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Ballet West Reworks Dance to Rid It Of Stereotypes

Ballet West - Beau Pearson

Ballet West opened its season with the U.S. premiere of the nearly 100 year old ballet – Song of the Nightingale Friday. This Chinese-themed piece  - about an emperor who is healed by a songbird – has undergone some artistic surgery to remove the offensive racial stereotypes from dance when it was originally created in 1925.

Ballet West Artistic Director Adam Sklute calls the Song of the Nightingale, a great piece of living art that was choregraphed by George Balanchine, the music written by Igor Stravinsky and the sets and design by artist Henri Matisse. But when Sklute learned that some of the movements and design in the piece were considered racial stereotyping, he made some artistic changes  to capture the historic perspective and make it culturally honorable today.

This work he says is considered to be a lost piece of art – and because he didn’t know if he had the original choreography anyway, some pieces needed to be reconstructed. 

“So, if we’re go on that route, then let’s look at perhaps readdressing the way the movements go,” Sklute said. “The big thing for me - as to your question - is what can we do that won’t undermine the integrity of this great historic piece of art, while at the same time creating a more respectful approach to Asian culture.”  

The movements that are considered offensive he says included head bobbing, as well as feet shuffling. These movements he says likely did take place in ancient  China…but cutting them from a production today, he believes doesn’t take anything away from the piece.

Did we need the head bobbing,” he asked? “ Would  that change the way we look at this entire piece? No. The head bobbing didn’t undermine the integrity of the whole work. Now the  shuffling of steps is an interesting and  more complicated history to it because– those little, small shuffling of  steps were probably based on the idea at that time that cork and Imperial women had  bound feet and so had very tight shuffling walks and that’s where that idea may come from. However, as I said again in 2019, that’s just simply not necessary.”

He says there is a difference between the performing arts and what he calls static art – paintings sculpture and even film.

"Putting a loin cloth over the statue of David would be like painting a moustache on   the Mona Lisa – But here, we’re a living breathing art form that requires people to move and requires representation of whatever culture we’re doing – in this instance an Asian culture. And it was just as important to me  And it was just important to me to involve our Asian community to get them to give me feedback to give us as artists, to give  our company feedback and talk about it. I don’t have the answers    I to  what is the right or wrong way to go but I know this is right now,  in our world, a discussion that had to be had.”

The Song of the Nightingale is only one of the three works of Balanchine being presented at the Capitol Theater through November 2nd. The others are Apollo and The Prodigal Son. Sklute says it’s a spectacular program that shouldn’t be missed.

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