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bluejean

Culturally Sensitive Character Dances

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I just read this article, which was mentioned on the NYCB board: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/11/13/arts/dance/nutcracker-chinese-tea-stereotypes.html?action=click&module=Well&pgtype=Homepage&section=Dance and it's got my wheels turning.  I've never found the highly stylized makeup, costume, or "pointy finger" used in the NYCB version (and many others) to be insensitive or inappropriate. In fact, I have considered them an important part of the ballet, though perhaps only because I've seen very few versions (maybe none) that don't include them. I don't find the stylized movements/costumes/makeup of the Arabian, Russian, and Spanish variations offensive either. But I understand that others feel differently.

I'm curious about the future of the many treasured classical ballets that contain dances, or roles, based on particular ethnicities.  Do people feel that other ballets are in need of similar "toning down," which was the phrase used in the article?  I'm wondering about La Bayadere, Le Corsaire, Swan Lake, Raymonda, off the top of my head, but feel certain there are others that might trigger such feelings?  Is the solution to make all characters in a ballet ethnically ambiguous? How does a production best celebrate a particular country or ethnicity without offending anyone?  

I have tried to be careful and respectful with this post, while asking questions that come from genuine curiosity.  I hope my words will be read that way.

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Hi bluejean,

I am so glad that you started a thread about this and appreciate the respect with which you present your curiosity. I have just written this story in the hopes to share my perspective as a Chinese American dancer; perhaps it is helpful?

Thanks for starting the conversation :)

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18 hours ago, The Traveling Ballerina said:

Hi bluejean,

I am so glad that you started a thread about this and appreciate the respect with which you present your curiosity. I have just written this story in the hopes to share my perspective as a Chinese American dancer; perhaps it is helpful?

Thanks for starting the conversation :)

Thank you for sharing your perspective, Traveling Ballerina! Your story led me to https://www.yellowface.org/choreography

where people seem to be pondering the same questions I am.  The website gives some interesting historical perspective and encourages companies to reconsider the choreography, makeup, and costumes used for the Chinese variation.  There are more questions asked than answer, I feel, but they do post a video of the San Francisco Ballet version to demonstrate how Chinese can be done with less stylized makeup and movements.  The suggestion on the site is that we must understand the difference between between "caricature and character," which seems wise. I can certainly now understand how the use of a particular style of makeup might be offensive to some. 

And yet, I have more questions than answers. I find myself thinking back to years and years of dancing Spanish, using eyeliner to draw spit curls onto my face per my company's direction.  Did some consider that offensive?  I've also performed Arabian a number of times, with greatly exaggerated eye makeup in an attempt to appear the true "Arabian Princess." Was that an offensive choice?  I'm unsure.

This isn't an ethnic issue, but what about the makeup and movements used to "age" dancers playing older characters?  I'm thinking of the grandparents in The Nutcracker.  I, myself, was cast as Berthe (Giselle's mother) and Cinderella's Step Mother in my late teens, during a time of injury and being unable to dance other roles.  I remember being coached to use makeup to give myself wrinkles.  Was that offensive to some?  I'm unsure of that also.

I have more questions than answers, but surely this will become an ongoing discussion in the ballet/opera/broadway worlds where, in a sense, we are always creating a caricature of someone.

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4 hours ago, bluejean said:

I have more questions than answers...

Yes, this topic seems to provoke a series of questions, doesn't it?! Especially when considering the use of make-up. I, too, have danced Arabian and used the same make-up as I did when I danced Chinese. Or Carmen. Or Swanhilda. It never occurred to me to make my eyes a different shape to make them appear more Spanish or more Eastern European...I don't even know what that would entail! So yes, I do find it offensive that stereotype has dictated that a "Chinese eye" is slanted and that many are encouraged to paint them as such (I actually have quite round eyes!)

As far as choreography is concerned, many ethnic characters' choreography is based on the folkloric dances of their respective countries - mazurka, czardas, flamenco, jota, Russian folk dances, etc. Many variations of "Chinese" are not. I am definitely no historian or expert and don't claim to know all that is out there, so anything I express is solely from my experiences and (limited!) knowledge. Which is why I think this conversation is so important; I am sure that what I have felt/feel about how my ethnicity is perceived is not unique; I would love to hear other perspectives. Thank you for yours!

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As an American of WASPy heritage, I wonder how it would feel to have another culture create a dance that was supposed to express my own, without much to root it in authentic Americana.  Maybe it would be a stereotype of hotdogs and baseball players?  Who knows.  I feel for Chinese-Americans.  I kind of wish PNB would change their Mandarin dance to show Chinese traditional animals instead.  Keep Balanchine's steps, but create Panda costumes.  Animals seem to get away with silly steps.  I have a feeling the Spanish dance isn't terribly Spanish (especially if you're not from one of the southern Spanish provinces).  If you think about it, DQ as a ballet is offensive to Catalans and Barcelona, where the Sardana is the local dance.   Flamenco and Caracoles are native to Seville and Andalusia.   Imagine if the Shanghai Ballet made a production of Western Symphony, and dressed them all as New England clamdiggers. 

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18 hours ago, Jayne said:

If you think about it, DQ as a ballet is offensive to Catalans and Barcelona, where the Sardana is the local dance.   Flamenco and Caracoles are native to Seville and Andalusia

No, it isn't, it absolutely isn't.  I've watched DQ in Spain and the local audiences adored it.  For many people imitation really is the sincerest form of flattery.

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In my experience, the people in Barcelona dance the Sardana, but they don't go to see it performed.  

I have to wonder why Don Q is set in Barcelona.  Had Petipa not spent several years in Madrid, which included studying and researching actual Spanish dance, I would think it was because they threw a dart at a map, but, in this case, Barcelona could have been shorthand for Spain.  They do have a major bullring in Barcelona, though, and those rituals should hold.

As an aside, Peter Boal said that all of the corps men and soloist wanted to do the bullfighters' dance and the Act I Finale in the Ratmansky Don Q.

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4 hours ago, Mashinka said:

  For many people imitation really is the sincerest form of flattery.

It can be funny too. I can't tell you how many Americans-( seniors mostly)- have reacted with Desi Arnaz' words and mannerisms to their knowledge of of me being Cuban. They find it funny, and so do I. Of course...I know how "real Cuban or not" such portraits are...but as they are not malicious I can't really be offended. And I'm not.

Edited by cubanmiamiboy

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