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Kathleen O'Connell

Are there ballets that should no longer be staged?

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19 hours ago, Drew said:

Fascinating discussion about Petrouchka. Ashtonfan makes me want to see the ballet again.

Manon is here to stay I suppose—at least for the foreseeable future. But, for myself, I have found the choreography for Manon rather limiting of ballerina individuality. I am speaking of dance individuality. The various swoony-acrobatic pas de deux, for example, flatten out all kinds of inflections and musical subtleties that, say, Petipa variations, positively require. Of course, a ballerina’s charisma and dramatic intensity can still have a distinctive impact, but I still don’t think of Manon as the ballet in which to assess a ballerina’s individuality. I realize I may be failing to ‘get’ something about Macmillan, but...

I agree. I have seen several wonderful ballerinas tackle Manon. And while I'm glad I saw their performances I couldn't really say who was "better" -- to me the swoony poses, the overly acrobatic lifts, the somewhat tawdry choreography all meant every ballerina was sort of the same. Every Manon is going to swing her arms coquettishly in the first act. Every Manon is going to passionately throw herself at Des Grieux in the bedroom pas de deux. Every Manon is going to gingerly be passed around from one man to another in the brothel scene. Every Manon is going to lurch as if she's dying before throwing herself into those huge acrobatic lifts in the swamp scene. And every Manon that I've seen has played up the sophistication of the character. 

I actually think Mary Vetsera in Mayerling allows for more individuality. I've never seen this ballet live but I've seen the Lolita-like Mary's and also the predatory Mary's and the more childlike, innocent Mary's. 

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On 12/20/2017 at 8:54 PM, On Pointe said:

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? 

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".

YES!  

This all goes to the very nature of art and its purposes. 

Should art chronicle, disrupt, query, confront, disturb? 

What is art should  intentionally harm the artists in the making? 

This is why I have such trouble with the Streb stuff. 

 

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2 hours ago, canbelto said:

I agree. I have seen several wonderful ballerinas tackle Manon. And while I'm glad I saw their performances I couldn't really say who was "better" -- to me the swoony poses, the overly acrobatic lifts, the somewhat tawdry choreography all meant every ballerina was sort of the same. Every Manon is going to swing her arms coquettishly in the first act. Every Manon is going to passionately throw herself at Des Grieux in the bedroom pas de deux. Every Manon is going to gingerly be passed around from one man to another in the brothel scene. Every Manon is going to lurch as if she's dying before throwing herself into those huge acrobatic lifts in the swamp scene. And every Manon that I've seen has played up the sophistication of the character. 

 

I don't know if this is just a coincidence or whether McCrae looks at this site, but he posted yesterday that the final PdD in Manon was what inspired him to become a professional dancer!

 

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On Pointe:

Quote

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?

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... 

You might want to go light on ballets with violent and racist and sexist images during a period, like ours, which offers an overabundance of the these. Hollywood and video games have provided us with an enormous archive of people being killed and blown apart into thousands of pieces willy nilly and the internet privides easily accessible pornographic images that used to require a discreet visit to a porn shop on the edge of town. These images often translate into violence against women. The stage should offer a respite from them. There are surely other subjects for a genuine artist, alert to the issues of the time and ways of being in the world, to use to " disrupt, query, confront, disturb" (:balletforme) – as well as to illuminate.

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22 hours ago, Birdsall said:

The Mariinsky’s Soviet Version of Corsaire makes it clear that the men selling and buying women are the bad guys (who are punished in the end) and Medora uses her influence over Conrad to get the other women free despite it causing a mutiny. So I feel it has a more serious subtext than other versions.

Nevertheless the sight of several women being sold is stomach turning and is not a feature of other versions I've seen.

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On 12/30/2017 at 3:53 AM, Mashinka said:

Nevertheless the sight of several women being sold is stomach turning and is not a feature of other versions I've seen.

Huh? I've never seen a version where there weren't women being sold. I think I've seen many versions. ABT, Mariinsky, Bolshoi, Vienna State Opera. I hadn't seen the ENB Le Corsaire but here is the synopsis right on their website:

Quote

The most thrilling of all classical ballets

Le Corsaire (The Pirate) follows the escapades of a dashing pirate, Conrad, who journeys across the high seas to save his beautiful harem girl, Medora. It is a swashbuckling fantasy tale of captive maidens and cutthroats, love and betrayal.

Full of action, passion and romance, this classic story ballet has been reinvented by English National Ballet, the only UK company to perform the complete work.

This extravagant and exhilarating production enthralled audiences and received rave reviews when it premiered in 2013. Staged by Anna-Marie Holmes, with the breath-taking sets by Hollywood designer Bob Ringwood (BatmanLe Corsaire is an unmissable, entertaining adventure.

 

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1 hour ago, Pique Arabesque said:

Most of this conversation has focused on classical ballet, but I've always found "Bugaku" to be irredeemably Orientalist.

 

Please say more about what you mean by this.

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18 hours ago, canbelto said:

Huh? I've never seen a version where there weren't women being sold. I think I've seen many versions. ABT, Mariinsky, Bolshoi, Vienna State Opera. I hadn't seen the ENB Le Corsaire but here is the synopsis right on their website:

 

The Kirov version has a whole bevy of women on a dais being leered at, in other versions only two are sold.  The harem episodes refer to something a little different.

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5 hours ago, Mashinka said:

The Kirov version has a whole bevy of women on a dais being leered at, in other versions only two are sold.  The harem episodes refer to something a little different.

I feel that it shows them in distress and not happy at the whole thing.....I can not imagine anyone watching the Kirov version and thinking selling and buying women is depicted as a good thing, and they are freed by Conrad who is convinced by Medora to also let the other women go (and not be forced to be with his men), and that leads to a mutiny of sorts, until he shows them who is boss. The harem is owned by the Pasha who is painted in the Kirov/Mariinsky version as a leering clown who gets his comeuppance in the end, and the gorgeous Le Jardin Anime takes place due to the Pasha's harem (who is the main one shown buying women in the Mariinsky and Bolshoi and I believe Mikhailovsky versions). I feel the overriding message of that version is that women should be free and want to be free and should be free, which would make sense considering it is a Soviet version and communism attempted to at least give lip service to equality of women.

I agree with Canbelto. I think every version of Corsaire depicts selling and buying of women, but so far out of the ones I have seen I think the Mariinsky/Kirov version does the best to paint it as a trade perpetrated by evil, gross guys.

 

 

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7 hours ago, Mashinka said:

The Kirov version has a whole bevy of women on a dais being leered at, in other versions only two are sold.

Dear Mashinka - I am in a festive mood and am dying to post a gag in reply to your post I quoted above, starting with "Where I come from we ......." but I can sense Helene peering over my shoulder and she has a big axe while I have but a little neck ....... sigh !

Anyway, HAPPY NEW YEAR TO EVERYONE ON EVERY CONTINENT !!

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I think it is a tragedy that ABT, for example, can't think of a better solution for it's Raymonda than to drop it altogether from repertoire.

Geezzz....so many double standards, so much puritanism....

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3 hours ago, cubanmiamiboy said:

I think it is a tragedy that ABT, for example, can't think of a better solution for it's Raymonda than to drop it altogether from repertoire.

Geezzz....so many double standards, so much puritanism....

Hmm ... I saw the original Raymonda at ABT. It was dropped because it was a very bad production, and ABT simply doesn't have the kind of dancers to do this ballet justice. It looked poorly rehearsed. This is a big ballet with a lot of dancers required and Raymonda is a VERY long part. I saw two casts who were alright but it just looked like a chamber version of Raymonda. Maybe if Alexei Ratmansky does a version it will be back .. he has the cache to demand rehearsal time and budget. 

The Mariinsky and Bolshoi themselves rarely tour this ballet.

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On 12/31/2017 at 1:32 AM, pherank said:

Please say more about what you mean by this.

The samurai warrior/coy geisha pairing traffics in gendered/raced stereotypes of Japanese culture. It is also generally performed by dancers who are not Japanese, thus constituting a form of yellowface.

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Posted (edited)
1 hour ago, Pique Arabesque said:

The samurai warrior/coy geisha pairing traffics in gendered/raced stereotypes of Japanese culture. It is also generally performed by dancers who are not Japanese, thus constituting a form of yellowface.

I think you may be over-simplifying things. Here are the problems I see with that:

    •    it doesn't allow artists to reference other cultures, either thematically or visually
    •    it doesn't allow artists to even have an opinion (if they even want to do that) on events in other cultures (Bugaku is so abstract I don't think it's formulating an obvious opinion on anything, but that's how I read it)
    •    it sets up a situation in which artists have to be careful about "borrowing" visual influences from other cultures, which would be ridiculous given all the cross-pollination that goes on in the art world, and human culture generally, and I would argue is absolutely necessary for anything to get done in the art world.

Nothing in art is truly unique to one group of people, and artists get ideas from everywhere they can find them. In the case of Bugaku, Lincoln Kirstein had invited the Japanese Imperial Household dancers to New York in 1959 and supposedly harbored the idea that Balanchine should do a Japanese-themed ballet at some point. I imagine Balanchine saw it as an artistic challenge and nothing more, since it wasn't likely his idea to begin with.

If Agon can reference 17th-century French court dances under an ancient-Greek theme of competition, and dancers of non-Chinese ancestry dance the fake Chinese dance in The Nutcracker, or Russians/Europeans dance the part of the Indian Nikiya in La Bayadère, anyone should be able to choreograph a ballet that simply references Japanese traditional arts. Especially if it sticks to an exploration of movements that seem especially 'Japanese', because that's how we will all learn new things. I think very few Westerners have given any thought to the particulars of Japanese dance or ritual ceremonies, and Bugaku forces people to regard such things. If only for an hour.  ;)
Compared to a lot of actual Japanese classical literature (and modern era literature), Bugaku is quite bland and inoffensive, imo. But Balanchine kept things virtually plot-less and very abstract.

I'm wondering if you think the most offensive element is actually just the face paint worn by the dancers? During the Heian period, the aristocratic women wore distinctive makeup and hairstyles (the aristocratic men too actually) so there's an obvious tendency to go with a similar look. I haven't seen the present day NYCB perform Bugaku though, so I wonder if the face paint is still being used. I also wonder if Japanese audience members find it at all offensive to look at.


EDIT: here's two good interviews regarding Bugaku

Allegra Kent
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7eMJcS59iIg

Edward Villella and Allegra Kent
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X0eOy99QzdI

And Edward Villella's Bugaku advertisement for a MCB program:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QdgIBbsGJGI

Edited by pherank

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4 hours ago, pherank said:


I'm wondering if you think the most offensive element is actually just the face paint worn by the dancers? During the Heian period, the aristocratic women wore distinctive makeup and hairstyles (the aristocratic men too actually) so there's an obvious tendency to go with a similar look. I haven't seen the present day NYCB perform Bugaku though, so I wonder if the face paint is still being used. I also wonder if Japanese audience members find it at all offensive to look at.

Gonna go on a limb here, but I'm p. sure Mr B. knew little-to-nothing about Heian-era aesthetics (also, the women had blackened front teeth & umpteen-thousand layers of kimonos in that period, which is not exactly jiving with my experiences with Bugaku, but your mileage may vary. The spectacular photo of Kent & Villella features Kent in a flowered bikini, which I'm quite certain was not authentic Heian-era gear. Perhaps someone does do it with 18 layers of kimono on the woman? If so, I'd LOVE to see photos, and I mean that sincerely). 

The issue with cultural appropriation is not that people borrow from other cultures. The issue is that there is a power imbalance here & always has been (at least since the 19th c. on) - "I can borrow from you, transform you to my liking, AND HAVE THE PLATFORM TO DO SO'- the reverse is not possible, and it contributes to other issues, whether we like it to or not (I've only seen Bugaku on recording & rather like the ballet - think it's quite cool in a lot of ways! - but also recognize that it's Really Problematic). The "borrowing" is always done from a dominant culture, frequently for reasons of feminizing an Other. I sincerely doubt that Balanchine was TRYING to do this in Bugaku, but this is the insidious nature of "orientalism," etc: people aren't TRYING to perpetrate these things, but they do, because of overarching views on the Other, or the Orient (among other things). And that's precisely what makes them so insidious, and why they need to be called out. You shouldn't have to be in blackface or yellowface for someone to say "Oh hey maybe this is problematic." 

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Posted (edited)
2 hours ago, l'histoire said:

The spectacular photo of Kent & Villella features Kent in a flowered bikini, which I'm quite certain was not authentic Heian-era gear. Perhaps someone does do it with 18 layers of kimono on the woman? If so, I'd LOVE to see photos, and I mean that sincerely). 

Google Shunga. The careful depiction of elaborately layered clothing in gorgeous disarray seems to be half the point. 

Warning: definitely not safe for work. 

The yellowface has always ruined Bugaku for me, although I dislike the ballet for other reasons as well. There are ways of evoking and exploring an alien style that don't rely on costume gimmicks.

ETA: Not photos, obviously!

Edited by Kathleen O'Connell

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Posted (edited)
10 hours ago, l'histoire said:

The issue with cultural appropriation is not that people borrow from other cultures. The issue is that there is a power imbalance here & always has been (at least since the 19th c. on) - "I can borrow from you, transform you to my liking, AND HAVE THE PLATFORM TO DO SO'- the reverse is not possible, and it contributes to other issues, whether we like it to or not (I've only seen Bugaku on recording & rather like the ballet - think it's quite cool in a lot of ways! - but also recognize that it's Really Problematic). The "borrowing" is always done from a dominant culture, frequently for reasons of feminizing an Other.  

I think this is the important issue. Borrowing from the "orient" is different from borrowing from French court dances and ancient Greek games where the balance is not assymetrical and is from a natural source of reference for us in the west. 

The choreography of Balanchine's Bagaku indeed is fascinating and strong and you can understand why Villella and Farrell would want to revive it, but in this Miami clip it looks like a parody of Orientalism, almost Gilbert and Sullivanish.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QomyCafiWhM

 

Edited by Quiggin

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10 hours ago, l'histoire said:

Gonna go on a limb here, but I'm p. sure Mr B. knew little-to-nothing about Heian-era aesthetics (also, the women had blackened front teeth & umpteen-thousand layers of kimonos in that period, which is not exactly jiving with my experiences with Bugaku, but your mileage may vary. The spectacular photo of Kent & Villella features Kent in a flowered bikini, which I'm quite certain was not authentic Heian-era gear. Perhaps someone does do it with 18 layers of kimono on the woman? If so, I'd LOVE to see photos, and I mean that sincerely). 

The issue with cultural appropriation is not that people borrow from other cultures. The issue is that there is a power imbalance here & always has been (at least since the 19th c. on) - "I can borrow from you, transform you to my liking, AND HAVE THE PLATFORM TO DO SO'- the reverse is not possible, and it contributes to other issues, whether we like it to or not (I've only seen Bugaku on recording & rather like the ballet - think it's quite cool in a lot of ways! - but also recognize that it's Really Problematic). The "borrowing" is always done from a dominant culture, frequently for reasons of feminizing an Other. I sincerely doubt that Balanchine was TRYING to do this in Bugaku, but this is the insidious nature of "orientalism," etc: people aren't TRYING to perpetrate these things, but they do, because of overarching views on the Other, or the Orient (among other things). And that's precisely what makes them so insidious, and why they need to be called out. You shouldn't have to be in blackface or yellowface for someone to say "Oh hey maybe this is problematic." 

The rules for aristocratic costume in the Heian era were very strict and specific, so I'm sure it took all of 2 minutes for Karinska and Balanchine to decide that there would be no re-creation of actual costume from that era. It is entirely possible to come up with costumes that are impossible to dance ballet in, such as layered kimonos, but Karinska went for a much 'lighter' look, shall we say, to facilitate the dancing (and the eroticism, if you want to see it that way).  I'm very interested in knowing what Bugaku looks like danced as a "black and white" ballet. Had Balanchine lived another 15 years, perhaps that is what would have happened to Bugaku.

Not to quibble endlessly, but in the case of the Japanese, "I can borrow from you, transform you to my liking, AND HAVE THE PLATFORM TO DO SO'- the reverse is not possible" is simply not true. Japanese culture has been picking and choosing subjects from European and American cultures to explore for a few hundred years (as they did from Chinese and Korean culture before that). And Japanese artists, writers, engineers, scientists, etc. made the choices for themselves. But, I totally acknowledge that there are cultures that are much more easily preyed upon and controlled by the 'dominant narrative' of another culture.

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The thing about these cultural appropriation arguments is that they sound so condescending.  To describe Asian cultures as less powerful and feminized (that's a bad thing??) is pretty offensive in an of itself, to an Asian.  Asians have wondered at the arrogance of westerners since first contact, as reflected in both the historical record and popular fiction (I recommend Michener's Shogun).  I'm kind of surprised to see this attitude here in this day and age, but I guess every culture tends to think it is superior to others, Asian cultures included.

However, I would guess that from an Asian perspective the arguments in favor of non appropriation are pretty ridiculous.  Asian cultures have a longer and more continuous history than the west, have seen many ebbs and flows of power and dominance, and have always heavily borrowed from each other.  No doubt the powerful borrower ripped off the less powerful culture, but because of power shifts over centuries, the once powerful appropriator would became the next century's "victim" -- think China and Japan -- and so on.  When I visited Japan the Chinese influences were everywhere, some from antiquity, others more recent, and most were credited to the source. I don't know the circumstances of all the borrowing and some of it was probably the result of power imbalances, but at this point, nobody seems to care.   I think the Chinese are proud to see their heritage on view in Japan, even in works of art that add a Japanese gloss to the Chinese art.  Then of course there's the art that makes fun of the other country's art, Japan making fun of China back in the old days.  One way for the "victim" to get back at the appropriator and create meaningful art at the same time!

 I hope choreographers continue making dances inspired by other cultures, honoring them, making fun of them, whatever.  The audience will judge whether it's worthwhile art or too offensive to be viewed by them.  I agree with earlier comments pointing out that we are all the richer for the borrowing, and that "we" in this case includes those from whom we borrow.

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6 minutes ago, pherank said:

I'm very interested in knowing what Bugaku looks like danced as a "black and white" ballet. Had Balanchine lived another 15 years, perhaps that is what would have happened to Bugaku.

I would actually like to see it danced that way. I don't think Balanchine was entirely successful in grafting material taken from Japanese dance, music, and visual art* onto the framework of neo-classical ballet, but I'd like to see it once without the the distraction of the wigs and costumes as a test. The work's gestures might look something like those worked into the central pas-de-deux in Symphony in Three Movements. (I think those are more suggestive of Indonesia than Japan, but the impulse seems similar.)

* I won't bet the ranch on it, but I suspect someone clued Balanchine in to Shunga.

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1 minute ago, Kathleen O'Connell said:

* I won't bet the ranch on it, but I suspect someone clued Balanchine in to Shunga.

Never underestimate Mr. B's abilities to gather information from disparate sources.  ;)

But if he wasn't already aware of Shunga art (popular among certain European art collectors), Lincoln Kirstein would certainly have been likely to put Balanchine on to Shunga.

I wish I could remember the source, but recall Kirsten being the main instigator in the Bugaku project. But regardless of the conceptual source, Balanchine would always 'take it and run with it' in the end.

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9 minutes ago, Quinten said:

Asian cultures have a longer and more continuous history than the west, have seen many ebbs and flows of power and dominance, and have always heavily borrowed from each other.  No doubt the powerful borrower ripped off the less powerful culture, but because of power shifts over centuries, the once powerful appropriator would became the next century's "victim" -- think China and Japan -- and so on.  

Well, there's borrowing and then there's the artistic version of fancy-dress. I think Bugaku is dangerously close to the latter. I don't think anyone objects to the kind of cultural cross-fertilization that happens when one tradition makes its own use of the styles, techniques, or materials of another: the cross-fertilization between West African and Latin American popular music is a perfect example — it's not called Afro-Carribean for nothing.

Merce Cunningham, Mark Morris, and Doug Elkins have successfully integrated the movement of other traditions into their work in a way that honors what they saw in it that delighted or intrigued them.

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17 minutes ago, Quinten said:

The thing about these cultural appropriation arguments is that they sound so condescending.  To describe Asian cultures as less powerful and feminized (that's a bad thing??) is pretty offensive in an of itself, to an Asian.  Asians have wondered at the arrogance of westerners since first contact, as reflected in both the historical record and popular fiction (I recommend Michener's Shogun).  I'm kind of surprised to see this attitude here in this day and age, but I guess every culture tends to think it is superior to others, Asian cultures included.

However, I would guess that from an Asian perspective the arguments in favor of non appropriation are pretty ridiculous.  Asian cultures have a longer and more continuous history than the west, have seen many ebbs and flows of power and dominance, and have always heavily borrowed from each other.  No doubt the powerful borrower ripped off the less powerful culture, but because of power shifts over centuries, the once powerful appropriator would became the next century's "victim" -- think China and Japan -- and so on.  When I visited Japan the Chinese influences were everywhere, some from antiquity, others more recent, and most were credited to the source. I don't know the circumstances of all the borrowing and some of it was probably the result of power imbalances, but at this point, nobody seems to care.   I think the Chinese are proud to see their heritage on view in Japan, even in works of art that add a Japanese gloss to the Chinese art.  Then of course there's the art that makes fun of the other country's art, Japan making fun of China back in the old days.  One way for the "victim" to get back at the appropriator and create meaningful art at the same time!

 I hope choreographers continue making dances inspired by other cultures, honoring them, making fun of them, whatever.  The audience will judge whether it's worthwhile art or too offensive to be viewed by them.  I agree with earlier comments pointing out that we are all the richer for the borrowing, and that "we" in this case includes those from whom we borrow.

Well said.

"To describe Asian cultures as less powerful and feminized (that's a bad thing??) is pretty offensive in an of itself, to an Asian."
Thank you for this.  ;)

Returning to the original subject of this thread, "Are there ballets that should no longer be staged?" - I think in the case of Bugaku, there's enough in this ballet to merit continued viewing, but performing the ballet without its original costumes - that's worth exploring, imo.

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