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“The Stage as Battleground: Opera, Ballet and Gender Politics in the Age of Giselle,” Journal for the Colloquium on the Revolutionary Era, 2009-2010 edition, February 2013

003The Stage as Battleground: Opera, Ballet and Gender Politics in the Age of Giselle

Abstract

Since the 1842 split of opera from ballet with the production of Giselle, audiences have observed a multi-faceted and successful revolution in the staging, design and aesthetics of story dance. In terms of the persistent theme of heterosexual politics, however, opera and dance continue to validate obvious and cumbersome stereotypes. In the 19th century, audiences attended the opera house in order to see two types of works, opera and ballet, which were not yet fundamentally different from one another. (more…)

“DANCING IN SECRET; NATIVE AMERICA’S CULTURAL SURVIVAL,” Ballet-Tanz, April 2007

See more of this artist's work at www.tradermick.com

See more of this artist’s work at http://www.tradermick.com

It is a balmy October afternoon in south Florida, and I am driving toward the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum on the Big Cypress Seminole Indian Reservation to meet members of Native Nations Dance Theatre. I can hardly believe this country road is a mere 80 miles west of the ugly billboard-burdened landscape of Ft. Lauderdale. The air is fresh. I’ve seen more than a dozen species of birds, and marsh grass punctuated with small copses of trees extends in all directions. (more…)

“How John Updike was so Totally Clueless about Stupid Ernest Hemingway,” THE KING’S ENGLISH, Winter 2005

How John Updike was so Totally Clueless about Stupid Ernest Hemingway  ▪► Colleen M. Payton [Acrobat PDF]  [Table of Contents]I think far too much about Ernest Hemingway, and not enough about John Updike. I am too young for Hemingway to have scrambled my brains very much, and too old to have successfully avoided Updike for such an unreasonable length of time. I have some good excuses. I was educated in grammar and mechanics in the sixties, so that by the time I fell into the hands of the public schools, the long arm of Hemingway’s influence on literary style was pared down to an exclusive attitude toward commas: to eliminate them by every means. By the seventies, even the reading of his novels had fallen out of favor in high school English classes; so I waited to read him in college, with the same bored inattention, I might add, as I read The Rime of the Ancient Mariner or “The Emperor of Ice Cream“, or Dos Passos’ Three Soldiers. What had any of it to do with me? The answer, of course, was: nothing.

Updike, on the other hand, was new in those days, too new to make it on many college reading lists, but not so new that we hadn’t a scornful name for him. Updike was, along with his contemporaries Phillip Roth and Saul Bellow, a dick novelist, by which we meant his characters’ anxiety about their penises was the sole subject of his fiction, and his plots, settings, characters and symbols, even his breath-taking scholarship, were but gilding on the lilies of this laughable theme.

My attitude helped me avoid for years both the pleasure and the work of reading Updike except in the most factitious way, as a species of party game. I played “find the dick in Updick” in somewhat the same way Father Guido Sarducci used to “finda the Pope inna the pizza” on Saturday Night Live. But Hemingway, the dick novelist par excellence (but perhaps not the original dick novelist; there’s Moby Dick, for example), bothered me in the years between the completion of my thesis and the publication, in 1986, of The Garden of Eden. The truth is, I was reading him. He had insinuated himself into my consciousness; he was my hip flask at the church picnic, my secret vice. And what I fretted over most, what I found to be Hemingway’s most crazy-making and wonderful quality was his mastery of conversation, not of what’s said, but of what’s never said. What was he really talking about?

He had me.

Naturally, when Charles Scribner’s Sons published The Garden of Eden, I rushed headlong to buy it. I would like to say I slept on the pavement in front of Barnes & Noble the night before it hit the shelves, though of course I did nothing of the kind – the word headlong is a metaphor for the way I read the book the first time; I actually don’t remember how I bought it. I do remember entertaining normal trepidation about what posthumous and unfinished might mean for the text. But as it turned out, this was no Islands in the Stream, with its infuriating beating about the bush (Speak up, damn it! Shit or get off the pot!) — I threw that 3-volume waste of wood pulp against the wall. No, Eden was Hemingway grown young again, his character, David Bourne, innocent, raw, and conflicted, and the writer himself ready at last to have it out, wise in his acceptance of contradiction as natural to our condition, and knowing, once again, when to be quiet.

Updike, too, was impressed. In “The Sinister Sex,” his critique of The Garden of Eden, Updike notes its apparent naiveté with some awe. “Hemingway’s own innocence, even into his fourth marriage, enabled him to reach back from his workroom in Cuba, through all the battles and bottles and injuries and interviews, into his youth on another continent, and make mythic material out of his discovery that sex can be complicated.” Updike goes on, however, to make the tedious connection between the characters in The Garden of Eden with Hemingway’s his real-life wives, Hadley and Pauline. Forget for a moment the heresy of biographical interpretation. Allegory tempts us all to folly. If we can assign specific identities to the elements of the work (L is for Lucy; S is for Sky; D is for Diamonds) we can allow ourselves to be stupid; we can comfortably miss the point. How glorious it is not to have to think, and Updike wallows in this glory.

But good allegory always offers something more. Yes, the character Catherine Bourne is both Eve and Lillith, sexual helpmeet and death-dealing temptress. Marita, whom Catherine introduces to David to form their love triangle, is serpent but also fruit. She is the font of feminine generosity that makes all men knowing. She comprehends good and evil, while offering the clarity David dreads as a sort of Fall, but that he needs in order to work.

The elements of the Genesis setting and plot are all there for us. The couple has tarried for an extended honeymoon on the utopian French coast. Ever present amid the beauty and peace of their existence is the sense of the temporal, and death is foreshadowed from the beginning: “He held her close and hard and inside himself he said goodbye and then goodbye and goodbye.” Bourne (the name is a pun on the idea of first man, or Adam) masters the natural world when he hooks and subdues a wonderful fish. He and Catherine delight, and Hemingway’s narrative delights with them, over the pleasures of fresh, simple foods, and light, clear vintages. Interestingly, as the relationship sours, their drinking becomes both more ineffective and more numbing, and culminates in two ghastly scenes when Catherine, drunk on absinthe and later on champagne, attacks David’s writing. Also, they are naked and unashamed (“[S]in is what you feel bad after, he told himself, and you don’t feel bad”) as their sexual games evolve into gender switching. Catherine penetrates her husband anally: “He lay there and felt something and then her hand holding him and searching lower and he helped with his hands and then lay back in the dark and did not think at all and only felt the weight and the strangeness inside and she said, ‘Now you can’t tell who is who can you?’” He is transformed and feminized, for the moment becoming “Catherine,” while she becomes not “David” but “Peter”.

David and Catherine are both contented with the experiment, which he calls the “devil things,” as long as it is carried out without witnesses, and they protect their innocence with a covenant. Catherine promises not to “let the night things come in the day”. But she breaks this promise almost immediately when she brings home Marita, whom she sleeps with herself, and then insists David sleep with as well.

I can’t think of a stupider excuse in literature than, “The woman thou gavest to be with me did tempt me, and I did eat.” Hemingway himself calls it stupid by analogy, and is careful to use this word to draw attention to shifts in the narrative. We encounter the word first when David receives from his publisher an envelope of clippings, critiques of his new book. Catherine says,

“‘Then write, stupid. You didn’t say you wouldn’t write. Nobody said anything about worrying if you wrote. Did they?’

But somewhere something had been said and now he could not remember it.”

It is the first hint of Catherine’s jealousy about what she views as David’s status as favorite (like Adam’s) of the gods. Catherine is jealous, and perhaps Eve was also jealous, and for the same reasons. Certainly Catherine is controlling, and she asserts her desire to curb David’s independence at every turn. “I’m happy now because you’re going to do it.” Her overriding of his self-respect is a consequence of her sincere inability to recognize her husband’s real merit as a writer. She calls his stories “illiterate,” “disgusting,” “horrible,” “bestial,” and “worthless,” and the act of writing a “solitary vice.”

“He writes in those ridiculous child’s notebooks and he doesn’t throw anything away. He just crosses things out and writes along the sides of the pages. The whole business is a fraud, really. He makes mistakes in spelling and grammar, too. Did you know, Marita, that he doesn’t really know grammar?” This is a brave passage for Hemingway to have recorded, exposing his own foibles as well as the folly of choosing a mate who can’t distinguish good writing from poor. Hemingway clearly believes that men (even stupid men, like Adam and like himself) are superior by nature, that giving in to a woman is weakness (David calls himself “wet” and a “slob” when he does so), and that the Eves of the world (but not the Maritas – make of that what you will) are willfully incapable of recognizing it.

Although Catherine cannot appreciate it, the story David writes is good, and we know it is good because Hemingway tells it to us, weaving it into the narrative of the frame as David takes up his pen each morning. It is set in Africa; a young David Bourne hunts a grieving, elderly elephant with his father, and learns about love, hate and responsibility. Like the adult Bourne, he makes a mistake and must bear the wages of his sin. This complicity in his own destruction, his tasting of the fruit, is the pride-motivated, attention-seeking remark that leads the hunters to their prey, and to a killing he learns to abhor. In the frame story, David’s error in judgment — his agreement to dye his hair to match his wife’s — is flagged with the word stupid. Catherine says, “‘[W]e’re damned now. I was and now you are…’ [A]nd he began to realize what a stupid thing he had permitted.”

So the Genesis story is here, along with interpretation, or analysis of cause: jealousy, willfulness and stupidity. Catherine’s inevitable death is thoroughly foreshadowed – we expect her to drive her car over a cliff at any moment – although Updike doesn’t see it. He entirely misses the point of Catherine’s use of the term “heiress.” Marita will inherit the marriage to Bourne, and she will also, on the allegorical level, inherit the consequences of sin, an aftereffect David will also succeed to. There are lots of discussions of money and how David’s writing is supported; he is now certain to receive a “wage” (giving us an interesting view of where Hemingway thinks writing comes from).

But what makes The Garden of Eden meaningful is not that Hemingway can retell the tale of mankind’s fall from grace. Likewise, what is important about the characters is not what we can identify about them in relation to his experience in Europe as a young writer, or about his marriages. What we must understand (and this returns us to my old question, “What has all of this got to do with me?”) is that the characters are not individuals as much as they are aspects of the self. Their relationships and interactions are the systems of David Bourne’s mind, and by extrapolation of Hemingway’s and the reader’s. Catherine says (and remember that David is also “Catherine”), “Anyway I am you and her. That’s what I did it for. I’m everybody. You know that don’t you?”

David Bourne knows and we know, so why doesn’t John Updike know? I think it’s because he is distracted by his search for the dick: “It is possibly a pity,” Updike notes sadly, “that Hemingway’s own inhibitions, if not those of the changing pre-war times, prevented him from telling us exactly what the ‘devil things’ are.”

But Hemingway does tell us, as demonstrated, that his character’s subjugation to the woman, of which the sexual penetration is a symbol, is the corruption that permits no salvation, the devil thing. Updike can’t find it because he is predisposed to find something else, “assertiveness and expertise.” Therefore, he collapses lazily upon a cliché, citing Bourne’s “feminine side,” and mourns his inability to get into bed with the characters. In doing so, he tells us quite a bit more about himself than he intends, and less than we would like to know about The Garden of Eden.

Updike’s nervousness with Hemingway’s silence about sexual details also prevents him from recognizing the importance of the novel’s presentation and discussion of the writing process. More than any other aspect of this work, David Bourne’s sitting down to write, and Hemingway’s sitting down with him and with us to show us how it’s done, is the most significant and interesting part of the novel. Here he is voluble rather than reticent, here willing to get naked. We see him address the blank page and subdue it. We see him plan and complete. And when the work is lost (Catherine burns it because it’s not about her), we work through the satisfaction of its reconstruction with him.

This is the redemption of the creative process revealed, and it has everything to do with us.

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“Three Dead White Guys: BALANCHINE, ROBBINS & FOSSE: CHOREOGRAPHY AND THE TWENTIETH CENTURY AMERICAN VISION” Danse International Magazine, Winter 2002

Dance International Magazine

Dance International Magazine

In a conversation about the Golden Age of the Broadway musical, a character created by John Guare asked, “Why were the musicals [from 1932 to 1964] so great?  For one reason alone.  There were no ballet companies …Lincoln Kirstein thinks he’s doing the world this big favor by founding New York City Ballet.  He hires Balanchine, who never does another show.  It’s corporate raiding.  By 1964, the plundering was through.  Jerome Robbins did his last Broadway show, Fiddler on the Roof …Fosse…moved in with a new kind of show-dancing, but it wasn’t ballet…I go to NYCB.  I see Robbins’s I’m Old Fashioned, Glass Pieces, they break my heart.  All I think is they would have been great numbers in Broadway shows.”

Since the establishment of ballet as a form of performance, each century is has produced a handful of great choreographers, often – but not always – clustered at a single locus.  In the eighteenth century Jean-George Noverre and Maximilien Gardel dominated in Paris.  In the nineteenth, the center of dance thought moved eastward, with Petipa, to Russia. However, it is in America that the great twentieth century flowering of dance took place. This development stemmed from a single man, George Balanchine, and through him not only ballet, but theatre dance experienced transformation in the hands of, first, Jerome Robbins, and later, Bob Fosse.

Hired by Diaghilev to replace Bronislava Nijinska as a composer of opera ballets, Balanchine was, at 21, ballet master of the world’s finest, most innovative company, the Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo. From Diaghilev he learned staging and the value of bringing together the best work available in a variety of fields to create new ballets.  He said, “It is because of Diaghilev that I am whatever I am today.” But Balanchine was independent, too, and could abandon Diaghilev’s influence without a glance backward – as seen in his frequent eliminations of costumes and sets – his so-called “black and white” ballets.

Neoclassicism, the style Balanchine eventually embraced, is grand in manner without being pompous.  It is inventive, lucid, witty, ironic, sometimes poignant, and full of the pleasures of the dance. With his ballet, Apollo (1928), he summoned this precision and richness, and in so doing created a work of originality that impressed even the avant guard. The theme of Apollo is creativity itself, energetic, crystalline, refined. Prodigal Son, following in 1929, was entirely different, wrenching, disturbing, harsh in its vision.  It was a pattern that held sway until the year he died: the assemblage of ballets that differed radically in scope, style and theme, one following another, sometimes in a matter of weeks.

Balanchine’s most important relationship was with Igor Stravinsky, whose artistic vision emerged from the same post-war ferment that informed Balanchine’s. The dynamic personal relationship enjoyed by these two artists overflowed into the composition method itself. For example, during the creation of Orpheus, in 1948, Stravinsky asked Balanchine about the length of the pas de deux.

“Oh,” Balanchine replied, “about two and a half minutes.”

“Don’t say ‘about,’” Stravinsky said reprovingly. “There is no such thing as ‘about’. Is it two minutes, two minutes and fifteen seconds, two minutes and thirty seconds, or something in between?”

As a choreographer, Balanchine explored spheres of movement not seen before in ballet, and made his discoveries a part of the dance vocabulary. He was able to demonstrate, without dancing a part full out, the essence of a movement, so that dancers would mourn their inability to reproduce the elegance, the gusto, the earthiness – whatever the part required – that Balanchine demonstrated in the studio. His understanding of music freed him from what Stravinsky called “the tyranny of the beat,” and he was able to create dance phrases that have independence and integrity of their own, yet are linked to the music’s internal patterns. Balanchine believed that if ballet is any good, it doesn’t need program notes or other explanation, only the title and composer. “The curtain should just go up and if the spectators understand what’s going on it’s good, and if not, not.”

Balanchine shared an office and artistic directorship of New York City Ballet for 20 years with Jerome Robbins, who composed only three ballets before hooking up with Balanchine, Fancy Free, Interplay, and Facsimile. The Guests was his first ballet for NYCB. Balanchine gave Robbins tremendous support during the composition of this first work, offering not only dancers and space, the raw materials, but educated interest and encouragement. “Here I was, just a young choreographer, and there was the master of our age bringing in props to help me, as if he were some fourth assistant to the stage manager,” Robbins reported with amazement.

As a businessman, Robbins worked hard for fair billing, credit and wages when choreographers were notoriously underpaid and undervalued.  Like many of his colleagues even now, he felt the scorn of people in his own profession and of the public, who felt dance was not real work. From Balanchine, Robbins learned the key to satisfaction in the creative life: it’s the work itself that counts not the success of it. “He made me see that the work was more important than the success, that work in progress was what mattered most.”

Highly sensitive to the idea of his Jewishness and “outsider” status, Robbins reflected upon, with his work, the conflicts that determined his personality.  These include: passion to succeed as an American; longing for the traditions of the old country; desire for intimacy and all that surrender of ego might entail; and the necessity to create. This urgency to make dances for public consumption was supported – necessarily – by an enormous ego.  It is impossible that it be otherwise. Without the certainty that one’s work is valid and worthy, the self-exposure it requires would be intolerable.

As a dancer, Robbins had a knack for upstaging ballerinas with his inventive comic turns and mischievous sense of humor.  Agnes de Mille noted the rapidity with which he learned difficult combinations. Great dance critic Edwin Denby was moved by the nuances of expression that allowed Robbins to embody a role unforgettably, as in Petrouchka, where he had “a forlorn, sawdust quality that lingers in the memory even after 40 years.”

As a choreographer, Robbins continued to perform in Balanchine’s dances while creating some of his own best ballets and theatre pieces.  These include: The Concert, Age of Anxiety, Afternoon of a Fawn, Dances at a Gathering, On the Town, The King and I, Gypsy, Fiddler on the Roof, Peter Pan, and West Side Story. In spite of thorough preparation, Robbins tended to study his work in progress by creating a number of variants.  Dancers rehearsing his ballets often had to remember multiple versions of the same basic phrase.  He was also continually on the lookout for accidents in the studio that might be borrowed to create an exciting moment.

Robbins’ most powerful and defining collaboration was with composer Leonard Bernstein with whom he worked on several of his most well known Broadway shows. The two men had in common the goal of using dance theatre to convey “pertinent ideas about ourselves and our world.”  The Guests, like West Side Story, explores class conflict.  On the Town contained the first truly integrated cast.  It has been suggested that Robbins and Bernstein as artists and as human beings lived “in two worlds simultaneously…able to see into both…and to translate for the audience.”

Bob Fosse, in some ways Robbins’ Broadway protégé, was progenitor of a pure Broadway dance style that was, perhaps, a happy consequence of his lack of ballet experience. The splayed fingers, the thirties-era bowler hat tipped forward or to one side, and the basing in dark, funny scripts that take humorous shots at cherished institutions are all elements of Fosse’s style.

Fosse revolutionized dance on Broadway by infusing a jazz-inspired sensibility with gritty, burlesque-style movements. He created light-hearted, comedic sequences along side sexy, down-and-dirty dance numbers that suggest, often with great irony, the temporality of pleasure and passion. There is something tongue-in-cheek, in Gwen Verdon’s strip-tease romp, “What Lola Wants” (Damn Yankees), in the frank appeal to the wallet in “Big Spender” (Sweet Charity), or in the bruised limbs of the ensemble dancers in Cabaret. The plot reversals and sexually explicit humor disguise universal themes of personal identity and role-playing, exploitation of the poor and disenfranchised, and the inevitability of human suffering, recovery and renewal.

Certainly these are matters about which Fosse had first-hand knowledge. Inspired by the dancers he met at the dive clubs where he first performed, his choreography contained a characteristic  ferocity and subtlety teristic throughout his career. Fosse dancers move with a loose-jointed, declarative pinache. Heads bob. Pelvises thrust. Shoulders arch and revolve. Knees knock. Eyes roll. Heels kick clownishly high. Perhaps the most engaging quality in his body of work is its tender reference to vaudeville.

The jazz style Fosse created has become the measuring rod for contemporary theatre dance, and is as evident on Broadway as it is in music videos. Hip-hop, disco, and funk all borrow from his work.  The 1999 Broadway revue, Fosse, was a greatest–hits collection of Fosse’s most celebrated song-and-dance numbers, and played at New York’s Broadhurst Theatre for more than 1,000 performances, closing in August 2001. Its repertory included pieces from his most popular productions, and featured veteran Broadway stars such as Ann Reinking and Candy Buckley, New York City Ballet principal Julio Bocca and soloist Edwaard Liang, and American Ballet Theatre’s Desmond Richardson. Fosse’s choreography has also become the subject of a wonderfully filmed installment of Great Performances: Dance in America, airing on public television stations this season.

Since the deaths of these choreographers, there has been great flap about the tensions sometimes felt in the studio between themselves and those who danced for them. In Prodigal Son: Dancing for Balanchine in a World of Pain and Magic (1998), Edward Villella relates a humorous anecdote that perfectly illustrates the conflict.  Villella was rehearsing a ballet, and was suffering from pain caused by an at-that-time undiagnosed joint condition.  He was frustrated with the part itself.  He didn’t believe he had time enough to learn it.  In sum, he was grumbling, or at least emitting dissatisfied vibrations.  One afternoon, George Balanchine summoned him to the basement of the State Theater, and began to dig through some boxes of dusty, abandoned costumes. At last he resurrected a bright orange tunic, and a pair of garish yellow tights.

“Put these on,” he commanded.

Feeling foolish, Villella complied. The effect, apparently, was not good, but Balanchine was delighted.

“Perfect!” he announced with a flourish, then strode away, leaving Villella to absorb the lesson: If you’re going to play the fool, why not dress like one?

At the heart of this antagonism was a debate about what is most important.  For Balanchine, the answer was always, even during the well-publicized debacle with Suzanne Farrell, dance.  For Jerome Robbins and for Bob Fosse, the value was similar.  Dancers who threatened to quit were told some version of: “Good thing you decided.  Go in peace.” Dancers who failed to appear in company class or rehearsal simply were not cast. But with Balanchine no longer around to set and exceed the standard, nor Robbins, nor Fosse, nor their colleagues, (and someday, not even their students), how will their choreography survive? Some already say it has not. Maria Tallchief has noted leveling in sequences created for her in the years of American Ballet Company and Ballet Society, for example. Some, of course, is preserved on film, and the Broadway shows, at least for now, continue to experience revivals. Balanchine, who lived his life very satisfactorily in the present, may have sniffed, “Who cares?” Certainly he showed almost no concern for the fate of either his choreography or for NYCB after his demise. “Apres moi, the board,” he said, characteristically.

The influence of these choreographers is so profound that it is difficult to conceive of the world without it. They offered, on the one hand, loving tribute to the past (as in Balanchine’s Nutcracker and Swan Lake, Robbins’ Fiddler on the Roof, or Fosse’s vaudeville-inspired number, “Who’s Got the Pain?” in Damn Yankees), while at the same time translating American culture into a performance milieu that all can access. In so doing, they transcended barriers of language, mores, ethnicity and expectation to offer a broadened vision of humanity, “the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals.”