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Sarasota Ballet's "The Ballets Russes" program

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Last night I went to the Sarasota Ballet's "The Ballets Russes: A Tribute to Nijinsky" program which included Les Sylphides, L'Apres-midi d'un Faune, and Petrushka.

This is a small, regional American company which continues to grow in strength. I really enjoy the shows I have seen there. I especially love their past Ashton works, and I think upper body fluidity seems to be something stressed in the company. However, Les Sylphides revealed a few weaknesses, in my opinion. Here I was hoping for lots of flowing arms among the corps girls, but they seemed stiffer than usual. With that said I think that this was an admirable performance for such a small company.

L'apres-midi d'un Faune is famous for causing a scandal mainly due to the final moment, and Ricardo Graziano downplayed the auto-eroticism of the moment although anyone with a brain would still figure out what is going on. It was a treat to see this live in person, since I never thought I would see this short ballet (the Robbins version seems to be performed much more often). I suspect that Graziano (or whoever made the decision for him) played down the lewd aspect of the faun due to the fact that Sarasota Ballet's audience is a fairly mature crowd who probably prefer less shock and more beauty. However, I think a mature crowd could have handled it. I think we often underestimate the older crowd. There isn't much to the ballet (for viewers at least), so the designs by Leon Bakst were nice to see. Graziano made the faun as interesting as one can. For me hearing the music with a live orchestra, the sets, costumes, and the novelty of seeing the work made it all worthwhile. Dr. Ann Hutchinson Guest and Dr. Claudie Jeschke staged this from Nijinsky's dance notation.

I have never liked Petrushka very much, but seeing this version as close to the original version as possible was really nice. The designs were by Alexander Benois and staged by Margaret Barbieri and Iain Webb (the assistant director and director respectively.....a husband and wife team). To my surprise the staging was so well done that this Petrushka flew by scene by scene. It was truly entertaining from beginning to end. It was also nice to see St. Isaac's Cathedral painted on the backdrops.

Ricki Bertoni was a fabulous floppy Petrushka who conveyed plenty of sadness. He is listed as the company's Character Principal and he was really good as the Widow in La Fille mal Gardee earlier in the season. Great actor!!! Ricardo Rhodes was an exciting Devil. All the other roles are fairly small and everyone did a great job!

There was some controversy about David Tlaiye's Moor in the original blackface after rehearsal pictures were posted on social media, according to reports, and I heard a gasp near me when he first appeared. I am not sure if there is a perfect solution for this issue when a company wants to perform it exactly as the original. America's problem with black face performance will continue to exist, especially since many incidents concerning race have happened in recent months. I find it interesting that they were daring to remain faithful to the original concept of Petrushka and include black face but they did not remain 100% faithful to the L'apres-midi d'un faune masturbation moment. However, maybe reports of the original Afternoon have been exaggerated (in the movie on Nijinksy's life it shows the scene and Nijinsky is very life-like in his movements in that final moment). Maybe the way Sarasota Ballet presented Afternoon is exactly how it was originally. It just seems hard to believe it was scandalous in that case, but, of course, sexuality is less shocking in the 21st century.

All in all it was a wonderful evening of 3 Ballets Russes ballets. I could tell they prepared all 3 ballets with loving care. I think the company can be truly proud of what they accomplished. Even though I would prefer more flowing arms in Les Sylphides they did stay in sync and I am sure they charmed people who had never seen this ballet before.

Ormsby Wilkins was the conductor, and I loved hearing the Sarasota Orchestra play these pieces. The orchestra and Wilkins helped make it a special evening.

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Balanchine's Sonambula has the same trouble with a blackface role, though it is not as integral to the work as it is in Petruchka. I remember the Joffrey's production of Petruchka, with Christian Holder in that role -- it didn't solve the problem, but it did make it easier to look past it to the context of the work.

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thanks for this!

I, too, always love hearing /reading about this company.

Interesting about the "black-face" conundrum.

Is there anything _else_ one could do in place of that? What is it supposed to signify?

Also interesting how audiences perceive things - now as opposed to many years ago, or in other countries.

Someone pretending to masturbate is perhaps something which could cause a minor uproar under some circumstances.

It does seem strange that the depiction of murder usually does not cause a reaction of that sort.


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Greetings, Birdsall,

Thank for this post -I would have loved to see this program. Sarasota Ballet will perform at Jacob's Pillow this summer August12-16 and will perform Ashton's Monotones I and II, Wheeldon's The American, and a world première by company member Ricardo Graziano.

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Diane, the black face is because the one character is a Moor. If black face hadn't been used to make fun of blacks in the past, and if America did not have the history it has it might not be controversial.

KarenAG, Sarasota Ballet is fabulous in Ashton! Graziano is their up-and-coming young choreographer as well as a principal dancer.i think you will enjoy the company!

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Thank you, Birdsall. It will be a great pleasure to see this company, I'm sure, and also quite educational, because I've never seen an Ashton ballet. In fact, this summer will be a summer of firsts, as I will see NYCB perform La Sylphide and Bournonville Divertissements, too, at Saratoga. I've never seen any Bournonville, either. I'm blessed.

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Diane, the black face is because the one character is a Moor. If black face hadn't been used to make fun of blacks in the past, and if America did not have the history it has it might not be controversial.

Years ago I was studying old prints at the Paris Opera library and remember a print of a black "native" discovering a mirror for the first time and being awestruck--his pose was very similar to one of the positions Fokine uses for the Blackamoor (second position, deep plie, arms to side with elbows bent and hands held high) and I immediately thought, too, when I saw it of Fokine's Moor worshipping the coconut. Scholars of dance history and 19th-century iconography (which I'm not) could probably fill in the narrative of how these images emerged, were disseminated etc. I'm not opposed to productions of Petrushka, but I think the racist lineage is there in the choreography, not just the make-up, and should, at least, be addressed in program notes or some such.

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thank you for the information on that (blackface, etc.)

yes, I agree, it would be helpful to go into a bit of depth in the programme notes - and also probably during any pre-performance educational gigs - in order to put it into perspective, if one wants to continue using these.


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The Moor has a gorgeous apartment as opposed to Petrushka and gets the girl - how is that racist?

One could argue that the silly Ballerina is a slight on women, or limpy, powerless Petrushka offensive for Caucasians.

These are after all puppets, exaggerated in image and movements as opposed to the dancers dancing "humans".


Andrew Wachtel in Petrushka: Sources and Contexts points that this ballet is a permutation of the Commedia del Arte, discusses it with respect to Russian Symbolists, its place in Russian modernism, and shows the many complexities of this work. If it is about race than it seems to presages the ascendancy of non european cultures. (The Magician has Asian costume), Wachtel mentions such apocalyptic/symbolic interpretations..


For me Petrushka was the high point of the evening - I have wanted to see Dighilev's original scenery and costumes for a long time, and it was just delightful. The dancers seemed to really enjoy this ballet and Ormsby Wilkins and the orchastra were fantastic.

I thought the Afternoon of the Faun required a sexual intensity to make this piece work that was not there. Nizhinsky has that in photos. The nymphs could have been a little more seductive too. The costumes and postures from the greek amphoras were beautiful.

Loved looking at the beautifully dressed Sarasota audience! If you plan to go to Florida it is well worth it to make it coincide with one of these productions.

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Stupidity (including worship of a coconut when it won't yield to brute force), sexual conquest, oriental luxuriance...taken altogether with other aspects of the ballet's imagery mentioned above--form a not at all unfamiliar stereotype...and the threat of this stereotype being victor over the poetic aspirations of Petrushka is not exactly presented by the ballet as a consumation devoutly to be wished. The characters are puppets, but like commedia del arte figures you mention as one of the ballet's sources, they and their actions allude to human realities. (It should be said the real villain is the puppet-master...who enslaves all the puppets.) You can say 'all' the characters are stereotypes (I'm not sure I agree) -- but when the ballet is performed today, it's performed in a context where some stereotypes have more of a continuing, destructive life in our culture than others. (The "sad clown" or Pierrot etc., though a common figure, is not and to my knowledge never has been a stereotype of "caucasian Europeans" in general.)

Again, to be crystal clear: I think Petrushka is a masterpiece. I don't think it should be banned or censored or rechoreographed or redesigned. I don't think what I called the "racist lineage" of some of its imagery, means that its purpose or goals as a work of art are necessarily "racist" or that it's somehow about race--I don't. Nor need that be the main focus of any discussion of the ballet. But I do think it's unconvincing to assert that ethnic and racial stereotypes aren't at play in the work and I believe it would not be a bad idea to address some of the historical issues and imagery in program notes when the ballet is performed--along with all the other things program notes might address about the ballet and its history.

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It is sobering when a discussion of Petrushka becomes predominatly about race, it is undoubtedly a reflection of the obsession with race that is inherent in the American psyche and also of the fact that we primitively ascribe a late 20/21 century sensibility to other periods.

Yes, notes would be very helpful given that it has become de rigeur among anyone who thinks himself or herself a decent person to display immediate opposition to anything that can be construed as racism. I too felt a momentary shock, influenced as I am by the media/political correctness complex, to paraphraze but I do not make the mistake of requiring other periods to live according to the current sensibilities and sensitivieties, esp. since I am not expert on the cultural/historical context. I would not think that Stravinky Benois and Fokine wanted to create a Blacck sterotype to promote racial stereotypes!

The Moor does not represent all inhabitans of Africa, nor the black slaves of America. The Moor comes to the European experience via the Iberian Peninsula - and the very real threat of Moslem conquest stopped by Charlemagne. Moors were a mixture of black and Arab peoples. A threat was very real and alive in the European psyche until the end of the 17 century and the siege of Vienna. Perhaps a couple of centuries from now, the image of an Alkaida fighter will bear the same connotations, as the Moor's image in Petrushka would have for Europeans - a boogey man, a warrior, add luxuriance and sensuality/cruelty of the Orient too via Romantic period. The European experiance is not the same as the American one - the blood of those wars and battles did not sink into the American I think knowledge of geography was as ambiguous as it is among US high school students today and these motifs blend.

If one looks at European painting from Middle ages on - the image of the black man, pretty equal during Medieval times (Thee Kings) and Rennaisance, including Bosch's Garden of earthly Delights, becomes subservient in late 17 and 18 centuries when black boys become a fashionable addition to the fashionable attire of a lady - carrying the extremely heavy parasols. One of such boy at the court of Peter the Great is the great grandfather of Pushkin - a fact of which Russian children are well aware, and of which Pushkin boasted, blaming his black roots, if you will, for his amorous nature and curly hair - in today's America he too could be blamed for being racist...one cannot demand that current sensibility and sensitivity apply to the past!

Some years ago I saw an interview with a black Russian opera star. The interlocutor was American and the sacrosanct question eventually surfaced on how badly she must have been treated as a Black. The very cultivated and poised lady was visibly taken aback and a look of shock and incredulity crossed her face. It was apparent she was used to a life in a milieu which was color blind. Yet I think that this very color blindness was what Martin Luther King wanted. That constant and exclusive emphasis of racism at a time when, at least in NY you can see more reverse rasism and a culture which is no longer a meritocracy, will not lead us there.

I fail to see how the image of the Moor in Petrushka will have a destructive effect given that the audience is not comprised of Archie Bunker types, - to the contrary, judging by the number of finger pointing to Petrushka being racist - it is stereotyping the European culture as always racist. Perhaps that culture, thanks to which we live v good lives with more freedoms than ever before, deserves a little more rational and balanced view.

For contrast let us look at T. Williams's "A Streetcar Named Desire". The most despicable, crude lowlife character is a Pole, Stanley Kowalski. This play is played in Poland frequently, much more so than in the US, always to accolades of the great insights into the human psyche it provides. Obviously considered a masterpiece. If anything the character of Kowalski is even more repulsive to the native public. Never is there anything about T. Williams, the United States, even of the Us of the 1950'ies as being discriminatory or racist, not even under Communist rule when US was the whipping boy. Perhaps a more mature audience? Perhaps we should give this some though? I might add that there was a great deal of discrimination agaist the Poles in the 1960ies when I came here as a chid. Apartments were not rented to my v. beautiful, ladylike highly educated mother, work opportunities were denied etc. I ewould never equate that with high brow art.

Polish jokes maybe :-).

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Mazurka I do not know whom on this thread you are arguing with...no-one has called Petrushka racist (indeed I went out of my way to say otherwise), let alone claimed that Fokine's Moor would have a "destructive" impact on audience members. (I did use the word 'destructive' to refer to ongoing contemporary uses of certain stereotypes, which I think helps to explain heightened sensitivity to issues that arise, for example, in works of an earlier era.)

I think you are invoking a caricature and a kind of caricature that is often invoked to stop discussions of race--including the history you bring up--dead in its tracks. These issues require nuance in part because of the historical and geographical issues you raise. As for discussions of the ballet generally--someone asked about the blackface so it is being discussed. One could of course discuss many other aspects of the ballet; no-one has suggested that is the most important thing to think about with regard to Petrushka...but it is one thing.

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I have never met anyone who is truly color blind. All my black friends want to discuss hair texture, various skin hues, etc.

Even within my own family my dad joked and called my mother, sister, and me "Japs" (but he said it stood for Japanese American Princesses....and I am male), and we laughed at my dad's white legs. Race is a normal thing to discuss within mixed families because since there is love between everyone we give each other more rights to crack jokes and discuss issues of race without getting offended, but we are NOT color blind. And I do NOT believe color blindness is most people's desire. People want to be seen for who they are and loved/liked for who they are. I think if I told black friends that I don't see them as black they would respond with, "WTF?"

But this is going off on a tangent. Getting back to Sarasota Ballet's production.,,.I enjoyed it, hope they revive it, and I would see it again, don't really feel offended by it, but I think audiences have every right to respond to art the way they want (someone who was offended by Sarasota Ballet's production does not upset me....why would it?) and Drew's suggestion of addressing possible negative reactions or explaining the context is not an unreasonable suggestion.

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Birdsall,I would not dream of going to a Kabuki play without first educating myself. It is fine to see Swan lake or Giselle without knowledge of Romaticism though it makes for a cutesy reading of the story and no more. Petrushka demands more. Confusing reality with art, reading into an artistic endeavour current political, religious or personal preocupations is one of the definitions of a kitsch experience. A kitsch experience, as opposed to a genuine esthetic experience which requres distance, and knowledge.

Everyone is entitled to their opinion if I understand you correctly. That would also include me.

I will read the book on this ballet which I mentioned earlier. I too wonder if the use of the Moor, a self satisfied extroverted opposite to introverted Petrushka is more than a literary device, acceptable in a different time and place if not in ours.

(I wonder if you position would hold, if you emigrated to China to find that your Japanese culture is constantly brought to the common denominator of atrocities the Japanese committed during WWII. Would you think this fair to your culture?

"Thou has commited fornication, but it was long ago and in another place - to paraphraze Marlow.

At to context that Drew refers to. Who today will see in the grotesque Moor, in an archaic costume a stereotype of present time Blacks Africans or American? Seriously?

As for the rest: Self deprecation is part of many cultures, I think because America is an immigrant nation with striving at the center of its ethos, it cannot be self deprecating. That cultural self deprecation is always wink wink tongue in cheek, and/or holds a large component of coquetishness.

I did not mean shedding of identity when speaking of color blindness as an ideal. Recently , I hard an NPR program where black participants complained of being treated (body language, fleeting glances ) as "the Other", so your view may not be shared by everyone else. On the other hand a friend who traveled to Finland was delighted in the attention she was getting as there were very few black people ever seen in the places she traveled to. Made friends , her skin color was obviously and object (forgive the word) of admiration. Thus as in the case of your family the distinguishing factor is that of intent. )

Looking forward to more beatiful, thought provoking Sarasota ballet performances.

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In the end we are products of our culture so it is totally normal for some Americans to be shocked by black face performance even when done in a historical context. And nobody should be mad at someone who is shocked because most Americans grow up being told it is not the thing to do. It is practically a taboo in American culture nowadays (you have a right to argue whether it should or should not be a taboo, and that is a debate for another place, but I believe it is basically close to being a taboo currently and will always result in some ruffled feathers). So it is totally understandable in American society for some people to react to black face painted faces with a variety of emotions (surprise, shock, upset). That is going to happen regardless of how much they read beforehand, in my opinion. I was not shocked or offended by Sarasota Ballet's performance (I expected to see a black face painted Moor) and simply noted what I witnessed but I am also not upset by someone nearby gasping or some people's feathers being ruffled either. That is simply going to happen whenever black face performance happens in America, in my opinion regardless of historical significance. As I said, you can debate why that shouldn't be the case but the fact remains that it is sort of a taboo.

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The Royal Shakespeare hasn't done "Othello" in blackface for 25 years. When the San Francisco Ballet did "Petrouchka" a dark skinned dancer played the Moor, and it came off worked ok (though they did "Raku" in retrogressive orientalizing makeup).

Jean Genet was able to exploit the asymetrical power relations by having black actors play in whiteface in "Les Negres" - and all of a sudden you understood why this kind of caricature maskery is so offensive. Not so amusing anymore.

The Polish, Greeks and Italians all went through a period of being outsiders - but the African-American community's period of probation in the US has never ended. So these are still powerful symbols.

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