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"Watching ballet through a #MeToo lens"


tutu

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[Admin note:  this was originally posted in the Pacific Northwest Ballet thread on the Robbins Festival]

There’s an essay up on Crosscut that’s apparently prompted by the author’s experience watching the Robbins Festival. This might belong in a new topic — the piece goes into wider questions about PNB programming, looking at Fancy Free ans RaKU in particular — but it opens with a discussion of the Robbins documentary played after intermission.

ETA: I’m not sure I agree with the author’s conclusions in the essay, but it was food for thought.

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I saw both programs of the Robbins Festival again yesterday, and the documentary was not shown during either performance.  I don't know about this past Thursday or Friday.

I agree with Nagashima about the Robbins Foundation's choice of including that shot of Peter Martins.  My favorite commercial/trailer is the latest Bloomberg that is aired before the Met in HD series, and it tries to make a connection between making financial deals and opera by juxtaposing the two types of work.  (It's a continuation of the previous one, "We see beauty in data.")  In it, there was a similar closeup shot of Levine before his ouster from the Met, I felt similar aversion even before the public allegations.  (It's since been replaced by a similar shot of Nezet-Seguin.)  The difference was that I find Robbins highly problematic for many other reasons, so the Martins and Farrell close-up wasn't as jarring, since I was halfway there already.

My own feelings on both "Fancy Free" and "The Concert" go back a lot longer than #metoo, and that's the #metoo created by Tarana Burke over a decade ago, and given that the same issues have been raised publicly in Q&A's each time either ballet has been performed and have been the subject of many lobby discussions, especially among women over 40, I'm hardly the only one.   It comes from a hearty, overt dislike what I've always thought as the misogyny in the work of Groucho Marx and comics of his ilk, but also my ambivalence about the equally jerky Harpo Marx, who could be as mean-spirited as his brother, but whose charm and looks seemed, to me, to ask for the audience to think him a mensch anyway.  (I have to give props to Groucho for never asking for that.) And it's not simply the portrayal of the Wife, but how many times does he slap or kick the Ballerina in the ass? Har, har, har. 

Someone raised both ballets again in the "Q&A" last night.  Peter Boal said that he'd gotten feedback on "The Concert" from the audience, and he contacted the Robbins Foundation.  Their answer was that Robbins portrayed a snapshot in time, and it should be seen in that light: that was how people behaved then.  Similarly for "Fancy Free," they said it was a common social thing for women who were interested to know when the sailors were on leave, and they were dressing and acting in ways to attract the sailors, and while it's uncomfortable to us now, that was the scene at the time.  Boal commented that having a Festival shows the Robbins' range over time.  

While there are similarities to the issues of blackface, Orientalism, and stereotypes in ballets, especially the classics, both of these Robbins works fall into the category where what offends me is intrinsic to the ballets and can't be removed, performed with a costume and makeup change, or even relocated.  

It's likely from a place of privilege that I can see RAkU this way, but, for me, it was all about the entitlement of the priest, to use his power to take whatever he wanted whenever he wanted it.  I don't think Possokhov fetishized this or made the character appealing in any way.  (I only saw Steven Loch and Kyle Davis perform two very different interpretations; I didn't see Lucien Postlewaite's.)  The cultural difference I saw was that the Princess killed herself overtly, instead of having to swallow it and live out the trauma for the rest of her life. 

 

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I don't actually see Fancy Free as being less overt than RAkU - it just happens to be depicting behavior that is different (though arguably related).

For me, Nagashima's key statements were:

    ▪    "PNB’s programming has felt out of touch with changing cultural mores"

    ▪    "But the choreography speaks to the time and culture when Robbins was creating."

    ▪    "Presenting a ballet that depicts sexual assault isn’t progressive. Building the context and the conversation around it to show why it’s problematic might be."

    ▪    "More context would only enrich viewers’ experiences and make ballet more relevant today."

Essentially, she seems to be saying that PNB is out-of-step with changing cultural mores because they are not creating enough context and discussion to go with the works presented. 'Context and conversation would make ballet more relevant'. I don't have an issue with adding some context and discussion to ballet presentations - many people would welcome those educational opportunities. However, I've argued elsewhere that the main role of art is not to be merely 'relevant', and topical - that's an example of the artistic process and artistic works being forced into the service of other causes and other agendas (political, social, etc.) The fact that art CAN make political commentary, for example, should not in any way mean that art MUST make political commentary (or risk being slighted as worthless). Are the stage arts just different, and require a different relationship to the viewing public? I haven't formulated my own opinion on that one.

Most of the article is well written, though I stumbled over a few points such as:

"We’re supposed to sympathize with this cigar-smoking schmuck of a husband as he sneaks around literally trying to stab his wife."
No, sorry. I've never gotten that we are supposed to be 'sympathetic' to the cigar-smoking man, or any of the characters for that matter - they are played as vaudeville caricatures. I'm reminded of stage performances like Punch and Judy (an incredibly violent children's puppet show).

[And on RAkU]
"Unfortunately, with its overdone spectacle and grotesque depictions, it felt more like glorification than condemnation."

>> This is a whole vast subject to itself, but Nagashima seems to imply that a ballet like RAkU should be ABOUT the condemnation of rape (the work should take a side). RAkU references other themes such as the individual vs society and male/female relationships in 'classical' Japan (which could also reflect upon modern society), but presumably for Nagashima, those themes get lost when one is presented with a dramatized rape (or dramatized physical assault of some kind). For me, RAkU at once reminds me (not surprisingly) of the many Japanese films I've watched over the years, and the many Japanese and Chinese works of literature (plays, fiction, poetry) that I've read in translation over the years (and the issues that the various translations raise with each other, and the problematic notion of translation in general). So I end up with a richer experience than 'it depicts a brutal rape and suicide'. Seppuku (ritual suicide) is itself a controversial topic in the West (although in Japan, for many centuries, the restoration of honor (by suicide) was not exactly 'controversial' - it was the time-honored way to deal with a dishonorable situation). That doesn't mean people have to like it.

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38 minutes ago, pherank said:

Most of the article is well written, though I stumbled over a few points such as:

"We’re supposed to sympathize with this cigar-smoking schmuck of a husband as he sneaks around literally trying to stab his wife."
No, sorry. I've never gotten that we are supposed to be 'sympathetic' to the cigar-smoking man, or any of the characters for that matter - they are played as vaudeville caricatures. I'm reminded of stage performances like Punch and Judy (an incredibly violent children's puppet show).

I agree, the ballet is a cartoon and should be judged as one.

The quote that most stuck out for me in the article was "it still begs the question that’s been hanging in the air throughout the #MeToo movement and particularly in the recent Brett Kavanaugh hearings: do we believe women?"

Up to this point in time women have not been believed, we have even been blamed for being raped or assaulted. There is still way too much of that. I believe we should respect allegations made by women as much as we respect allegations made by men. 

That said, I remember that women approached the Washington Post last year with false accusations against Jude Moore of Alabama. They were women on the political right, who were trying  to make a political point, Fortunately, because of the Post's journalism standards, they didn't get very far. My point is that, I don't think it's a matter of believing all women or no women. I believe it's a matter of taking allegations made by a woman as seriously as those made by a man and investigating them as thoroughly. It will take a major corrective, as the pendulum swings.

In terms of Peter Martin's being seen in a video at PNB. It was insensitive because of Kelly Cass Boal's accusations, but (having not seen the video) Mr. Robbins was not showing Mr. Martins how to seduce women, but how to stroke a women's face for a particular ballet.  Peter Martins was an amazing dancer and ultimately led NYCB in a positive direction. In time to come we will be able to read his name without the complex explanation of  - charges but supporters but detractors but no corroborating evidence but etc.

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5 minutes ago, vipa said:

The quote that most stuck out for me in the article was "it still begs the question that’s been hanging in the air throughout the #MeToo movement and particularly in the recent Brett Kavanaugh hearings: do we believe women?"

Up to this point in time women have not been believed, we have even been blamed for being raped or assaulted. There is still way too much of that. I believe we should respect allegations made by women as much as we respect allegations made by men. 

That said, I remember that women approached the Washington Post last year with false accusations against Jude Moore of Alabama. They were women on the political right, who were trying  to make a political point, Fortunately, because of the Post's journalism standards, they didn't get very far. My point is that, I don't think it's a matter of believing all women or no women. I believe it's a matter of taking allegations made by a woman as seriously as those made by a man and investigating them as thoroughly. It will take a major corrective, as the pendulum swings.

In terms of Peter Martin's being seen in a video at PNB. It was insensitive because of Kelly Cass Boal's accusations, but (having not seen the video) Mr. Robbins was not showing Mr. Martins how to seduce women, but how to stroke a women's face for a particular ballet.  Peter Martins was an amazing dancer and ultimately led NYCB in a positive direction. In time to come we will be able to read his name without the complex explanation of  - charges but supporters but detractors but no corroborating evidence but etc.

"do we believe women" was one of those points that I stumbled over - I suppose that was Nagashima's attempt to "watch ballet through a #MeToo lens", but it seems too large a question, and just doesn't fit the particular ballet examples well, imo. I like your restatements of the concept.

It's entirely possible that the Robbins Foundation didn't have many other choices (when sifting through film archives), and the scene with Martins best illustrated something about how Robbins worked. But it's true that Martins is currently a lightning rod for controversy, so it was a problematic choice. To follow Nagashima's lead, if more context and explanation had been provided then the scene might have been rendered less controversial for at least some.

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I saw RAKU a while ago, but for me it was also a “much richer experience” (to quote Pherank) than that described by Nagashima and elsewhere on this thread. And from my point of view, Fancy Free is also a richer experience — and a pretty accurate depiction, theatricalized, of the period. As they say, Robbins had a keen eye. We would have to throw out an awful lot of Western art if eliminating objectionable treatment of women in art is the goal. Similar culling of art (to meet other social/political standards) has not been shown to be effective long term in changing cultural norms, and it has resulted in stifling, if not crushing art. See eg, Soviet Socialist Realism, the Chinese Cultural Revolution and censorship in Italy and Germany inder Fascism. 

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Well put.  The sad thing about this reaction against art is how it impoverishes the spectator's experience.  I feel for those who may recoil from some art - Paul Taylor's Big Bertha has scared the daylights out of me, for example, to give a poor example in our context here - for whatever reason.  But art is not literal, like the everyday world; what we see and hear or whatever is representational.  It represents a world of the artist's conception, and our experience is enlarged - we are changed, maybe permanently - by our encounter.  I wish people could leave their socio-political formulas at the door and have some fresh experiences.  Yes, I care that the game goes a little far, and feel some relief when the girl  finally gets her purse back.  That's part of what I came in for.  Thank you, Jerry and Lenny, for showing us these kids - imaginary but believable.  If a show won't let us suspend disbelief, it's not much of a trip anywhere.  But we have to be willing to go.  

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Of all the works that I've seen at PNB, in my opinion, the most misogynistic moment in any of them is in Maillot's "Cendrillon," described as Mallot's critique of Monegasque high society, when the Father attempts to strangle his wife, the Stepmother, and the audience laughs and applauds.  When Lesley Rausch did the role, she had an expression of shock and almost hurt, which I interpreted as, "I am what you wanted when you married me, so why are you blaming me for that now?"  The Father in the work might be a piece of work himself -- too weak and self-absorbed to care for his daughter, which is his primary responsibility, and lashing outward in blame -- but he gets to be a fully formed character.  It's to Rausch's credit that injected some dimensionality to the character throughout the ballet.

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I didn't think he was critiquing the Monogasque Royal Family, so much as he was critiquing the Monogasque wealthy class who are often not even citizens, but residents to avoid taxation in their home countries (the Green Family which owns TopShop as an example).  He is going after their extreme plastic surgery, fashion choices, etc.  

Regarding the Robbins pieces, I think we can honor him (and even include Peter Martins in the documentary) without applauding misogyny.  Hitchcock will still be honored for his masterpieces, but some of his portrayals of women appear in 2018 to be terribly sexist, and his obsessions with his female stars were entirely unprofessional and grounds for termination in the modern sense.  

 

Regarding RaKU, it's a fictional story, but I didn't think we were in Charlie Chan territory.  OTOH, I still love "Breakfast at Tiffany's" and "Mame" even though the treatment of an Asian characters is appalling.  I'm not sure how I will reconcile this in the future, but it's worth thinking through.  I love dancing around the house to Michael Jackson's music now, and I rationalize it by thinking that the radio royalty funds go towards his kids, not him.  

The list is long if we are going to ban stories where women are badly treated.  

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46 minutes ago, Jayne said:

Regarding RaKU, it's a fictional story, but I didn't think we were in Charlie Chan territory.  OTOH, I still love "Breakfast at Tiffany's" and "Mame" even though the treatment of an Asian characters is appalling.  I'm not sure how I will reconcile this in the future, but it's worth thinking through.  I love dancing around the house to Michael Jackson's music now, and I rationalize it by thinking that the radio royalty funds go towards his kids, not him.  

The list is long if we are going to ban stories where women are badly treated.  

Interminably long given the social mores of many cultures over the past few thousand years. The good part is that mores can and do change.

My brother always sites Mickey Rooney's portrayal of Mr Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany's as the most cringe-worthy portrayal of an Asian in Hollywood. But as you imply, there are plenty more. The Yunioshi character is so out-of-place in Tiffany's that it continues to be a wonder that director Blake Edwards had no issue with those scenes.

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I've always wondered if "Auntie Mame" would work just fine if the Ito character would give his lines in a deadpan serious tone, still with occasional English grammar mistakes, but adjusting the character to be more like the maid in "Boeing Boeing".  

Edited by Jayne
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I've only seen Fancy Free on video, and I found the scenes with three men harassing a lone woman on the street to be very unsettling, because I have had that experience, and I cannot separate that out while watching the ballet. I would probably not see it performed live for that reason, although I respect the work and the place it holds in the ballet canon.

I try to avoid depictions of sexualized violence in other media as well (TV, movies, etc.). It doesn't ask any "new" questions for me or give me any new perspective that I don't already have in this regard. And now that we have the internet at our fingertips, I have options, such as watching clips of the ballet scenes in the movie Red Sparrow (which is all I was interested in anyway) and skipping the rest :)

For the same reason, I have not seen James Kudelka's Swan Lake, which includes a gang rape scene (why?!? I fail to see what this adds to the established and well known storyline). It's just not for me, and I'm ok with that. I won't tell others not to see it, but I will completely ignore any attempts to convince me to see it.

I did watch Manon once, but I knew what was coming and had prepared for it/decided that this was an important piece that I wanted to see. But I probably wouldn't see it again, lovely as is. I suspect that each of us are making our own considered choices based on a variety of factors.




 

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On 10/3/2018 at 2:22 PM, Jayne said:

... Regarding the Robbins pieces, I think we can honor him (and even include Peter Martins in the documentary) without applauding misogyny.  Hitchcock will still be honored for his masterpieces, but some of his portrayals of women appear in 2018 to be terribly sexist, and his obsessions with his female stars were entirely unprofessional and grounds for termination in the modern sense. 

Regarding RaKU, it's a fictional story, but I didn't think we were in Charlie Chan territory.  OTOH, I still love "Breakfast at Tiffany's" and "Mame" even though the treatment of an Asian characters is appalling.  I'm not sure how I will reconcile this in the future, but it's worth thinking through.  I love dancing around the house to Michael Jackson's music now, and I rationalize it by thinking that the radio royalty funds go towards his kids, not him.  

I know this thread was active awhile ago, but I took a break from BA, and am still mulling over this topic, hence this return from the past.  I agree that time winnows out many of the elements that might make a work unacceptable today, both in terms of the subject matter and in terms of the artist themselves.  The further we get from the moment of creation, the more we see something as an example of its time, not necessarily a model for contemporary behavior.  I know people who have not and will never forgive Robbins for his testimony during the McCarthy hearings.  I'm just young enough that those times are history to me, but I have many friends and colleagues who were involved directly.  We're in a transitional period.

But we also need to recognize that some characterizations or interpretations are really beyond acceptable now, unless they're presented in a way that acknowledges their questionable content, and explains the justification for their continued use.  Do I want to lose Fokine's "Petroushka?"  No.  Am I offended by his depiction of the moor?  Yes.  Can I explain why I think it's important to look at the work despite that flaw?  Yes, and it's my responsibility to do so, if I'm going to talk about the worth of the ballet.  I feel the same way about Robbin's "Fancy Free."

RaKU is problematic for me for many reasons, but mostly about cultural appropriation -- the sexual assault is, in my opinion, histrionic, though I can understand why it might be hard for an assault victim to watch.  

On 10/4/2018 at 7:52 AM, kylara7 said:

 I would probably not see it performed live for that reason, although I respect the work and the place it holds in the ballet canon.
 

And here kylara7 says what I was thinking in a much more succinct fashion!

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