dropped entirely, somewhere out there in the great beyond Stravinsky would be smiling.

Edited to say: I didn't see Quiggin's post before I posted this, but I echo much of what Quiggin said.

 

Edited by dirac

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17 minutes ago, dirac said:

And their deadliness is inextricably intertwined with sex. It's rare to see fear of female sexuality expressed so graphically, although I doubt Robbins understood what he was telegraphing. I wonder if perhaps these days its obviousness may render it harmless (?) It's so blatant I can't imagine anyone taking it seriously now, but I could be mistaken.

Not to gainsay the criticism, but I don’t so much not take it seriously as don’t take it. Since I don’t view women that way, I don’t experience the ballet that way. I see those particular women on that stage that way for as long as the ballet lasts. I experience it as a particular story, not a metaphor. Again, I’m not denying what seems to lie behind the story; I just choose not to give it all that weight. But that may not be an option for some other people. 

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Drew, you've said it all more eloquently than I could.

When to walk away is indeed the question. So is how: loudly and in protest (me and The Cage :wink:) or with a sigh and in some little bit sorrow (me and The Merchant of Venice).

How to stay is a question, too. Do we roll our eyes at some particularly outmoded notion from the days of yore while we enjoy the rest — kind of like raising an eyebrow at Aunt Mildred's cranberry and marshmallow jello mold while we tuck into her truly excellent turkey — or do we interrogate it and argue with it for all that we're worth?

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If we are going to jettison works of art because they express a viewpoint not aligned with our current sensibility,  how do we start and where do we stop?  As a black American,  I could certainly do without any more showings of Birth of a Nation,  and I like to believe that most white Americans would agree.   But what about Gone With the Wind,  Showboat,  Imitation of Life,  The Member of the Wedding?  All of these films have artistic virtues,  and all of them depict African Americans in demeaning stereotypes.   Even a more current film,  the much-lauded The Help,  is problematic.  Do we throw them out and pretend that the attitudes depicted never existed?

I see that CBS is showing old episodes of I Love Lucy for Christmas.  Lucy was often afraid that her antics would cause Desi to "wallop" her.  On The Honeymooners,  Ralph was always threatening Alice with physical violence  - Bang,  zoom,  to the moon!"

What about the symbolism in Swan Lake? - the innocent White Swan,  the Prince seduced by the evil Black Swan,  just one of the endless expressions in art of white=good,  black=bad.  Perhaps we should stop playing Baby It's Cold Outside,  maybe the rapiest  song ever written.

I think you can appreciate Raymonda,  Le Corsaire,  La Bayadere,  without buying into the racist attitudes on view,  just as you can watch The Cage without being caught up in sexual politics.  Speaking of sexual politics,  a former City Ballet dancer of my acquaintance,  who was with the company during the Golden Era of Balanchine's creativity,  always described the great one as "a dirty old man".

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5 hours ago, Olga said:

Just as a point of information, Robbins did not understand why people were upset by The Cage. He viewed the plot as not too dissimiler from Giselle. I guess I would agree with that view of the plot/theme,  but Giselle is so bathed in beauty and so tragically romantic, with more character development, that it doesnt hit you in the face as much. I can hardly stand to watch The Cage but Giselle is another matter. 

Personally, I much prefer The Cage to Giselle. I think it speaks to womens' power and is a necessary antidote to all the romantic heroines withering away in desperation because some guy did them wrong (Swan Lake and Giselle come to mind).

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On Pointe you make so many great statements. Even as a child (I'm in my 60's now) I was uncomfortable with Lucy and the Honeymooners. I see my attitude change with other works. In Fancy Free I struggle with the scene with the woman with the purse. Is it threatening? Is it funny?

When I watch Nutcracker I wonder what Chinese people in the audience make of the Chinese dance in many productions.

There are a lot of things to sort out.

 

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2 minutes ago, BalanchineFan said:

Personally, I much prefer The Cage to Giselle. I think it speaks to womens' power and is a necessary antidote to all the romantic heroines withering away in desperation because some guy did them wrong (Swan Lake and Giselle come to mind).

I thing Giselle speaks to the redemptive power of love. Giselle ultimately has the power to save the man she loves. Personally I always felt bad for Hilarion but that's another matter.

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1 minute ago, vipa said:

I thing Giselle speaks to the redemptive power of love. Giselle ultimately has the power to save the man she loves. Personally I always felt bad for Hilarion but that's another matter.

Ah yes, the redemptive power of love. Giselle and the White Swan are still dead. Both caddish princes live on in most versions of the ballets. I like that the Novice in the The Cage lives too, prevails. Women can be powerful and deadly, not just wispy sylphs floating on the wind. Ah! La Sylphide, another woman undone to death by a caddish prince!  The Cage just barely starts to balance things out.

I don't mean to be callous or disrespectful of other lines of thinking, but, fyi, when I was sexually assaulted while sleeping on a train in college, I got even with the guy before he left the train. I'd rather get even than die and forgive the guy. I guess my opinion comes from a deeply personal place.

On a less personal note, art should explore a wide range of behaviors. I don't think anyone should stop performing ballets that people want to see just because the gender roles are problematic. Life is richer and  more contradictory than that.

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