Yes- The Sun King was a crossdresser... Representations of Masculinity on the 17th Century French Stage
written by Lexi Mondot
Upon the coming of age of Louis XIV, royal regulation of decorum took on a new face, as he “managed to revive cross-dressing as a ‘royal performance practice’”(Harris 58)
French Theatre in the 17th century was ahead of its time in the way it represented gender. On the road towards constructing a unique male persona on stage, French drama challenged the ‘ideal’ European masculinity, and Renaissance ‘Man.’ The expected decorum of the male, the absolutist authority assumed by men, the roles given to men, and the words used to label men were well defined in Neoclassical Europe. These normalcies are challenged, both by what the playwrights and actors propose to their audience, and also by what the crown allows or encourages to be performed.
The expected decorum of the male, was challenged in works such as L’ile de hermaphrodites, where expectations of station-specific attire are opposed. According to Harris, this sumptuary law dispute “accordingly expresses the court’s debauchery and corruption... in turn-of-the-century France,”(Harris 79).
The transgressions of decorous apparel, and image, can illustrate the fluctuation of gender, considering artificial construction of class can be applied in the same way to gender. Other plays which provoke decorous gender, include La Fille Savante (1690) and Coquette (1691). In the former, the woman disrupts bodily expectations for her gender, and in the latter, women discuss their capacity to consume alcohol. Both of these examples “transgress the typical restrictions placed upon [gender]... by the demands of society,” (Harris 79). Although Cardinal Richelieu intended to uphold the rules of Neoclassicism, playwrights did revolt in small ways as cited above. Upon the coming of age of Louis XIV, royal regulation of decorum took on a new face, as he “managed to revive cross-dressing as a ‘royal performance practice’”(Harris 58). This was only a few years after multiple all-boy colleges had forbidden cross-dressing on stage for religious reasons.
Louis’s encouragement of cross-gender representation lead to the the acceptance of effeminate traits among men. In 17th century france, men could wear curly wigs, perfume, high heels, blouses and frills. These are traits that today would be considered undoubtedly feminine. But views change overtime, and “traits that affirm one’s masculinity in one social context can undermine it in another” (Coltrane 7). These traits may be seen as effeminate to us, however the purchase and appropriation of fake long curly hair, was considered manly. To be able to purchase another person’s hair, was considered a representation of man’s ability to undermine God’s intention (Festa 60). This ‘man-made’ beauty is also seen in the gardens in Paris and Versailles. Jardin du Luxembourg, Jardin Tuileries, and the Jardin at Versailles are all representative of man’s control over nature. The use of male power to create beautiful things in spite of god, paradoxically allows men of this period to express feminine qualities. For example, Philippe d’Orleans, Louis XIV’s brother was permitted to dress women, and cross dress in private quarters when off the stage. Although Cardinal Mazarin did put forth an effort to make him more masculine, the court accepted his femininity, especially after his performance in the Ballet du Roi des Fetes de Bacchus (1651), (Harris 62). This goes to show that although there still exists resistance to effeminate masculinity, there was a larger awareness of the flexibility of gender identification among the French court and people than in English, Spanish or Italian courts of this time.
The third aspect of decorum that is called into question, is the representation of male desire. Hearn argues that “no one is more arrogant toward women, more aggressive or scornful than the man who is anxious about his virility”(36). Thus the intense desire to express one’s own ‘machoness’ turns masculinity from a mere trait to a dangerous tool of jealousy, violence, and unruly competition. This is seen in Spanish characters such as Don Juan; Italian comedies, such as Mandragola; and English drama, such as the brothers in the Duchess of Malfi. The exaggeration and commonality of unruly male desire becomes limited to chauvinistic sexual desire, desire for power through oppressive means, and a macho desire to prove oneself as stronger than the other. If a man’s desires lie outside of these ‘manly’ expectations, it is ridiculed and considered weak. This forces men to personify a stock character in theatre, degrading their ability to have individualized desires, and to respect and love others on the same level as themselves. For example, Spanish sword-plays at this time, demonstrate a one sided perspective of male identity, where men “think with only their swords,” (Dr. Partin). This insulting representation of men, becomes abusive and inhumane, when in fact men should be held in higher regard, for everyone’s sake.
In French theater, however, beginning with Henri III, his desires drew upon a balance of the virile and feminine, as “he is subjected not only to his own desires, but also through economic dependence, to the desires of others” (Harris 56). This shows his openness to be the object of desire and not just fight for his own desires as expected. Festa argues that in French theatre, men, such as the Sun King, allowed themselves to be beautiful spectacle not necessarily “spectacles of heroic and sympathetic imperial masculinity," (78).
The laws of decorous men in 17th century France were often broken, (as cited above) through feminine expression, individualized desires and finally their openness to what it means to ‘act like a man.’ In French theatre, boys and men could be considered sexy, beautiful and gentle, which is not a neoclassical virile attitude. This can be seen in the 1658 performance of Atalia, when a cross-dressed boy actor from College Clermont’s was considered by critics as “‘si joli et si doux,’”(Harris 47). (meaning so pretty and so soft). Rejecting social stigma for men in this way, uplifts the man more than it equalizes the genders. Not forcedly targeted towards female advancement, these efforts widen accepted masculinity, which in turn improves the quality of life for both men and women. These men, however are able to benefit from all the pleasures of femininity, but “suffer from none of the debasement” (Harris 47).
The second way in which 17th Century French Theatre challenged the masculine representation is in the way men interact with others on stage. At this time, men are assumed to maintain absolute authority and power. In European plays, men hold the power, which means they hold the right to speak and be heard. This is demonstrated by the overwhelming presence of men alone in dialogue, action and importance. The right to speak, is a sign of power. Silence is a sign of oppression. In neoclassical plays, men can be considered oppressive beings, since they hold a larger percentage of the dialogue, action, or prominence.
The amount of time men spend listening to females in plays such as the Duchess of Malfi, Mandragola, Life is a Dream, and the Trickster of Seville is significantly lower than in the plays of Moliere, Racine, or Corneille. Men allow women to have at least a certain degree of agency and choice. In the English play, masculinity was depicted as the power to override the desires of others, and put their own desires first. For example in the Duchess of Malfi, “wealthy women in the power of male relatives, [were] treated as salable property. The penalty for seeking a portion of personal happiness was cruel indeed” (Webster iii). This type of interaction truly dampens the male’s ability to establish any type of meaningful relationship, as all love and admiration will be forced affinity instead of sincere companionship.
French Theatre attempts to battle this stereotype, by allowing women to take significant action in the plots. Many Jesuit colleges outlawed the use of female clothing, or female roles on stage, but this was quickly refuted as Boussuet realized the ban “posed such great restrictions on the subject matter of plays”(Harris 45). The rejection of strict religious law, and eventually the outlawing of religious plays lead playwrights to realize the need for a more neutral gender appeal in France. It was quite revolutionary at the time, not only did they have women on stage, but they had stories with women in the title roles. (Even today, in 2011, only 16 percent of title roles are female) Such college productions include, Jezabel (1640), Suzanna (1653), Sainte-Catherine(1653), Le Mariage de Mars et de Minerve (1654), and Marthesie, premiere Reine de Amazones (1700).
The final way in which male interaction on stage was radical in France, was the sharing of strong roles in the theatre. There was a sense of balance between masculine and feminine entities, whether or not the manifestation occurred in a male or female body. A male in a female body could be considered strong, and Louis XIV himself didn’t use feminine representation as degradation, but in fact viewed “female virtue and honour as the template for kingly restraint and continence” (Harris 59). He also believed interaction between genders to be less of a power play than that between classes. Degradation was not something that affected him, as he believed one should not be ashamed to be oneself in front of those who are of lower station. For example, it wasn’t embarrassing for him to be naked in front of his servants. To him, it “was shameful only to be naked before one’s own superiors.”(Harris 46). This allowed him the freedom to express his own feminine aspects without any fear of rebuttal, as he was of the highest station- the king. Thus, the acceptance of new forms of masculinity in France is owed greatly to the Sun King.
The Sun king, lead not only by example, but also by connecting Racine to Maintenon’s school. By putting a man under the rule of a woman to make drama, he was inducing a shared role between masculine and feminine producers. Madame Maintenon, was so unhappy with one of Racine’s plays saying, her girls played it so well that they will never play it again. She was implying that his representation of women was too overtly sexual, and that it was scary to see the young girls succeed at playing the material. Thus under her command, he wrote Esther (1689) and Athalie (1691) which are considered to be extremely androgynous dramas. His role as playwright under the direction of a woman, changed views of possible interaction in theatrical production, but also changed the expected roles of men in Drama.
The role of the man in drama during the 17th century, is full of anticipated responsibility. According to Hearn, “‘the price men pay for representing the universal is disembodiment, or loss of gendered specificity into the abstraction of phallic masculinity”(36). To sum it up, Hearn is saying that the male experience stands for the universal humanistic experience. It is men’s responsibility to disembody themselves to represent the truth for everyone, when in fact this ‘universal truth’ becomes a simple stereotype of phallic masculinity. Gender roles are challenged in French drama by approaching a more balanced distribution of roles, and alleviating the responsibility of men to represent all human experience. These roles include, the parts men and women played in drama, the roles represented in the family and in society.
Men’s roles were compromised in French drama as early as 1542, which is very early to have female counterparts on stage. But in fact, Marie Fairet appeared on stage around 1542, and Marie Vernier followed as a popular actress between 1597 and 1629. As early as 1599, Isabella Andreini, a Commedia dell’ Arte actress’s presence “did much to encourage the acceptance of actresses in Paris,” (Brockett, 182). In 1661, Louis XIV appears as Diane in the Ballet Royal de L’impatience, making the female role the lead role. This increased the understanding of interchangeable roles, and sharing roles in plays with the talent of women. It was entirely acceptable to tell a story from the female point of view, or for nobility to use female roles as the focus of a piece.
Apart from the logistics of gender participation in a production, there is gender participation in the story being told. Women have more important roles in plays in France than elsewhere, so it is feasible to assume that men will have to adjust their roles within the stories from misogynistic or patriarchal, to maintain a more moralistic and respectful role within the family and society.
The expectation of the role of men within the family in 17th-century England was low. An English aristocrat “suggests that women rich enough not to depend on men financially were mad to live with Men, who make the Female sex their slaves”(Hearn 36). French drama also exhibits an imbalance of power in the sexes, but men are at least permitted to desire a role as a respectable husband or family member. In Le Cid, the protagonist plays his role as a good son, and tries, against all odds tries to prove he can be a good husband to her. There is no feeling of force or animalistic desire to prove himself; he is more or less humble in trying to woo her. In the Misanthrope, Alceste admits love to be against all reason and honesty, but he still sincerely attempts to win his lover’s heart. This is interesting, because Moliere reverses the expected roles of the sexes. His female character behaves like the Don Juan, lying in attempt to fulfill her own chauvinist desires, while the Male character is being manipulated. Even upon discovering the truth, Alceste, although angry, does not become violent, nor does he degrade her mindlessly. This is a significant change in the representation of men’s roles in love and in the family. It is a more rounded understanding of the individual, and a less insulting stereotype of the man who thinks only with his ‘sword.’
In Tartuffe, the scene between Tartuffe and Elmire shows his hesitation and thus he comes off as very shy and weak. This is a real situation for many men, but one of the first times it is depicted to this extreme in drama. Moliere shows that men, too, have doubts, dreams and desires about their families and love lives. It allows for a comical conversation between a man and a woman to occur, that would not take place if the decorum of male virility had been enforced. Moliere criticizes and challenges the roles of gender in society in many of his works. For example, in La Fille Savante, a widow states that she’s had seventeen children! According to Harris, Moliere is trying to draw attention “to the period’s paradoxical constructions of womanhood and femininity; in fulfilling her marital duties and producing many offspring, a woman will lose her femininity and become masculine”(81). Moliere often writes women into dominating roles as mothers and wives, expressing the possibility, that men may at some points want women to dominate or take responsibility in political control of the family and state.
Representation of female domination occurs when men in drama choose to maintain a role in society that follows the lead of a woman. This challenged the expectation that men “were as embodied, irrational, and vicious as the misogynists claimed women were. Furthermore, men tyrannize over women rather than loving and protecting them as they claim to do” (Hearn 36). Examples of this include Racine working under a female producer for years, and the rebellion against decorum of both men and women in French society. The reason for legal leeway in gender depiction, is because, although the words ‘sex’ and ‘gender’ during the 17th century did not exist with separate definitions, France was ahead of its time in the recognition of gender as something that can be constructed and played on stage, in the same way class can be embodied or imitated. France “created a space for play, that is, a space for imaginable dissonances of gender over (supposedly) stable sexual bodies,” (Festa 62).
The final proof that masculine identity was confronted in French Drama, is the subconscious use of language. In all European languages, gendering is a fundamental part of speaking, writing and communicating. Every single noun is labeled as masculine or feminine. Things that are strong, reliable, quick, stiff, hard, useful and creative are labeled to be masculine, and things that are soft, fluffy, weak, small, quiet, receptive, and passive are labeled as feminine. Grammar has everything to do with gender identification as language is the insight to the subconscious of a society. According to Karl Lepsius (1863), “only the most highly civilized ‘races’ and ‘leading nations in the history of mankind’ distinguished the genders...” (Romaine 67).
The labeling of gender in France, took an interesting turn in the 17th century. Although the language stayed primarily the same, the labeling of male or female underwent intense confusion. For example, All words that end in -oire are feminine, except ‘armoire’ which was neutral in the 17th century. The masculine and feminine labeling is derived from Latin gendering, however there is a large shift of gendered language in 17th century French (Wall, 159).
If the French “saw gender classification as the metaphorical extension of sex to the rest of the world (Darmesteter 236),” then the large shift of gender labels in the 17th century is telling of the mindset and outlook of society and the culture. For example, Episode, Epitaphe, Epithete, Equivoque... and many other masculine words became neutral during the 17th century and then feminine later on. Words such as Ulcere, Utensile were neutral, they could be both male and female, and became masculine years later. (Darmesteter 236). Language during this century in France became extremely androgynous, demonstrating the ever-changing perceptions of masculine and feminine labeling in society and every day life as demonstrated in the Theatre. Not only was androgyny a confrontation of masculine convention, but feminine applications to standard ‘masculine‘ nouns stimulates an even larger spectrum of gender understanding. For example, if you look at the most ‘masculine’ part of the body, the penis, and compare the colloquial term in French and in German, you’ll notice something that is more telling to the subconscious of a people that most want to admit. The penis, in French is ‘la bite’- feminine, and in German, ‘der schwanz’- masculine. One can directly understand how labeling can highly affect the mindset of men and women.
This labeling is complicated as “People often equate males with masculinity and females with femininity, but they don’t automatically go together... gender is not a direct result of biological sex” (Coltrane 7). In conclusion, French dramatists understood the distinction between man and masculinity. They wrote about individuals and sparked a debate among the neoclassicist and the modernists. Thanks to these dramatists, the neoclassical expectation of men was deconstructed so that drama in the years to follow was able to include complex and individualized characters, not just wife-beaters and soldiers. France continues to revolt against the expectations of masculinity, as can be seen in the effeminate fashion accepted for men and the ‘masculine’ fashion accepted for women. The dramatists of the 17th century did not have the vocabulary to describe just how radical their works were, as they paved the way for transgenders, homosexuals, feminists, and cross-dressers to be visible and accepted in valid roles in entertainment we see today.
"Amazon.com: Manning the Margins: Masculinity and Writing in Seventeenth-Century France (9780472050581): Lewis C. Seifert PhD: Books." Amazon.com: Online Shopping for Electronics, Apparel, Computers, Books, DVDs & More. Web. 15 Dec. 2011. <http://www.amazon.com/Manning-Margins-Masculinity-Writing-Seventeenth-Century/dp/0472050583>.
Bentley, Eric, and Roy Campbell. Life Is a Dream, and Other Spanish Classics. New York, NY: Applause Theatre Book, 1985. Print.
Coltrane, Scott. Gender and Families. Thousand Oaks: Pine Forge, 1998. Print.
Darmesteter, Arsène. A Historical French Grammar. Vol. 1. Paris: Macmillion and, 1899. Print.
Festa, Lynn. "Personal Effects: Wigs and Possessive Individualism in the Long Eighteenth Century." Eighteenth-Century Life 29.2 (2005): 47-90. Print.
Harris, Joseph. Hidden Agendas: CrossDressing in the 17th Century France. Vol. 156. Tübingen: G. Narr Verlag, 2005. Print.
Kimmel, Michael S., Jeff Hearn, and Raewyn Connell. Handbook of Studies on Men & Masculinities. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 2005. Print.
Machiavelli, Niccolò, and Mera J. Flaumenhaft. Mandragola. Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland, 1981. Print.
Romaine, Suzanne. Communicating Gender. Mahwah, NJ: L. Erlbaum Associates, 1999. Print.
Seifert, Lewis Carl. Manning the Margins: Masculinity and Writing in Seventeenth-century France. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, 2009. Print.
Wall, Charles Heron. The Students̕ French Grammar: a Practical and Historical Grammar of the French Language. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1878. Print.
Webster, John. The Duchess of Malfi. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 1999. Print.
written by Lexi Mondot
Tanztheatreʼs relationship with traditions of dance presentation during the 70s was
challenging. It catapulted debates about dance and performance theory in both America
and Germany. Some credit the tumultuous lives of this generationʼs parents from World
War II in Germany to be responsible for the political and social saturation in dance and
performance art at this time. Pina Bausch was pushing up against the boundaries of dance
traditions, as she combined theatrical and other performative influences that was “aiming
at something new in both form and content”(Servos, 36). Pina Bausch coined the term
ʻdance theatreʼ (Tanztheatre in German) as a “synonym for a new and independent
genre”(Servos 36). This new form was something exciting and riveting. It shook up both
audiences and critics, in both form and the raw emotion presented. According to Cody, in
its second decade, Bauschʼs Wuppertal Tanztheater had become known for “its depictions
of the violence in the relationship between the sexes, the plight of the individual subjected
to annihilating institutional authority, and the anguish inherent in attempting to enter the
physical memory of childhood” (116). Cody goes on to explain how the development of
these works has pushed critics and viewers, because of its potent past within the work. He
talks about the use of music from the 30s and 40s in her work can be an indication that the
angst within her political and social views is a reference to the world left behind by her
parentʼs generation in Fascist Germany.
The social and political health of Germany at this time surely contributed to the deestablishing
of dance and theatrical standards. For Pina, the standards became more
about finding a way to communicate the raw emotion than to create an aesthetically
pleasing piece. In her earlier works, she did make what New York Times art critics called
“pure dance” however, she was playing with non-narrative movement forms. She was also
sometimes labeled into the post-modern dance form, although she really was breaking the
boundaries in a different way than Post-modern dancers. On a basic level, she was still
using lighting, props, costumes, and movers like western theatrical dance had carried on
doing for years, although; she did not honor the standards in content, or material, nor
movement vocabulary of traditional western dance at the time.
First off, Pina would not depict linear plots like in Western Traditional dance at the
time. She relied on heavy symbolism, props, gesture and witty interactions between
bodies. In a way, she was making realistic depictions of humans organized in space.
According to Servos, itʼs referred to as the ʻGestus of indication,ʼ the conscious exhibition
of processes, the technique of alienation, as well as a special use of comedy... together
with the motifs borrowed from the world of everyday experience, these serve to illustrate
ʻpeople as they really areʼ”(40).
Secondly, Pina moved away from a pure dance form. Unlike many theatrical dance
choreographers in the west and America, Pina chose personality over body type. She was
more interested in creating work from peopleʼs inner emotions that could be bared and
expressed, than to work with identical dancers with the same body type, fighting to make
beautiful shapes and stories together. Pina wanted realness. Servos calls this a
“transference from an aesthetically abstract level to one of everyday physical
experience” (39). He explains that this is not just about a defining a style, but about
bringing content to the stage that is ʻrealʼ and not just an “attractive illusion”(Servos 39).
Another factor of Tanztheatreʼs relationship to the traditions of dance presentation
was the large step it took away from the established Modern Dance Aesthetic of America.
Just decades before, Isadora had been challenging the aesthetics of Western dance, so
that dance artists would be taken seriously as creators. However, Isadora fought to be
considered a high art with movement based in flow, nature, grace, and classical music.
What Pina was making was simply raw, real, broke the fourth wall and asked the audience
to take in absurd visuals, such as a hippo on stage. She pushed and attacked the
audienceʼs senses like Artaudʼs cruelty of Theatre. She bombarded them with ʻrealʼ and
raw emotion like the Actors of Stanislavsky. It was epic like Brechtʼs theory of theatre. This
doesnʼt seem like Ballet, Modern Dance Tradition, nor even post modern. It didnʼt fit, or
even have a place within a genre for most critics in America. According to Wanner,
confused critics claimed “This is not enough movement, it isnʼt dance anymore...dancers
are expected to perform steps.” Even the dancers themselves found themselves very
challenged by these ideas. Some were not able, or simply unwilling to cooperate because
they wanted to ʻdance.ʼ The dancers had trained their bodies for years to be able to
perform at a certain level and physical strength, and when they were asked to reveal their
own narratives, personal stories and problems from which to create emotive expression,
they exploded. After one dancer broke down and yelled to Pina, Pina was ready to quit.
She had faced so much resistance to putting reality on stage in place of aesthetically
pleasing gesture, that she became scared. Eventually, she did continue, and today this
movement “looks like and is defined as one of the possibilities of what dance is, only
because Pina broke those boundaries” (Wanner). There were others, however who have
also pushed for a multi-media dance art such as the French Groupe Emile Du-Bois, and
Butoh performers (Birringer 85).
The inability to label artwork into a specific category can make critics
uncomfortable, and also it can make a writerʼs job difficult. What is it that we are seeing
when we watch Tanztheatre? It is itʼs own genre- tanztheatre, but what does that mean,
and what is is like. Many journals, reviews, and books have captured and labeled elements
of her work, through the directors; Brecht, Artaud, and Stanislavsky (Manning, 60). Price
explains that even those who are very attracted to Pinaʼs work, “limit their theoretical
approach to...rely upon Brechtian Vocabulary”(322), but that they miss the true
distinguishing factor of her work. Her binary opposition does not “reproduce and either/or
dichotomy... Bauschʼs productions are both dance and theater”(Price 322). However, she
still enjoys “shatterine the illusion of theater”(Price 326) like Brecht. Her dancers donʼt try
to make it look easy to move, or effortless, but the audience is exposed to their pain,
anguish and she pushes them to the limit. You can see them become drenched in sweat
as the piece goes on, and dirt or water begins to stick to them and weight them down.
Manning claims this is more like Theatre of Cruelty than Brechtian Theatre.
In Artaudʼs theatre of cruelty simultaneously distances and engages the spectator.
Manning claims that Pinaʼs work does the same. She says, “this push and pull leaves
many spectators exhausted by the end of the evening, overwhelmed by the emotional
complexity of the experience. Bauschʼs theatre of cruelty effects a peculiar cathersis for
the experience of the work leaves spectators drained, but with no sense of resolution”(60).
Finally, Pina gives her dancers agency. Their words, feelings and emotions donʼt
only influence the piece, but create the pieces. It comes from a deeper method, that
Manning had compared to Stanislavsy Method principles. Tanztheatre is able to connect
and breach the gap between spectator and performer, fourth wall and the west, by forcing
interactions with the inner inspirations of movement instead of spectacle and illusion. She
asks the dancers to address “interactions with the intensity and pain of remembered
experience”(Manning 60). It is because of the strength and belief in her own style and
method, that Pina has broken through these boundaries to allow us exposure to multifaceted
forms of dance, theatre and performance art.
Birringer, Johannes. "Pina Bausch Dancing Across Borders." The Drama Review: TdDR 30.2
(1986): 85-97. JSTOR. Web. 12 July 2010. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/1145729>.
Cody, Gabrielle. "Woman, Man, Dog, Tree: Two Decades of Intimate and Monumental Bodies in
Pina Bausch's Tanztheater." The Drama Review: TDR 42.2 (1998): 115-31. JSTOR. Web. 12
July 2010. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/1146702>.
Manning, Susan A. "An American Perspective on Tanztheater." The Drama Review: TDR 30.2
(1986): 57-79. JSTOR. Web. 12 July 2010. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/1145727>.
Price, David. "Politics of the Body: Pina Bausch's Tanztheater." Theatre Journal/ Women And/in
Drama 42.3 (1990): 322-31. JSTOR. Web. 12 July 2010. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/
Servos, Norbert. "Pina Bausch: Dance and Emancipation." 5: 36-45. Print.
Wanner, Buck. "Pina Bausch and Ballet Frankfurt." Dance History I. Hollins University, Roanoke,
VA. 17 Apr. 2012. Lecture.
written by Lexi Mondot
The Black Arts movement, however, did not stem out of King’s movement, but it sprouted from the Black Power movement and Black Panther militant vision. Dreamt up by people such as Malcom X and Muhammed, Black Power saw a nation within a nation, a place where African American culture could manifest without the infection of the white gaze.
New Orleans’s unique and diverse background began upon it’s foundation. French ‘criminals,’ prostitutes, ‘lewd’ women, and other outcasts were sent from Europe to what is known today as the French Quarter. There was a large intermingling of races, thus a large percentage of mixed race families, including African American, Indian, French, German, Spanish and ‘Creole’ inhabitants. The attraction of the city began in the late 1800s and early 1900s with, not the legalization of prostitution, but a designated quarter in which prostitution was ‘ignored’ by the law. This developed the early economic standing of the city, as these women brought in an estimated 15 million per year (Rose 31) from which realtors, police, tax collectors, etc., all profited. Tourism was big business, and New Orleans became well known for exploitation. This exploitation de-mingled the races, as segregation in New Orleans became more strict than other places in the South. New laws were being enforced that prohibited all non-white races to live outside their designated quarter; even non-white, or mixed race prostitutes were segregated into special houses of their own. This segregation increased the ‘othering’ of non-white races in New Orleans, and turned their heritage into a spectacle to be exploited.
By the 1950s and 60s, civil rights activists in the city were working hard towards de-segregating the city. The city’s movement is marked by the large number of interracial peoples, who appeared white, but carried no more rights than the freed African Americans. This large group was very influential in fighting the white supremacists of the city, as other whites had “fewer prejudices against interracial unions” (Lacey). The dense diversity in the city, along with the peaceful efforts of the civil rights movement, lead to a revolutionary theatrical movement, pioneered by the Dashiki Theatre.
The Dashiki Project Theatre was very unique in its efforts, on account of being the only black theatre to grow out of the peculiar New Orleans. The black Free Southern Theatre claims New Orleans as its home, but it was not born there. Founded in Mississippi, it later moved to Louisiana. Dashiki’s unequaled mission also stems from its individualized participation in the Black Arts Movement. It was influenced the Black Arts Movement, and vice versa, but it’s vision was global, leading it to be one of the more successful and effective advocators of Black Theatre. Although we rarely hear about this group in the history books, it was one of the most revolutionary theaters the south has seen, thanks to the effectiveness and comprehensiveness of their stances. Their effective activism in advancing civil rights ideals can be seen in the way they represented and related to race politics, gender, and the South.
The Dashiki Project Theater’s political stance is part of what separates it from other Black Arts at the time. The project owes its political positioning to its origin, chosen aesthetic and location. The project was mounted by Dillard University students under the guidance of Theodore Guilliam. This university was one of the first black universities to offer a degree in theatre. With many of the students involved in non-violent sit-ins aimed towards integration, historically black southern universities were identified as a “ground zero of the civil rights movement of the 50s and 60s”(Smethurst 319). To understand why it was important to Dashiki’s mission that these students began as civil rights activists, and not black arts participants, one must examine their histories and missions.
The Civil Rights movement stemmed out of Rosa Park’s efforts to be equally integrated; to end separation on busses, at water-fountains, in parks, etc. Martin Luther King was a non-violent leader using silent sit-ins and calm protest to raise awareness of segregation and the harm it was doing to African Americans. He proved that separate was, in fact, not equal. The Black Arts movement, however, did not stem out of King’s movement, but it sprouted from the Black Power movement and Black Panther militant vision. Dreamt up by people such as Malcom X and Muhammed, Black Power saw a nation within a nation, a place where African American culture could manifest without the infection of the white gaze. A civil rights activist fights for integration, while the extreme black power activist fights for separation and improvement of the black experience.
Beginning in a learning environment with a civil rights background, the Dashiki Project Theater differs enormously from theaters such as the Free Southern Theater. The Free Southern Theatre originated from the SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) thus “it is not surprising that the mission... was political in scope”(Coleman 9). Black Arts Theaters fought for an all black theatre, including production crew, writers, and audience. A ‘for us by us’ mentality that excluded all non-blacks from its membership. Therefore, the components that make up the Dashiki Project allowed room for a more advanced vision, because its students were more concentrated on civil integration than black power. Launching a company from a university, also contributed to Dashiki’s distinct situation because although young students are more eager to work for free than older professional artists; the collection of students in the project had to be driven by a sincere and enormous amount of passion in order to put in the amount of work they did to run a professional theater. In conclusion, the make up of the Dashiki Project included well-trained, and learned black men and women who were motivated enough to spend their spare time on creating an integrated aesthetic for their community.
This history is important to understanding Dashiki’s choice of aesthetic. Using theatre as a means to advance a political agenda, was at the root of the Black Arts Movement. The movement began in literature, but since “Black literature circulated in a closed circuit...The theatre was alive and so much more immediate and accessible to blacks”(Coleman 97). The inherent accessibility of drama made Dashiki’s voice political, however, its goal wasn’t to advance the black power fight, but to make high quality art. Instead of fighting for an all-black theatre, like Ed Bullins of the National Black Theater in Harlem, LeRoi Jones, and Woodie King Jr. of New Federal Theater of New York City, the Dashiki project included other races in its personnel, artists, and producers.
The Dashiki project fought for a sophisticated theatre that originated under Black Artists, giving room for their aesthetic to be seen, and yet, was not racially exclusive. It focused on choosing high quality drama they could study and rehearse; and mounting performances of high caliber that could impress. Gilliam believed that the “power and potential of theatre [can] transcend any particular ethnic agenda”(Coleman 91). This philosophy served the theatre in a positive way, because it eroded rumors of reverse racism, allowed for a wider repertoire of plays, and enhanced the ability to obtain government funding. To Dashiki, the benefits of integrating the theatre for a global vision of ethnic compatibility outweighed the risk of losing black heritage. Black Arts Theaters looked down upon Dashiki’s inclusion of white plays in their repertoire such as Jean Genet’s The Blacks, Tennessee William’s A Streetcar Named Desire, and Jean Racine’s Phaedra. Black Power activists believed that the ‘white experience’ can never be ‘black experience,’ and that representation of blacks had been unbalanced for centuries. They had no interest in allowing whites to write for or participate in the formulation of black identity in the arts. No white should write their dialogue, or direct their movement... for it will always be a white construct of the black minstrel. This attitude towards whites is well merited, as whites had up to that point abused the image of the black citizen. However, excluding all whites can also be a problem because according to Coleman,
the skilled black artists in these theatres were too few in number, and those who had some theatrical and playwriting training were deficient in many other areas. In reality black playwrights were too few in number for such groups to consider only black plays for production. And there were even fewer black directors or producers. The black theatres that were part of this movement performed only plays written by blacks, portraying the black experience. Yet such plays often were the plays of the black revolutionary period, and they were aesthetically confusing and inadequate (99).
The Dashiki Project allowed room for compromise, and although it enabled the influence of other cultures, they were still a primarily black organization. By opening up their political stance and actively challenging the minstrel stereotype, Dashiki made sophisticated black theatre appealing to mix-raced peoples outside of the black community. Theatre is the largest source of the black stereotypes, as it often ridicules black characters by always placing them in the role of the mammie, the Uncle Tom, the joker, the ‘Puck,’ or the Minstrel. The best way to hit the public where it hurts, is to not only show Black artists perform new original black work, but to show them in roles of Kings and Queens in classical works... and to play them with a well-trained cast and crew. Dashiki created an artistic outlet which does not ignore the white experience, but provides “a corrective to all the misrepresentations of the past that are persisting in the present, all the better to create the drama of men whose color is not the only measure of their humanity” (Black Theatre 5) (Coleman 100).
It is difficult for victims of violence and oppression to find affective ways of getting their voices heard. Any type of accusations, although justified, against the oppressor always becomes backlash with accusations of ‘reverse oppression,’ in this case, reverse racism. Although the Black Arts Movement is by all means justified in its vision, and one of the most significant movements in the history of American art, it did receive large amounts of resistance and backlash because of its radical point of view. Using integration and inclusion of all races, makes Dashiki’s mission more palpable, which allows for those whites who have a lot of power and money... to help them. This philosophy also avoided accusation of extreme leftism, which after 1948’s Wallace Campaign was grounds for expulsion or loss of jobs. The most effective, yet difficult way to oppose oppression, is for the oppressed to succeed at the oppressor’s game. The Dashiki Project understood from square one, that if they were to advance black image, it would be through proving their artistic integrity and sophistication, not through violence, or vengeful blaming of the other.
During this period, and even today, there is an imbalance of power, money and representation, so for Dashiki to have whites on their side, meant more than a warm-fuzzy feeling of acceptance. It also meant money. It meant white board members who had money and power, wanted to speak on Dashiki’s behalf. It meant white reporters wanted to provide free publicity and enlarge the theatre’s public by appeal to even race-conscious whites of the time. The Black Arts movement chose a more militant approach, which would have seen the Dashiki approach as weak, by ‘giving in’ to white influence. The militant attitude of the Black Power Movement fought to establish a Black Identity through abrupt and sometimes violent militancy to re-establish the strength and agency of the black man. As a result of black power, The Black Arts movement in effect fought for black male identity while oppressing the identities of black women, gays and lesbians.
The Black Arts movement decided that after 300 years of emasculating the black male, it was time to decolonize the body. The female body, however, is forgotten.. it continues unheard in this battle. The largest part of a power struggle is silencing, and black women today are still battling the silenced female perspective. Even contemporary writers, in 2003 speak of the black struggle from a primarily male perspective. For example, Coleman (as cited in this paper) addresses to a large extent the gender aesthetic of Dashiki, and explains how men were the primary leaders of the Black Arts Movement. He points out how black women were often disrespected, and derogatory statements were made about them in many Black Arts works. But then he reasons the advocation of re-claiming manhood by stating it “is not difficult to understand in the light of how slavery emasculated the black male in the United States and problematized issues of masculinity.”
If a movement is looking to advance thought, why should it examine how slavery emasculated men, but omit the de-feminization of women? In essence, the Black Arts Movement fights against the emasculation of black men, and not the dehumanization of black people. This alienation of oppressed groups from other oppressed groups, expands complication and tension, which is why the Dashiki Project Theatre’s inclusiveness was so innovative. In a movement that “empowered black males at the expense of black females,” (Coleman 96) it was hard to find a theatre that represented the female identity, let alone in a positive non-victimized light. The Dashiki Theatre included women in its founding personnel, and also made a point to include female perspective in its repertoire. Jean Genet, and Ntozake Shange’s works were both put on the Dashiki’s production list, which truly rounded the expansive nature of the Dashiki perspective. Genet’s work is a white female’s perspective of racism in France. Extremely innovative to put this into the hands of a black director to express female sentiments of a male-dominated fight.
The next piece, Shange’s For Colored Girls Who Have Ever Considered Suicide when the Rainbow Was Enuf, is very unique in its perspective as a multimedia performance; it includes prose, dance, music, video, and lighting to propose new ways of telling a story or depicting life. She chose nameless characters, representing each color of the rainbow in order to deconstruct the standard male/female or black/white diaspora. All of the characters were on the same plane, the same level of power, and with the same amount of time allotted to speak. They begin by stating all the different cities they’re from, globalizing the ability to identify with the piece. The prose is full of analogies, and no part is spoken the way we normally communicate. Her deconstruction of words and reality, works to demonstrate a consciousness particular to the black female experience. Something that can’t necessarily be expressed in the typical three act structure and sensical dialogue. In a way her piece can be linked to the Theatre of Cruelty, in that it overwhelms all the senses and all reasoning. It is the result of a generation of women who have been fighting a war in silence, and fighting to have something to live for, as the Lady in Brown says, “we gotta dance to keep from dyin”(Shange 7). As Todd has stated in class, “women enjoy character development driven plots, while men prefer linear climactic plots”(Ristau 9/5/11). It’s a shame that this type of episodic and character driven plot is rare, because fifty percent of the audience (women) relate better to this type of drama. Dashiki’s recognition of the lack of female representation in the movement, allowed them to be more innovative, by providing performances that could also appeal to the female aesthetic. Dashiki’s innovation in race and gender could be considered more impressive than the innovation in theatres found in cities such as New York, Detroit, or Chicago.
The participation of the South in the Black Arts Movement differed greatly from that in the North, Midwest, or West. The North has an industrial history that put blacks in a less segregated atmosphere. In the agricultural south, the presence of white supremacists was somewhat more significant, as white’s economic dependence on slaves before the civil war was crucial to their survival. Thus the Black Arts Movement in the south had more agency because it was in a densely racist area; but it had less recognition, because in those agricultural communities, local publishers were scant.
Theaters, too, were sparse in the South. Located in either residential areas, or on the campus of a historically black university, Southern Theaters functioned on a local level, targeting and specifying their social or political goals to tight knit communities. Local attention, however doesn’t prevent global influence; because a strong influence on an individual affects American society more than a mild influence on a large group. In order to change the world, one must change themselves, and their community first. Dashiki’s influence resonated because of its local specificity to the New Orleans community.
Influence travels fast, however, the chance that the Dashiki Project’s plays would make it out of New Orleans was rather small. The students of Dillard University, come from all over the states, and brought their philosophies and experiences home with them, but none of those experiences included full-fledged productions or publications of the Dashiki repertoire. Editors and publishers were more readily available to the Black Arts Movement theatres in New York, than in New Orleans. This is why New York takes up most of the space in history books as being prominent in the Black Arts Movement, when Smethurst would argue that “while Black Arts institutions of the South often had difficulty attracting attention beyond the region, nonetheless the South was far more crucial symbolically and practically to the development of the Black Arts and Black Power movements as national phenomena than has sometimes been acknowledged”(320). The south was biting bigger bullets, so their success within small communities deserves to be noted. Personal communication and a communal environment is a more practical way to reach people and to change their ideals. This is why Smethurst argues that the specificity of Southern theaters to their individual neighborhoods was a more practical and radical change than that of Northern non-personal publication and production.
The Dashiki Project avoided the shortcomings and challenges faced by other theaters in the movement by “remaining essentially a collaboration of theatre artists indigenous to and in the area—permanently and continuously rejuvenated by the wealth of talent and inspiration in generations now growing up in the area.” (5)(Coleman 101). The power of the Dashiki project to radically change perspective of racial and gender identities, one small audience at a time was strong, but highly unrecognized because of its Southern location. The only publications, texts, and histories that include Dashiki, do not serve its reputation well, because they speak solely of the only published play that came out of the theatre, El Hajj Malik, by N.R. Davidson. (Aside from the dissertation done by a master student from Louisiana University: Coleman). This play was centered around the life of Malcom X, a revolutionist of the Black Power Movement. Although it is a well-written play, it does not have the ability to stand single-handedly for the philosophy of the Dashiki Project. This is why, as a Southern Theater, Dashiki’s important influence has been left out of written scholarly history, thought it deserves recognition as successful in radically changing the lives of many during the Black Arts Movement era. Dashiki succeeded in integrating the arts world and allowing the black identity to be seen. It was exciting to have integration in the south at this time, as it was highly segregated. Dashiki still maintained its status as a Black Theatre, in that it welcomed integration, but still had a strong stance towards representing both male and female African American identities on stage. Just as Hollins is a primarily female theater, the fact that it includes men in productions doesn’t change the importance of it being a primarily female theatre. It remains a theatre that gives opportunities for women to learn by experience in roles they would’ve never had otherwise, and it offers a perspective that will never degrade the identity of women. This is revolutionary, as was the Dashiki Project Theatre for Black Identity in the United States.
Baraka, Imamu Amiri. "Jazz Criticism and Ideology." Libertarian 8 12 (1964): 28-30.
Clark, Kenneth B. "The Dilemma of the Negro." Unpublished Papers of Kenneth B. Clark in the Manuscripts Division at the Library of Congress (2004). Abstract. The 1969 Haynes Foundation Lecture Series (1969).
Coleman, Stanley R. Dashiki Project Theatre: Black Identity and beyond. Diss. Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge, 2003.
Davidson Jr., N. R. El Hajj Malik. New Plays from the Black Theatre; an Anthology. Ed. Ed Bullins. New York: Bantam, 1969.
Elam, Harry Justin., and David Krasner. African-American Performance and Theater History: a Critical Reader. Oxford [England: Oxford UP, 2001.
Gilliam, Ted. "Black Theatre in New Orleans, 1978-79: A Report." Callaloo 4 (1978): 165-69. JSTOR. Web. 16 Dec. 2011.
"Historical Background of the Black Arts Movement (BAM) - Series." THE BLACK COLLEGIAN Online: The Career Site for African-American College Students. Web. 16 Dec. 2011. <http://www.black-collegian.com/african/bam1_200.shtml>.
Lester, Julius. "Beep! Beep! Bang! Bang! Umgawa! Black Power!" Look Out Whitey, Black Power's Gon' Get Your Mama. New York, NY: Dial, 1968. 97-107.
Magill, Frank N. Masterpieces of African-American Literature. New York, NY: HarperCollins, 1992.
Peterson, Rachel. "Teaching Beyond Tolerance." The Radical Teacher 2007: 39-43. JSTOR. Web. 16 Dec. 2011.
Rogers, Kim Lacy. Righteous Live: Narrative Of The New Orleans Civil Rights Movement. New York University Press, 1993. eBook Collection (EBSCOhost). Web. 4 Dec. 2011.
Romaine, Suzanne. Communicating Gender. Mahwah, NJ: L. Erlbaum Associates, 1999. Print.
Rose, Al. Storyville, New Orleans, Being an Authentic, Illustrated Account of the Notorious Red-light District. University: University of Alabama, 1974.
Sell, Mike. Avant-garde Performance & the Limits of Criticism: Approaching the Living Theatre, Happenings/Fluxus, and the Black Arts Movement. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, 2005.
Shange, Ntozake. For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide, When the Rainbow Is Enuf: A Choreopoem. New York: MacMillion, 1977.
Smethurst, James Edward. The Black Arts Movement: Literary Nationalism in the 1960s and 1970s. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 2005.
written by Lexi Mondot
The Luck of the Irish
If you happened to turn on your television and catch a glimpse of Riverdance, I’m certain the step dancers’ rapid feet would astonish you. Rooted in Irish culture, step dancing as seen today is poles apart from the ancient dance forms that crafted it. Since the early development of this art form, Ireland has undergone multiple cultural alterations and to think the ‘traditional’ style admired today is analogous to its original form is pure folly. It is likely that the Druids, the very first practitioners of Irish Dance, wouldn’t even be acquainted with the Irish dance form of modern times.
Viewing dance as a religious dedication to the oak tree and the sun, the Druids danced rituals containing circular formations that still survive in today’s ring dances. The Druids only maintained this style until 200 BC when the Celtics, known as the Gaels, established small kingdoms all over western Europe, including 150 in Ireland. The Romans and Germanics conquered all of the Gaels territories… except the ones in Ireland. Because Gaelic culture was preserved in Ireland at that time, Ireland and her dances are notorious for their Celtic influences.
The alteration process of Irish dance had just begun and by 400 AD it transformed again due to St. Patrick’s introduction of Christianity to Ireland. This changed the art of Irish dance because some of the most impressive Celtic Christian art, produced from late 7th century to early 8th century, left its mark on the Irish costume. Consisting of complex, geometric shapes, large stone crosses and carved ceremonial religious objects, the designs that adorned the costumes embellished manuscripts of books of the Bible through intricate designs and decorative borders. Although the costumes had quickly changed, the dance form itself had not.
Foreign influence was already weakening the traditional arts of Ireland, but it wasn’t until the Anglo-Norman conquest during the 12th century that Irish dance took its first large turn. Norman dance began to be performed in conquered Irish towns, replacing the presence of Celtic tradition. For the next 200 years the conquerors were becoming more and more familiar with Irish culture. With a fear of cultural diffusion, Parliament decided to pass the Statute of Kilkenny in 1366 that decreed excommunication and strict penalties for those who practiced Irish customs or desired an ally of native Ireland. The pressure to eradicate old Irish tradition, including that of Irish dance was unfortunate not just because of the change in culture, but because of the lack of records that commemorate the classic traditions.
There are no written records of Irish dance until the 16th century when Sir Henry Sydney commemorated an Irish dance performance in a letter to Queen Elizabeth. Also during this time, dances such as the Irish Hey, Rinnce Fada, and the Trenchmore were written about often, but any documentation formed between the 12th and 16th century was destroyed. Viking raiders destroyed most books from the period leaving no written documentation of these traditional dances. This meant it was up to the people to keep tradition going by passing it from generation to generation, and this is exactly what the people did.
During the 16th century, King James reclaimed Ireland and was welcomed with dancing and music of increased tempo. Dances were performed in great halls of newly built castles and in a slowly changing trade fair called Feisianna that included music, crafts, dance and trade. Dances done at this time included the Rinnce Fada, the Irish Hey, Jigs, Trenchmores and sword dances. It was unclear who influenced who between the French, English and Irish, but quick tempo and side steps were indicative of Irish dance. English invaders of the time even adapted the dances to take back to Queen Elizabeth, and it wasn’t long before England decided to stick their nose even further into Irish culture.
England suppressed the Irish art form by banning piping and arresting pipers. During the 17th century the power struggles between the two countries continued until England put the Penal Laws in place crushing Irish commerce and industries. These laws banned the education of Catholic children which led to secretive education and preservation of Irish roots. Irish step dancing was practiced in secrecy causing the art form to loose some of the social aspects that which it was initially intended. At this time, a child might use dance while on the lookout for secretive meetings or masses. He would create a particular tempo in order to warn the other members of an incoming soldier. Also, to prevent getting the attention of parish priests, dances developed stiffened arms and hands. Country dancing, the only publicly acceptable dance of the time, influenced what was left of the classic form of Irish dance. By the 1700’s country dancing was openly used for holidays, weddings, christenings and wakes, even though the Church still condemned it.
Irish dance changed monumentally in 1750 when Dance Masters began to take an active role in spreading Irish dance throughout the country. Adorned in bright colors, these flamboyant characters traveled from village to village within a district, to teach peasants to dance. They each had their own repertoire and created new steps over time. A “step” was considered eight measures or bars of music, hence the name ‘stepdancing.’ Masters claimed certain districts and never crossed over to teach in a district that was claimed by another teacher, leading to a wide range of styles and teaching techniques. Starting the first official schools in Irish dance, Dance Masters trained dancers to be more precise and more concerned about the performance aspect as opposed to the social aspect of the dance. The best schools were located in Kerry, Cork and Limerick. Because of the sudden increase in training and technical ability, competitions and contests grew in popularity. The Feisianna was a popular place for multiple dance masters to battle each other and the first to collapse from fatigue was declared the loser. This is the time when this dance form began to change from a social art to a performance art. It was growing in popularity and intensity while competition increased along with their technical abilities.
This competitive attitude still thrives in Irish Step Dancing today, which produces extremely impressive performances. The art form we recognize as Irish step Dancing today gained most of its characteristics from the Gaelic League of 1893. The Gaelic League was created to encourage the revival of an Irish culture that had been oppressed by England for centuries. The form today is a combination of a few historically cultural traditions that survived and a lot of historically predicted traditions that fill the gap created by undocumented art forms.
The 20th Century changed the art form in three extreme ways: location, costumes and technique. During the time of the masters, tops of barrels, half doors, crossroads and table tops were used to dance on. The modern stage changed this dance in two ways: First, movement of dances across a larger area increased and second, dance steps that require substantial space became possible. Location changed from the outdoors in barns and flatbed trucks to hotels, schools and fairgrounds. Instruction also began at a younger age and students changed from primary males to primarily females in the 1920’s. The diversified movement vocabulary became more united by the general guidelines of international competition organization. This means that there is now a definite line between movement that is defined as Irish and movement that is not.
Costumes were one of the most drastic changes of this art form during the 20th century. This is directly credited to the Gaelic League who founded the “revival of Irish culture, [and] the quest for a traditional Irish costume…(Haurin)” For men, the hats, swallowtail coats, knee breeches, white stockings and clack shoes with silver buckles were replaced by kilts and a drape placed over one shoulder. Females tossed out the peasant dresses and ribbons shaped into crosses and flowers to wear a hooded cloak over a white dress with a sash. Colors used, are predominately green, white and saffron; red is not often used for distaste of the English. At the beginning of the century the embroidery was minimal but it became more complex with designs from the Book of Kells, Irish stone crosses and chalices. The hard shoe has developed a fiberglass toe and a hollow heel which creates louder sounds on stage, “changing the emphasis and content of many dances.” Shoes, along with costumes, technique and style will continue to change as time goes on.
Not unlike other art forms, Irish dance is a reflection of past culture. It contains a destroyed history and unwanted influences. They’ve tried to weed their painful past out of their art form so that they have a purely Irish form of dance. But how much of what they consider traditional is actually traditional? How much did they create and name it traditional in order to feel like less of their history was lost or stained? Even “the present ‘traditional costume’ seems to be neither traditional nor Irish… ancient Irish had a very beautiful costume and the present ‘traditional costume’ is the result of an attempt to reproduce this (O’rafferty 16).” The Journey of Irish Dance is a very long and painful one and the main beauty about it is, it may quite possibly never be seen again in its purest form. The art itself may be dead, but the emotional ties and country pride still shines through each time an Irish dancer begins to dance.
Haurin, Don, and Ann Richens. "Irish Step Dancing: a Brief History." Geocities.Com. Feb. 1996. Richens Academy of Irish Dancing. 3 May 2007 <http://www.geocities.com/aer_mcr/irdance/irhist.html>.
Knowles, Mark. Tap Roots: the Early History of Tap Dancing. Jefferson, NC: McFarland and Company, 2002. 1-20.
O'rafferty, Peadar, and Gerald O'rafferty. Dances of Ireland. Ed. Violet Alford. London: Max and Parrish Company, 1953. 16-17.
"The History of Irish Dance." Irelandseye.Com. 1997. Irelandseye.com. 3 May 2007 <http://www.irelandseye.com/dance.html>.
Vallely, Fintan. The Companion to Irish Traditional Music. New York City: New York UP, 1999.
written by Lexi Mondot
Isadora Duncan is a legend. According to wikipedia, she is the ‘inventor’ of modern dance, according to Lori Belilove of the Isadora Duncan Dance Company, she was a “Dancer, adventurer, revolutionary and ardent defender of the poetic spirit.” Dozens of sources will tell you a very similar story.
the ballet seemed to have abandoned... its appeal to the heart in favour of a more superficial concentration on technical virtuosity and visual spectacle
written by Lexi Mondot
Both Swan Lake and La Sylphide are influential pieces of ballet history and of contemporary repertoire. They have evolved into fashionable interpretations of the past, while indicating a specific time and aesthetic passed down through generations. Although these pieces remain at the forefront of ballet’s memory, they differ from one another in both process and presentation. Each facet of these ballets was specific to the time of creation, which affects their popularity with the public today.
Romantic inspiration for the ballet, La Sylphide, is found in fashion, art and way of thought from1800-1840. Many artists of all mediums practiced Romanticism, a genre that revolted “against aristocratic social and political norms of the Age of the Enlightenment and a reaction against the scientific rationalization of nature”(wikipedia). Romantic Ballet, specifically, had its beginnings in 1832 with the premier of Filippo Taglioni’s La Sylphide (McAndrew 2). According to Pudelek, it was the success of La Sylphide that guaranteed a place for ballet in the Romantic movement (229). The use of Romantic elements, such as folk dance, color, stories of peasants, and an ominous supernatural current, truly fed the audience’s desire to use their heart over logic.
After 1840, many things changed in Ballet, including the move away from Romanticism. Italian influence in the arts became impossible to overlook, as did Russian influence on the choreographer, Petipa. During this time, “the ballet seemed to have abandoned... its appeal to the heart in favour of a more superficial concentration on technical virtuosity and visual spectacle” (Au 58). Swan Lake exudes the qualities of this classicism, including virtuoso technique, and the use of divertissement. These classical ballets spread across Europe and grew quickly in popularity. They are some of the most popular pieces in repertoire today. We may ask what makes ballets such as Swan Lake, Giselle, Nutcracker, Sleeping Beauty and Coppelia ‘THE’ classics of ballet. It is “difficult to pinpoint the precise historical moment when works were transformed in the public imagination from the fashionable to the 'timeless' and entered the canon as 'classics'” (Genne 132). At the time, people sought to be distracted and enjoyed spectacle and craft more than heart-wrenching theatre. As for today, the desire for high craftsmanship has left Swan Lake in the heart of most every ballet company’s repertoire, while La Sylphide is performed less often.
Looking to the choreographers of the ballets will reveal character and intention. Originally choreographed for Filipo Taglioni’s daughter in 1832, La Sylphide famed Marie Taglioni for her charm, and lightness. According to Pudelek, “when she finished dancing, the audience remained silent for a moment. Then pandemonium broke loose. According to one contemporary account, the enthusiasm, shouting, and applause that greeted her performance could not be described or compared with any previous event in the history of the ballet” (Pudelek 238).
The libretto was written by Adolphe Nourrit for Marie, inspired by moonlight affects from gas lighting (Au 49). This inspired the choreographer to put his own daughter in the moonlit spotlight as the sylph that drove men’s imaginations wild. The intentions are clear in the creation, however is must be noted that the choreography we know today was set by August Bournonville in 1836. In both cases, however, the choreographer’s intention was to tell the story through body language. Technical feats and pointe work were explored with the aim of expressing an ambiance of the surreal characters.
This changes enormously for Swan Lake, as Petipa begins working in conservative Russian courts with his quick and precise, Italian inspired movement. His Sleeping Beauty was one of the first ballets to have dance excerpts simply as divertissement. He was considered great at the time, for being able to play within the conservative rules and use his artistry to make classicism spectacular. He was considered a master, like Taglioni, but in a new way, “his importance in the history of ballet is largely based on reputation... he was the greatest choreographer... to whose poetical creation and aesthetic taste contemporary ballet is wholly indebted.” (Wiley 42). Though he may be considered the greatest, some critics argue this is simply because he left behind only his reputation, and not his process. Without much biographical information on Petipa, it is hard to ignore the accounts of him, “as a dictator who finally stripped of his authority, ungracefully left the stage” (Wiley 43).
The music for Bournonville’s La Sylphide differs from the original and is composed by Lovenskiold. Music was meant to remain in the background to accentuate the dance, not to detract attention. According to Pudelek, the “composer was subservient to the choreographer” during Romantic era ballet (230). She concludes that because of the tight constraints put onto composers, very few “outstanding composers were eager to write for the ballet”(230). At the time, concepts of ballet and dance as the most important aspect of Romantic desire, left craftsmanship of collaborating artists to fall to the wayside. Perhaps this is why Swan Lake became ‘timeless.’
During the classical period, spectacle of all forms was highlighted and pushed to more intricate crafting. It was Tchaikovsky who brought the music standards in ballet to where they were between 1875 and 1891. According to Wiley, Tchaikovsky refused to allow the restraints of the dance to restrain his music and “revolutionized the relationship between choreographer and composer”(639). Although many critics claimed Tchaikovsky’s music was too overbearing; the agency of the musician had returned to dance and the complexity and rigor began to be something desired by the people.
La Sylphide was told using two act entities that would feed the hunger for desire, hope, the impossible and illogical; for a beauty that is out of this world and cannot be explained. The story is of a young Scottsman who is to marry a woman named Effie, when the enchanted Sylph seduces him. He leaves his own wedding, but as soon as he embraces the Sylph, her wings fall off and she is no more. In the background, he hears the procession of his bride to be with another man. The storyline is speaking of a love and beauty so extreme, it can only live in the imagination. In a sense, it’s hopeless; leaving the man alone, and the woman as a pure, unreachable beauty.
The trends of storytelling for these ballets changed significantly when Petipa began choreographing. Petipa, among other choreographers and dancers were more familiar with the advancement of Ballet vocabulary, and began to challenge the extent of technique. Librettos of the ballets became less important than the spectacle. In Swan Lake, the structure consisted of four Acts instead of two, which allowed for quicker transitions. The story could then focus less on the prologue, and national dances, and more on the grand pas des deuxs and ensemble pieces. The story remained in the supernatural, however not in the sense of impossible unreachable beauty.
It’s a tragedy about Odette who is put under a spell, and her lover tries to save her. Different versions end with her lover conquering the Sorcerer, and others end in tragedy with both of them drowning themselves to end the Sorcerer’s powers (Wikipedia, Swan Lake). During the late 1800s, this story worked well because it fed the need for supernatural fantasy, and also had hopeful resolution.
The storyline choices highly affected the impetus for a modification in technique. The purpose behind Marie Taglioni’s piece was pretty clear. She was the center, and the unreachable perfection. Thus she needed to fly. Taglioni did not invent the use of pointe, however, “it was the Romantic ballet that first found a true artistic use for this new mode of stage movement, which was an intermediate link between walking on the ground and the aerial flights of female dancers on specially constructed wires known as ‘flugs.’” (Pudelek 229). One could say the Sylph was the first ballerina to fly, and Taglioni’s popularity sprung for her mastery of technique and artistry together. Her image is a large part of her technique, especially as a woman wearing a corset and a dress. Taglioni, “dressed in a white gown reaching to her calves... achieved total supremacy, gradually reducing the male dancer to the role of a porteur.” Skirts were getting shorter to show intricate foot work, and women became the central figure of ballet during her reign as the Sylph. During this time, Male dancers became the supporter, and demands on the female body were just beginning.
The Sylph is the only one en pointe in the first Act, and the first act has a national dance. These ‘folk’ dances and characterizations were very common, to be used to set up the atmosphere for the story. The technical abilities of the dancers at the time, also influenced the use of strategic storytelling as the focus as opposed to technical showcases.
About 40 years following La Sylphide, there was Swan Lake. This piece shows the mechanization of the ballet to a notable degree. The original piece was choreographed by Reisinger, however it was highly criticized for costumes, scenery, choreography, music… just about everything. The most popular version which is still staged today was choreographed by Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov, performed in 1895. The ballet is an indicator for big change in dance and in the world. The romantic use of the tutu and the white ballets were used, however, they appeared in the beginning and the end, replacing national dance time for whole choruses of women en pointe. Higher demand for technical abilities evolved the form to be more precise and, thus more impressive to audiences. Petipa felt it was his duty to provide spectacle and impressive turns and battements, as “a practical man of the theatre, who considered it his duty to please the public, and he love applause; he gloried in it.” (Moore 278).
The audiences would flock to see Pierina Legnani who could supposedly do 32 fouettes, the most anyone could at the time (Wikipedia, Swan Lake). Technical skill moved to the forefront as Petipa was placing more pas de deuxs and divertissements in between storytelling. He made things just to be beautiful, and not move the story forward. This was the beginning of abstraction in dance, where dance didn’t have to mean a literal thing, but could be just dance.
In both ballets, the aesthetic of gender was upheld in that it was the woman to be looked at and adored in the pieces. The frailty and weightlessness created a fragility that was common for the status of women all through the century. Both ballets use men on the stage only for the purpose of supporting the women ‘jewel’ as she dances, or to move the story along. As the pas de deuxs grows larger in Petipa’s works, we see that the times will start to change in the near future for the representation of men and women in ballet. According to Smith, Levinson “canonised La Sylphide (1832), a ballet that he, like his nineteenth-century predecessors… gendered as feminine. He promulgated the term 'ballet blanc', a feminising but misleading term”(Smith 33). Levinson also claimed that Marie Taglioni “evicted men from the stage”(Smith33). In Swan Lake alone, the roles within the story itself seem to be just a little less demanding of each gender. The first wave of feminism was beginning to take place, however I believe it was mere coincidence. Ballets were still places for men to search for sex, and dancers still had a reputation for being prostitutes. To be on the stage as a woman was risqué, in both of these pieces, and we’ll see gay male sexuality claim a place on stage hundreds of years before female autonomous sexuality or independence.
The changes in the ballet between the time of La Sylphide (1832) and Swan Lake (1895) are very large. There is great social change between the two periods, and the choreographers, musicians, dancers, and public wholly decide the direction of this art. This is why they were shaped as they were in time periods that asked specific duties of each member of society. It is mostly through the stories that we see the values of upper class Europeans during the 19th century.
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