Cancel culture and the ballet
Last year I was startled to receive an email statement from a Hindu statesman, Rajan Zed, president of the Universal Society of Hinduism, based in Nevada in the United States. His email was in anticipation of a forthcoming production of La Bayadere by the Houston Ballet. He condemned the ballet and called for the Houston Ballet to cancel its inclusion in the forthcoming season. He said the ballet was a blatant belittling of a rich civilization and exhibited 19th-century orientalist attitudes. The company, he said, “should not be in the business of callously promoting appropriation of traditions, elements and concepts of ‘others’; and ridiculing entire communities”. He urged the Houston Ballet to apologize for such an inappropriate selection.
The company did not acquiesce to Zed’s demand, and the controversy was snowballed anyway when the entire 20/21 season was cancelled because of the pandemic. But the artistic director, Australian Stanton Welch, who is also the choreographer of the production, responded with a statement: “I try to be respectful and diligent with all of my works through research and adaptation, to make sure they are made with love and detail to all the characters, places and times. We spend a great deal of time focusing on the acting of a piece, breathing life and not just characterization into these roles from Marie to La Bayadere. We always try to be open to discussion, while also reflecting the past as a teaching tool for our future.”
Demanding apologies and cancellation might seem an over-the-top reaction to the staging of this apparently benign ballet staple. However, the representation of many of the “exotic” settings and stories in traditional ballets is an ongoing problem. Increasingly, choreographers and artistic directors are having to grappel with how to present the classics in a way that is true to the original but appropriate to our more enlightened times.
The history of art is a history of the exchange of cultures – Picasso was inspired by “primitive” art, music “borrows” from all over the place, literature draws on myths and legends – it is through such cross-fertilisation that art has found its inspiration and culture has progressed. But over time what is innovative becomes traditional and what is traditional is overtaken by new traditions. Customs and conventions become lost and incomprehensible, styles change, art works fade from view or simply become outdated. What was once interestingly colourful and exotic can become ignorant and offensive. What was once considered a masterpiece can become embarrassing.
Take Petrouchka, for instance, a significant landmark in the history of ballet, the mindspring of the combined genius of Nijinsky and Stravinsky and Benois. It can’t be performed today as they would have intended. As choreographer Krystof Pastor recently told me: “The character of the Moore is usually painted in black, but that just doesn’t go any more, it’s not the right thing to do.”
The Chinese dance in The Nutcracker is an obvious example. The 1892 Petipa/Ivanov Nutcracker is enormously popular in the United States, a Christmas staple for just about every city ballet company, still performed pretty much as it was 150 years ago. But many of these ballet companies have had to reassess the Chinese dance divertissement, with its coolie hats and slanty-eyed make-up – which has come to be condemned as “yellowface”. In his book, published just last year, Phillip Chan, founder of the advocacy group, Final Bow for Yellowface, likens such representations to Judy Garland performing in blackface.
In Australia, where traditional Nutcrackers are also being staged with increasing frequency, there have also been rumblings of disapproval. “It may be time for a radical reimagining of elements of The Nutcracker,” Susan Bendall wrote for Dance Australia of the Australian Ballet’s Peter Wright version (created in 1984). Similarly, from Isabelle Leclezio of the West Australian Ballet’s version last year: “… although it appears that some attempts have been made to tone down these problematic imperialist caricatures, there is still potential to create a refreshing version that an increasingly diverse Australian audience can relate to,” she wrote.
Tweeking a fairytale ballet like The Nutcracker is relatively easy, however, compared with a three-act, elaborately grand ballet like La Bayadere (created by the French choreographer Petipa in 1877), whose entire premise turns on its foreign setting (India, 1855) and originally included a Danse des négrillons once performed in blackface (or chocolate-coloured tights). And what about honouring the choreographer’s intention, and the authenticity of original?
Amid the Black Life Matters movement last year, the Paris Opera Ballet caused a stir when its current director, Alexander Neef, was reported as saying that “some of our famous acts will definitely disappear from the repertoire”. His comments were made during the heat of diversity issues swirling through the company, and interpreted by some as interference with the company’s sacred Nureyev productions of La Bayadere, Nutcracker and Swan Lake.
Nureyev is the adored former artistic director of the POB and Neef’s comments caused outrage. He was accused of bowing to “cancel culture”. To tamper with Nureyev’s creations was interpreted as interference with the POB’s unique identity, and furthermore an attack on free speech, an act of censorship. As wrote Michel Guerrin in Le Monde, “The conundrum: . . . opera and ballet need to diversify their repertoires to diversify their performers and their public. But in doing so, they cannot dismantle their identity.”
Should we stop performing heritage works, the icons, the treasures from our past? Should we meddle? What of preserving our heritage for future generations? Do we really want to throw out a ballet like La Bayadere, with its glorious opium dream scene, the Kingdom of the Shades?
“Absolutely, get rid of it,” says Australian choreographer Lucas Jervies. “It comes from a colonial time, it represents caricatures of a society, if people find it offensive I completely understand why – get rid of it or remake it. Tackle the conversation through art.”
He qualifies: “My thoughts on cancel culture – nothing’s binary, nothing’s black or white, if we cancel it, we don’t talk about it, so the problem’s not solved, so as an artist, as a creator, my answer to everything is, well, make art about it. Make something about the idea of cancelling something else, make Bayadere a political piece, do something interesting with it and make your statement that way, rather than just point, shame and cancel.
“Regarding the Kingdom of the Shades, use it as a springboard and make something better. The more we hang on to the past the more we deny the present.”
Sitting in an audience for a recent Nutcracker, I certainly noticed the uncomfortable, uncertain audience response to the Chinese dance. And I have a distant memory of, in a Sleeping Beauty I think, some rodents costumed in Sikh’s turbans. And of course I have witnessed endless rows of happy, ridiculously squeaky-clean peasants and subservient women. To pigheadedly ignore the scorn such depictions can create in audiences, the people they alienate, won’t serve our artform well.
But, like our literary treasures and our great paintings, our traditional ballets should be recognised and appreciated within the context of the time they were created. It is not fair to judge them or their creators’ motives by our present day standards, with all the advantages of hindsight that brings us.
Ballet is fortunate in that its very transience may be an advantage. The works are not chiselled in stone, like a statue of Captain Cook. They can be changed and adapted. We can ensure our masterpieces stay on stage by keeping alert to cultural fluctuations and attitudes.
In an email conversation with Phillip Chan (of yellowface.org), he put it this way: “There is a big difference between visual and performing arts. You can’t change the Mona Lisa, it’s a work that captures the zeitgeist of the time. But we’ve made a deal with the devil when we decided to be performers: our art is different between every show. Change is baked into the equation. Legs have gotten higher, tutus have gotten shorter … I hear they’re even letting women appear on stage now!!!
“So if change is part of our art form, why are we so willing to accept some changes (like legs that go so high you can a dancer’s crotch) but we aren’t willing to change how European choreographers saw non-Europeans 150 years ago, even though we know better today?”
With restrictions, bigger things can happen. Krystof Pastor is busy reimagining the story of Petrouchka as a allegory of political manipulation. Graeme Murphy – years ago – reimagined the Chinese dance as tai chi, performed in silence. Li Cunxin, the Chinese-born artistic director of the Queensland Ballet, helped choreographer Ben Stevenson with the choreography of his Chinese dance, introducing a martial arts element, and happily presents the ballet every year for Brisbane audiences. There have been black Giselles, all male Swan Lakes. In their way the new versions keep the old alive. Preserve our treasures, recognise that they were made in a certain times, make sure they are available for reference and enjoyment and revival, value them for what they tell us about those times, good and bad, learn from them, and stand on their creators’ shoulders.
This article was published in the April/May/June print issue of 'Dance Australia'.
See review of the Queensland Ballet's 10th Brisbane season of 'The Nutcracker' here.