Rant & Rave

Op-Ed: Is It Time to Retire Fancy Free?

Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre in Fancy Free. Photo via pbt.org

A woman passes three men in the street. The men pursue her. They thrust their pelvises at her. They continue to pursue her after she slaps one's hand and walks away. They surround her. She glances around at them in alarm. One snatches her purse (to review the Freudian significance of purses, click here) and saunters off with it, mocking her. She tries to take the purse back, and the three men toss it over her head among each other. They make her dance with them. Each time she indicates "No," the men try harder to force her submission to their advances.

This is all within the first 10 minutes of Jerome Robbins's Fancy Free, a 1944 ballet about three sailors frolicking on shore leave during World War II, beloved by many and still regularly performed (especially during the last year, since 2018 was the centennial celebration of Robbins's birth). Critic Edwin Denby, after the premiere with Ballet Theatre, called it "a remarkable comedy piece" and "a direct, manly piece."


But the ballet has not aged well, especially in the wake of #MeToo. It's a case study in rape culture.

Last month, I brought a group of my Virginia Commonwealth University students to Raleigh, NC, for the Mid-Atlantic South regional conference of the American College Dance Association. Tickets for Carolina Ballet's Jerome Robbins/Leonard Bernstein evening were included with our registration. Fancy Free was the last dance on the program.

Our group sat through it in silence, while many audience members around us chuckled and applauded at the "jokes"—there was a noteworthy burst of mostly male laughter at a pantomime ass-grab. It's all presented as a charming story of boyish exuberance. Certainly, the sailors' variations offer virtuosity and charm, and insight into the social dances of the time along with Robbins's deft integration of them into the ballet lexicon.

But in the lobby afterwards, my students were frankly and vocally horrified at what they had seen. "He actually choreographed the women's fear," said one student. And indeed, though the women respond to the sailors at some moments with mild, wary amusement, for the most part their dancing reveals fear, frustration, anger and disgust. Robbins knew that women don't relish this kind of behavior from men. But he still made a comedy out of it.

In 2019, that humor has worn thin for many people, but clearly, given this audience's reaction, not for enough. Of course, ballet and its audiences are not typically known for a progressive approach to gender. But ballet artists and companies are beginning to explore inclusive practices for nonbinary dancers, nonwhite dancers, and new repertory that challenges traditional gender roles, for example.

What to do, then, with beloved and problematic classics? All the arts grapple with this question, especially those for whom classics are their main money-makers. (I'm thinking of sugar plums.) But the time for venerating classics simply because they're classics is long past.

I suggest that ballet companies could meet the question head on by acknowledging problematic repertory and, if still performing it, by encouraging audiences to interrogate it along with them. Program notes, pre- or post-performance discussions could offer more than simple historical background. Such tools could draw on critical analysis from contemporary dance scholars and critics to place classic works in a framework that doesn't unthinkingly venerate them, but instead points out their limitations and their potential for harm. Because these works are harmful, as my students' shocked reactions to Fancy Free reveal. The ballet's knowing embrace of male/female stereotypes denies people of all gender identities their full humanity.

Fancy Free has a false ending that drives home the "boys will be boys" lesson. After the three sailors devolve into fights over two women who finally leave in disgust, they seem contrite for exhibiting such crass and violent behavior. Is Robbins offering a final judgement that such behavior is wrong? Alas, no. A third woman enters, then leaves, and the men go racing after her.

Curtain.

Standing ovation.


The Conversation
News
Courtesy Ritzel

Capezio, Bloch, So Dança, Gaynor Minden.

At the top of the line, dancers have plenty of quality footwear options to choose from, and in most metropolitan areas, stores to go try them on. But for many of North America's most economically disadvantaged dance students, there has often been just one option for purchasing footwear in person: Payless ShoeSource.

Keep reading... Show less
Trending
Jayme Thornton

When Sonya Tayeh saw Moulin Rouge! for the first time, on opening night at a movie theater in Detroit, she remembers not only being inspired by the story, but noticing the way it was filmed.

"What struck me the most was the pace, and the erratic feeling it had," she says. The camera's quick shifts and angles reminded her of bodies in motion. "I was like, 'What is this movie? This is so insane and marvelous and excessive,' " she says. "And excessive is I think how I approach dance. I enjoy the challenge of swiftness, and the pushing of the body. I love piling on a lot of vocabulary and seeing what comes out."

Keep reading... Show less
Dancers Trending
Robbie Fairchild in a still from In This Life, directed by Bat-Sheva Guez. Photo courtesy Michelle Tabnick PR

Back when Robbie Fairchild graced the cover of the May 2018 issue of Dance Magazine, he mentioned an idea for a short dance film he was toying around with. That idea has now come to fruition: In This Life, starring Fairchild and directed by dance filmmaker Bat-Sheva Guez, is being screened at this year's Dance on Camera Festival.

While the film itself covers heavy material—specifically, how we deal with grief and loss—the making of it was anything but: "It was really weird to have so much fun filming a piece about grief!" Fairchild laughs. We caught up with him, Guez and Christopher Wheeldon (one of In This Life's five choreographers) to find out what went into creating the 11-minute short film.

Keep reading... Show less
The Creative Process
Terry Notary in a movement capture suit during the filming of Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Photo by Sigtor Kildal, Courtesy Notary

When Hollywood needs to build a fantasy world populated with extraordinary creatures, they call Terry Notary.

The former gymnast and circus performer got his start in film in 2000 when Ron Howard asked him to teach the actors how to move like Whos for How the Grinch Stole Christmas. Notary has since served as a movement choreographer, stunt coordinator and performer via motion capture technology for everything from the Planet of the Apes series to The Hobbit trilogy, Avatar, Avengers: Endgame and this summer's The Lion King.

Since opening the Industry Dance Academy with his wife, Rhonda, and partners Maia and Richard Suckle, Notary also offers movement workshops for actors in Los Angeles.

Keep reading... Show less

mailbox

Get Dance Magazine in your inbox