Saturday, October 26, 2013

Disappointment


The Boston Ballet’s La Bayadère is so stunningly racist that I was actually shocked.  

The first act includes parts for a group of ‘fakirs’ who are covered in dark skin make-up, lit poorly, and who dance in a wild and frenzied style, so as to demonstrate that people with darker skin are not as controlled as people with lighter skin (who dance in a classical style). If that weren’t bad enough, when the ‘fakirs’ are not dancing, they literally crawl around on stage like animals, whimper (in pantomime), and fawn over our heroes. 

Joseph Gatti performs the role of the Golden Idol (photo by Gene Schiavone)
But this is not the only stunningly ill-judged section of the ballet. Oh no. Another particularly ripe moment is when children from the ballet school perform with the ‘Golden Idol’ in the second act. The children are dressed to look like little Indian men (with mustaches painted on), in order to infantalize the culture being depicted.


And this is already within a ballet the entire purpose of which is to depict a semi-scandalous, sex-soaked love story by placing it in a different culture (which is appropriated and butchered in equal measures) in order to create a fantasy for its Western audience. The women all wear midriff-bearing outfits, and the characters sinuously bend themselves and their arms in a way that (in the language of ballet) suggests both the exotic East and sexual availability. Edward Said could have rewritten the entirety of Orientalism using only examples from this ballet.

This is wrong. I don’t think it’s uncommon for the world of ballet (as my recent review of Corsaire at the Bolshoi would suggest - but I honestly think this was more racist than that Russian production). I usually hear these productions justified by tradition and history - we’re just preserving the balletic past, you have to understand that people thought differently in the 19th century. But ballet is a living tradition, it’s a very adaptable art form. La Bayadère is evidence of that. The men’s dancing derives from Vakhtang Chabukiani’s technique of the 1930s, which was based on mid 20th century ideas about masculinity. The women’s pointe work (not to mention their body type) is all 20th century. The costumes that bear the stomach - those are not the costumes that people wore in the 19th century. Everything is updated, including the racism. When you stage those fakirs in the 2010s, that’s a sign of our times, not just a sign of Petipa’s. 

Alistair Macauley wrote an article for the New York Times last year in which he suggests that these ballets should simply not be performed any more. I can see the logic there, but I would be interested in trying to find a new way to deal with this material; stagings of operas and of Shakespeare plays (two bodies of work that constantly have to be reinterpreted) demonstrate that you can at least try to find a way to address the racism or colonialist attitudes inherited in a work. Amardeep Singh, a literature professor and expert in post-colonial studies at Lehigh University, posted on his blog a suggestion that La Bayadère could be redone to incorporate traditional Indian dancing, with the caveat that it then should also be danced at least partially by people of Indian descent. I think that’s an interesting idea, and I’d like to see someone try. 

The Boston Ballet could start at least start by taking out the parts for the fakirs and the small children. 

The Boston Ballet Corps performs the Kingdom of the Shades (photo by Gene Schiavone)
To address the performances, the corps was magnificent in the Kingdom of the Shades. Lorna Feijóo was excellent in the third act as well; she has a beautiful full-body dancing, and very good musicality - every uncurling of the fingers is timed perfectly. Sadly, her performance in the first two acts wasn’t as convincing, especially in the acted sections. Nelson Madrigal wasn’t up to the Chabukiani jumps that Solor requires. Whitney Jensen had some brilliant technical moments, like her fouettés and her pointe work in the second act, but she also has trouble getting very high of the ground in her jumps, which makes Gamzatti a less flashy part than it needs to be. 

The posters for this production have the tagline “La Bayadère will leave you wanting more.” Oh, it did leave me wanting more, just not in the way you meant.

Boston Ballet, La Bayadère, Choreography by Florence Clerc after Petipa (and Nureyev), Music by Ludwig Minkus, Nikiya: Lorna Feijóo, Solor: Nelson Madrigal, Gamzatti: Whitney Jensen, Golden Idol: Isaac Akiba, October 25, 2013. 

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