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Sunday, October 10, 2010

Ballet Requiem!!: a review

BalletMet's production of 'Requiem!!' opened this weekend and  I have several thoughts on the matter:

Loved the concept! Adding movement to Mozart's final death mass is a delightful idea.

But the show lost immediate cool points when the lights dimmed and the (wrong) opening bars were pumped in over a PA system. I know it expensive to hire live musicians (though choir would have been basically free), but what a terribly missed opportunity for innovative collaboration. The recording was a Süssmayr edition of the score and I have some guesses as to who the performers were (if anyone knows for a fact let me know)-- Loved LOVED the soprano. Definitely disagreed with the alto. Basses always make me happy. I don't remember the tenor (a point in itself).

I am sure one of the reasons for opting  for a recording was because of the odd choice in program order, which I found terribly disorienting. Teil 1 and 3 were palindromic, beginning with the end of the Sequentia and working to the Introitus and then back again. Teil 2 consisted of the Offertorium, the Sanctus, and the Agnus Dei. As far as I can remember the Communo was left out.

I am at a loss to determine the artistic motivation behind this choice, beyond simply a desire to break audience expectation of the Mass and to lengthen performance--both of which were thoroughly accomplished. But it left one with a a lack of line both harmonically and thematically, yielding a Judus-like death scene in the middle of the Kyrie, of all things. I rarely could find any connection between the liturgy we were hearing and the dance we were seeing. So then why bother with this piece? There are plenty of pieces about death out there, without the need to exploit the fame of Shaffer's Amadeus! The performance is loosely biographical of Mozart, which is perhaps apt to his death-bed composition. But I find him hardly a motivating subject under the weight of the liturgical symbolism.  And indeed Death was the stronger character throughout the performance.

The set was well crafted with exists and stairs that only a select few characters had the power to navigate. Above it all, the thrown of God looked down in observation and/or judgement. Fun touch.

I am not in a position to comment about the dance. As a lay person, I was impressed, but not enthralled. Fair enough. The same can be said for Strauss! The artists were well disciplined and conditioned (as Adrienne Benz displayed for us on the program cover--my, what strong calves you have!) and executed a clean show.  Swinging ropes allowed for a promising prop, but were not maximally utilized. But then again, these are dancers, not aerialists.

One final critique that is not limited to BalletMet, but that is the reason for the review's inclusion in this particular blog.  Of the large (50+) cast, there was only one person of color, as far as I could tell (from my, admittedly nose-bleed seats).  But my frustration is not only with the ballet companies, but with the audiences members that tolerate it/don't even notice.  Upon mentioning my observation of the cast demographics, I was asked why it bothered me at all. I wish I were quicker on my toes with live rebuttal. Why does it bother me!?!  Let me count the ways.

It bothers me that people put so much faith in meritocracy. We falsely assume that the process is fair and unbiased--that if someone is successful, it is clearly of their own doing. No doubt each dancer on that stage is extremely talented and works incredibly hard everyday. But chances are good, they also had some help along the way. They had parents that could afford to send them to dance classes, and to transport them to and from rehearsals. They could devote time to practice because someone else was worrying about the rent. They had the funds or the credit score to go to college. They had the security of knowing that if they flat on their faces, they have a support system to fall back on. A support system that has been cultivated over decades of advantage to accumulate the security needed to pursue big dreams of stardom.

Do all white folk have these supports and resources ? no. Do a lot more of them have privilege that come with institutionalized systems of bias? Absolutely.

A second response I received that night was a long the lines of  "When it comes to auditions and one person is just better than another, there is isn't anything wrong with that."

Again, this statement assumes a fair and equal process, something that people of color have yet to enjoy as a daily reality. Once you make the sacrifices to get to the audition, you hope that no prejudices await you from the director's chair. So much of casting is about "look" and "fit." And what does that mean? who knows? It depends on the director, who is a product of a racialized society.  If something just isn't quite right with a dancer, could it be that he doesn't fit in your box of who a dancer can be? If two dancers give good auditions, which one gets the benefit of the doubt, the nod that says, 'I know your performances will ultimately be better'? Then, if you make the part, but your fellow cast members and directors are skeptical that you fit the mold, do you have the strength to give it your all and prove them wrong everyday? Or wouldn't it be easier to accept the fact that you are out of you element and hit the snooze button instead of getting up for that 5 AM work out? In the cut throat audition world, every advantage counts. And membership in the racial majority is one heck of an advantage.

I don't claim to know much about ballet culture, but I imagine it is much like the rest of the world, including that of the opera stage. An excerpt from previously published work:

"Bass-baritone Simon Estes recalls his White-American agent recently warning him bluntly of what he as a singer has already experienced: “if two people go into an audition, if one is of color and the other is not….if their talents are the same, they will take the White artist. If the Black artist is a little bit better, they will take the White artist. If the Black artist is much, much better, they will take the Black artist, but then they will pay him less.”* Of course, there is little proof that such discrimination happens, which can be extremely frustrating. Few declaim outright that this is what they are doing, and maybe it is not readily apparent to the casting directors themselves. However, it is a very real experience to hundreds of singers of color—an experience for which I have no personal basis of denial."

What else readers? I know I am forgetting some points here.

The situation is this, seeing such a disproportionately represented cast bothered me because it is a sign that BalletMet, like so many other organizations across the country is not doing its part to work against the inertia of racism that slows us all down. And audiences are not demanding that it happen either. I believe it is incumbent upon the benefactors of racial advantage to use some of that privilege to undo these wrongs.  Yes that means sacrifices, and yes it means stepping aside so someone else can have "our spot." A spot that never would have been ours to begin with, but for the forced sacrifices of others.

All this to say, I did enjoy myself (seriously) and you should and support live arts!

ps. After the show we went out for drinks. Sam Cooke was playing in the background....heh.

*Rosalyn M. Story et al., Aida's Brothers & Sisters (West Long Branch, N.J.: PARS Media; Kultur distributor, 2000).

See Also:
Reverse Decriminalization
Affirmative Action
News for the Golden Child

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By Their Strange Fruit by Katelin H is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
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