Exotic or Offensive?
You’ve seen them in story ballets and perhaps they’ve made you cringe. The ethnic stereotypes embedded in the plotlines with dated, usually 19th-century attitudes. They’re those non-Caucasian, non-Christian characters far removed from the cultural norms of most of the audience members who are watching. They’re often the troublemakers or the butts of jokes presented in the most sophomoric ways. At best they’re annoyingly quaint, at worst they’re offensively xenophobic. We often just take them for granted. It’s tradition, right? But maybe we should take a closer look at those traditions now that we’re well into the 21st century.
Some of the most dated, troubling stereotypes are often the Muslim guys, usually sporting a turban. Take Raymonda, for example. Despite its glorious score and bits of scintillating classical choreography, its thin plot revolves around a maiden in medieval Hungary who is desired by two suitors—one a shining, gallant knight going off to fight the Crusades (in white tights) and the other a lustful, Saracen infidel (dressed in black). Abderakhman, the Muslim dude, plots to abduct Raymonda, but is challenged by the Crusader Jean de Brienne to a swordfight in the nick of time. Guess who wins?
Ballet has often tackled the good-versus-evil theme (e.g., Odette vs. Odile, the Lilac Fairy vs. Carabosse), but is it really tasteful for us to keep reviving characters who resemble Muslim terrorists? Obviously the worldview of the 19th-century Raymonda was quite different, and no one wants to erase history. But the point is—what is the relevance to ballet today? Do young contemporary audiences look at this and scratch their heads? Maybe Balanchine was right: He extracted music from Glazunov’s danceable score and choreographed clever, classically based divertissement-style works (Raymonda Variations, Pas de Dix, Cortège Hongrois) that stayed true to the style while avoiding the poorly drawn characters and the plot’s social land mines.
Le Corsaire, with its famously jumbled storyline, is a bastardized balletic take on Lord Byron’s poem The Corsaire. Byron flamboyantly championed the Greeks during the Turkish occupation of Greece, so the negative sentiment towards the non-European, Muslim population is served up on a silver platter. In the ballet, a Daniel Craig–like character named Conrad runs up against the wealthy, greedy Turk Pasha Seyd. Usually depicted as pot-bellied and gluttonous, he’s obsessed with acquiring harem girls and waddles cowardly away when threatened by Conrad and his buddies. The slave trader is titled Lankendem (in the original 1856 libretto his first name is Isaac and he is decidedly a Jew) who delights in wrangling the best price for his slave women. Admittedly, the ballet is so convoluted and the characters so cardboard-thin that it loses credibility any time the dancing isn’t about bravado spectacle. But while Byron brandished a buoyant flair with his poetry, the ballet traffics in some disturbing phobias of other cultures. The intermittent comedy is meant to be cute, but it’s not even funny.
On the positive side, I’ve never seen Bournonville’s Abdallah, but the title character (from Basra, Iraq, of all places!) is a simple, apparently likeable shoemaker who just wants to marry the girl he loves. It obviously has little to do with real Arab culture, but Bournonville’s theatricality usually has an honest sophistication and charm that perhaps makes this an exception in the foreigner-bashing department. Correct me if I’m wrong.
La Bayadère reeks of the fascination that Europeans reserved for the exoticism of India. Yet despite the glorious classicism of its white act, some of the characters come across as Western versions of Eastern religious caricatures, like the wild Fakirs (Sufi monks) who fly around the stage in loincloths, or Gamzatti’s maid, who slinks around like a Mata Hari in a sari. (The Minkus score doesn’t even try to convey an Eastern sensibility.) The Hindu High Brahmin is a scheming priest—in love with Nikiya—who eschews his temple duties and vow of celibacy to thwart Nikiya and Solor’s love by invoking Solor’s destruction. Meanwhile, Gamzatti’s father, the Rajah, wants Nikiya dead. Sounds like an Eastern religious Mafia. Can you imagine a ballet where a cardinal or Pope did something similar? The Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights would be picketing outside the theater.
Fokine’s Petrouchka, which derives its characters from the Russian version of Italy’s commedia dell’arte tradition, can still pack a powerful punch with the right cast. The spectacular Stravinsky score stirs the soul, and the underlying theme of oppression never goes out of date. But the character of the Blackamoor, which not so long ago was sometimes performed by a white man in black face with Al Jolson–style white rings around eyes and mouth, remains problematic no matter who performs it.
In the third scene of the ballet, the statuesque man is seen indolently lying around his chamber on a couch playing with a coconut. First he bounces it on his feet, and then shakes it to find out what is inside. When he gets frustrated and can’t break it open with his sword, he gazes at it stupidly and then bows and worships it like a deity. Huh?? At a performance of the ballet a few years ago, there were uncomfortable titters in the audience as if people were trying to process this slave-era stereotype they had just witnessed. (Balanchine’s La Sonnambula used to feature two dancers in blackamoor drag in the divertissement, but it later was changed to a quasi-Asian acrobatic duet.)
About a decade ago, Dance Theatre of Harlem presented a production of Michael Smuin’s A Song for Dead Warriors, a piece meant to highlight the wrongful treatment of Native Americans. But the cast included a black dancer in not-so-convincing white makeup cast as a corrupt white cop. The reverse minstrel-show getup was so distracting that it was hard to concentrate on what the ballet intended to convey.
I’m not trying to take political correctness over the top, but one has to wonder if these outdated characterizations, particularly for ticket holders’ first introduction to ballet, are enough to drive them out of the theater permanently.
Just take a look at the usual depiction of the “Tea” character in the second act of The Nutcracker. He’s often a coolie, dressed as if he could lay the tracks for an American railroad, with his index fingers pointed into the air. Sometimes he’s surrounded by coy Chinese maidens with parasols. Contrast those images with the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics—a jaw-dropping performance of high technology and breathtaking artistry that upstaged American prowess at a time when Americans owe a great deal of monetary debt to the East. It makes you stop and think, right?
Our global outlook has changed. With all due respect to classical story ballets—and there are some wonderful works that deserve to stay around for centuries—perhaps ballet and its insidious stereotypes need to change a little, too.
The Avatar Solution
San Francisco Ballet’s current production of Fokine’s Petrouchka gives a blue face to the Blackamoor (or Moor) puppet—an idea inherited from its neighbor, Oakland Ballet. How did this come about? Ron Thiele, who played the Moor in Oakland’s version, explains: “Oakland Ballet was ethnically diverse and represented the plurality of the community. In 1991, we had internal discussions—including artistic director Ronn Guidi, ballet master Howard Sayette, and ballet mistress Betsy Erickson [now at SFB]—about whether or not it was appropriate to do the Moor in blackface. It was a matter of sensitivity to people within the company and the community. We asked the question, How can we approach this with a more contemporary view? And so we went to a different color—a greenish dark blue. When you go back and put Petrouchka in context, the Ballets Russes’ repertoire was oriental, exotic. The characters were not like the Russians, not like the Parisians. The audience wasn’t seeing themselves onstage. That transformed itself not too far down the road. For us, it was always about making the work relevant and lively and come to life—not just an archaic historic reconstruction.”—Wendy Perron
Joseph Carman is a Dance Magazine senior advising editor.
Pictured: SFB's Petrouchka with Brett Bauer as the Moor and Clara Blanco as the Ballerina Doll. Photo by Erik Tomasson, courtesy SFB.
When a musical prepares to make the transfer from a smaller, lesser-known venue to Broadway (where theaters hold 500-plus seats), often there's a collective intake of breath from all involved. After all, a bigger house means more tickets to sell in order to stay in the black, and sometimes shows with even the most tenacious fan bases can't quite navigate such a jump. But what about the transfer from stage…to screen? Is Broadway ready to be consumed from the comfort of your couch?
The way we create and consume dance is changing every day. Now more than ever, the field demands that dancers not only be able to perform at the highest level, but also collaborate with choreographers to bring their artistic visions to life. Dancers who miss out on choreographic training may very well find themselves at a disadvantage as they try to launch their careers.
Daphne Lee was dancing with Collage Dance Collective in Memphis, Tennessee, when she received two difficult pieces of news: Her mother had been diagnosed with multiple myeloma cancer, and her father had Parkinson's disease, affecting his mobility and mental faculties.
The New Jersey native's reaction: "I really need to move home."
Summer is almost upon us, and whether you're a student about to go on break or a pro counting the days till layoff, don't forget that with warm weather comes a very serious responsibility: To maintain your cross-training routine on your own.
Those of us who've tried to craft our own cross-training routine know it's easier said than done. So we consulted the stars, and rounded up the best options for every zodiac sign. (TBH, you should probably consult an expert, too—we'd recommend a physical therapist, a personal trainer or your teacher.)
It's not often that a promising choreographer gets to stage work in a world-class theater, on a skillfully-curated program with professional dancers, and with the possibility of winning a substantial cash prize. But at the McCallum Theatre's Palm Desert Choreography Festival, that's been the status quo for over twenty years.
Since Shea New, the festival's artistic director, founded the festival in 1998, she's worked tirelessly with McCallum's director of education and festival producer, Kajsa Thuresson-Frary, and stage manager and festival production manager Joanna Fookes to build a festival that nurtures choreographers, highlights high quality work, powerfully engages the local community and cultivates an audience base for dance in the Coachella Valley. The trio is backed by a strong team of professionals at McCallum and the brilliant volunteers from the local and national level who serve as adjudicators.
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It's become second nature in dance studios: The instant anyone gets hurt, our immediate reaction is to run to the freezer to grab some ice (or, more realistically, a package of frozen peas).
But as routine as icing our injuries might be, the benefits are not actually backed up by scientific studies. And some experts now believe icing could even disrupt the healing process.
I'm a contemporary dancer, and I'm nervous about trying to get pregnant since I can't predict if it might happen during the middle of the season. We have a union contract that is supposed to protect us. But I'm scared because several of my colleagues' contracts weren't renewed for no particular reason. Having a big belly could be a big reason to get rid of me!
—Andrea, New York, NY
When the going gets tough, the tough start dancing: That's the premise behind "Dance of Urgency," a recently opened exhibit at MuseumsQuartier Vienna that features photos, video and other documentary material relating to the use of dance as political protest or social uprising.
The groups featured in the show, largely based around clubs and electronic dance music scenes, span the globe and respond to a variety of issues—from inequality and social stratification to racial divides to crackdowns on club culture itself.
Last night, longtime theater legends (including Chita Rivera herself!) as well as rising stars gathered to celebrate one of Broadway's danciest events: the third annual Chita Rivera Awards.
The evening paid tribute to this season's dancer standouts, fabulous ensembles, and jaw-dropping choreography—on- and off-Broadway and on film.
As usual, several of our faves made it into the mix. (With such a fabulous talent pool of nominees to choose from, we're glad that ties were allowed.) Here are the highlights from the winner's list:
When you're a foreign dancer, gaining legal rights to work in the U.S. is a challenging process. It's especially difficult if you're petitioning to work as a freelance dancer without an agent or company sponsorship.
The process requires professional muscle along with plenty of resources and heart. "There's a real misnomer that it's super easy," says Neena Dutta, immigration attorney and president of Dutta Law Firm. "People need to educate themselves and talk to a professional."
Here are four things every foreign dancer who wants to work in the U.S. needs to know to build a freelance dance career here.
What does it take to "make it" in dance? It's no secret that turning this passion into a profession can be a struggle. In such a competitive field, talent alone isn't enough to get you where you want to be.
So what kinds of steps can you take to become successful? Dance Magazine spoke to 33 people from all corners of the industry to get their advice on the lessons that could help us all, no matter where we are in our careers.
On May 18, 1919, Margot "Peggy" Hookham was born. She would grow up to become Dame Margot Fonteyn, England's first homegrown prima ballerina. She joined the Sadler's Wells School in 1934 and was performing principal roles with the precursor to The Royal Ballet the next year. Fonteyn was a company-defining figure, dancing Aurora for the re-opening of the Royal Opera House after World War II, creating numerous roles with Sir Frederick Ashton and forging a legendary partnership with Rudolf Nureyev.
Memorial Day is notoriously one of Chicago's bloodiest weekends. Last year, 36 people were shot and seven died that weekend. In 2017 and 2016, the number of shootings was even higher.
When Garley "GiGi Tonyé" Briggs, a dance teacher and Chicago native, started noticing this pattern, she was preparing her second annual Memorial Day workshop for local youth.
The event's original aim was simple: "I wanted the youth of Chicago to have somewhere they could come and learn from different dancers and be off the streets on the South Side on this hot holiday," she says.