Wednesday, March 20, 2013

What Is to Be Considered?: The Representation of What’s Being Re-presented

I would like to draw your attention to the juxtaposition of Sandra Richard’s article What Is to Be Remembered?: Tourism to Ghana’s Slave Castle-Dungeons, and the Dance Theatre of Harlem’s Black Swan ballet production. DTH’s take on Peter Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake by choreographers Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov, should not to be confused with Darren Aronofsky’s film Black Swan, which depicts an account of being an under study in the dance world. Several ballet companies and choreographers have interpreted the love story of this ballet differently. The original depicts a prince who falls in love with a beautiful young woman in the guise of the swan queen due to a spell she is under that can only be broken by true love. He is tricked into professing his love to her twin sister who is disguised in all black dress.[1] DTH’s recontextualization offers a combination of interpretations in which case the swan queen and the black swan are one role performed by a Black ballerina. Clearly her challenge is to reveal herself as both characters without depending on a costume change. This however is not what challenges the audience’s consciousness, a racial awareness does.

Though DTH’s artistic director Virginia Johnson claimed that the predominately Black ballet company’s intention was not to portray the Swan Lake love interest as a Black couple (or even an interracial couple) but rather as a couple “that best complimented one another,” she admitted that later there was an, “a ha” moment of “I bet audiences will question this choice based on race.” Thus when re-presenting Swan Lake billed as Black Swan, danced by an interracial couple, the performance in ways both inadvertent and direct, asks us to consider something. So what is it?

Richard’s article reflecting the tourism to Ghana's slave castle-dungeons suggests that the performativity of the exhibition, like DTH’s recontextualization of Swan Lake, asks its tourists to consider something. Richard’s believes tourists are being confronted with an identity crisis, a lack of connection with their cultural heritage and no sense of what to make of their past, present and future existence.[2] While tourists are being afforded a rich history, what is to be gained from the way they are experiencing it? 

Whether or not DTH’s Black Swan consciously or unconsciously considered race in its recontexualization, its audience did. First, let us recognize the fact that this is the first appearance of a Black ballerina in the role of the swan queen, which naturally causes one to question why hasn’t there ever been a Black swan in Swan Lake? Why has that not been considered before? Would she have ever been considered if not by a predominately Black ballet company? Next let us consider the role of the male love interest performed by a white male dancer. Is it possible that the desire for the Black swan to be received by all audiences led to the interracial partnering choice? Bear with me as I frame my trajectory with the following quotes: Marget H’Doubler states, “Art cannot be divorced from life, it is of life’s essence,” and Brenda Dixon-Gottschild states, “…art cannot ignore politics or history. Choreographers and performers need to understand the choices they are making, why and how these choices resonate in the larger-than-dance world, and what history is attached to these choices.”[3] These sentiments bear tremendous relevance when considering the discontented audiences who witnessed “controversial” casting in Arthur Mitchell’s pas de duex performance with a white ballerina, Mimi Paul (both of the NYC Ballet), in Jacques d’Amboise’s Othello inspired Prologue, or reflecting on the denied performance of light-skinned black, Carmen de Lavallade and white Glen Tetley on the Ed Sullivan show in the 1950’s.[4]

Admittedly, I am a discontented audience member of DTH’s Black Swan, but for reasons completely opposite to the notion that interracial casting is “wrong.” My discontent is with Virginia Johnson’s unconvincing blithe remarks intended to shade the irrefutable conscious casting decisions made. To imply that their racial awareness was merely an afterthought seems contradictory and a slap in the face to the standard of the DTH legacy. This was a prime opportunity for DTH to make a poignant point that art should and does acknowledge multiculturalism and in doing so the American culture is being offered a richer experience not tainted by stereotypical norms. Perhaps Dixon-Gottschild would argue my point with that of her own by asking, “And how much is the world of art beholden to acknowledge and deal with history and culture?”[5] If art imitates life and life experience is your best teacher, then it is crucial that the world of art acknowledges and deals with history and culture as well as politics.

While I have not yet been to Ghana’s slave castle-dungeons, I cannot begin to imagine what I would walk away with other than rage, empathy, and discombobulating emotions. I would remember what I am supposed to forget, that much has changed, but much has not. I left the Mondavi Center the evening of November 9th 2012 conflicted by my contrasting feelings of elation and dismay. The dancing was lovely and invigorating, but the Black Swan pas de duex left much to be desired from the dancers’ display of affection for one another. While the swan was flirtatious and coy with the prince, he was dry and mechanical with her. I certainly beg to differ that these specific dancers “best complimented one another.” Make no mistake my criticism is not with their dancing, I was disappointed with their poor acting. They obviously lacked a connection, so was I the only one who noticed this? I recognize and applaud DTH’s new multicultural representation, but I am curious to know if their company members have fully embraced it. What I believe is to be considered here is the fact that historical and sociocultural representations are still struggling for visibility void of dismay and discontent.  Reaching a level of equality that celebrates multiculturalism instead of simply tolerating it can only be hoped for.

[1] “Swan Lake.” Wikipedia: the free encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 17 November 2012. Web. 18 November 2012. <>

[2] Richards, Sandra L. (2005). What Is to Be Remembered?: Tourism to Ghana’s Slave Castle-Dungeons. Theatre Journal, 57(4), 617-637.

[3] Dixon-Gottschild, Brenda., p 296. The Black Dancing Body: A Geography from Coon to Cool. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003. Print.

[4] Ibid. p197

[5] Ibid. p296

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