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Flash View, 4-3: Retro Racism
Bamboozled at Ballet Tech?

(Editor's Note: The following was received this morning as a letter. I thought it was important enough to publish as a Flash View, with by-line. The top headline is my idea, not the author's, but is based on what what seems to me to be a conclusion of the letter. -- PBI)

By Matt Noyes
Copyright 2001 Matt Noyes

On March 30, 2001, I saw the 8 p.m. performance by Ballet Tech at the Joyce Theater, in New York City. Ballet Tech is a company linked to a prestigious ballet school in the NYC public school system. The dancers, many of them graduates of the Ballet Tech school, performed three pieces by choreographer Eliot Feld, including one called "Paper Tiger." I was greatly impressed by the talent and prowess of the dancers.

The cast on the 30th was mostly people of color. The audience was mixed, but mostly white. In the first piece, the dancers performed to recorded Celtic music, evoking some kind of mysterious, communal past. The second piece was based on a series of poems by Goethe, set to music and sung live by a soprano. The theme was love and courting, very classical in tone.

The third piece, "Paper Tiger," was set to music by Leon Redbone and involved dancers leaping, shuffling, clowning, stumbling, mock fighting, mock lovemaking, and more, all with a kind of rag-doll motion. The costumes -- including straw hats, overalls, a beat-up stove-pipe hat, kerchiefs and more -- reinforced the imagery of the dance: southern, rural, African-American. The most astonishing section was a solo by a male, black, dancer who flopped around the stage making a variety of "comical" sexual gestures, including humping the stage, mock masturbating, and pretending to climb his own penis like a rope. As I write this, I can't believe it really happened. At times he even tilted his head, smiled widely and shook his outstretched fingers. His solo ended with a leering stare at the audience as he licked his lips and slowly mouthed to the audience, "I love you."

The finale of the piece had all the dancers -- including the soloist -- howling like hound dogs and scratching at fleas.

There is more to describe -- images of lazy men and domestic discord -- but I think the character of the performance is clear.

The point is I left the theater stunned and overwhelmed. I checked myself, thinking through the piece to see if I was missing some clever critique, but there was none I could find. The piece had a clear, consistent, comical tone, with not a trace of critique. The audience responded in kind, happily laughing at all the "right" parts. The biggest laughs came when the male soloist feigned jacking off, or howled more wildly than the other "hounds."

I was immediately reminded of Spike Lee's "Bamboozled," the story of a minstrel revival in which Lee confronts the audience with every aspect and moment of minstrelsy, down to the finest details of the make-up. No matter how I look at it, I am convinced that "Paper Tiger" was designed to evoke minstrelsy uncritically, as something out of "the good old days," just another genre with which to play, like Celtic dance. The choreographer, and dancers, know many genres and must know the history of dance in this country. They are not just dancers but students and teachers of dance at Ballet Tech.

This led me to wonder what the dancers feel. The soloist was so reminiscent of "Bamboozled"'s Savion Glover; I remembered the look on Glover's character's face while he mixed the "black" before the show. As the Ballet Tech dancers took their bows, I couldn't detect anything but pride in a beautifully danced piece. They are great, but to what end? What is it like to mix talent and art with dehumanization? It's painful to imagine. Do the dancers talk about this piece? What do they say?

I wondered if I was the only person in the audience who had this reaction. My partner was sitting in another part of the theater (we couldn't get seats together) and had the same experience as I did. We spent hours dissecting the piece, finding ourselves more and more stunned.

I felt, and continue to feel, like I should have somehow interrupted the performance in some way. Holding your applause is a feeble form of protest. "Have others seen this piece?" I wondered.

"Paper Tiger" was first performed in 1996. I have found a few reviews, most taking issue with the piece from the standpoint of technique. Deborah Jowitt, writing in the Village Voice in April 1999, wrote, "...in Feld's rowdier pieces, like the 1996 'Paper Tiger' to Leon Redbone's honey-raucous singing of old pop tunes, the only problem is holding [the dancers] down enough to deliver the necessary nuances of timing."

Doris Hering, writing for Dance Magazine last August , refers to Feld's "questionable taste." "Paper Tiger," she observes, "recalled the 1930s in its condescending image of black people smooching and strutting." Hering ends her review by calling on Feld to act his age: "Nobody says you have to wear a business suit to direct a ballet company, but it does help to know who's the adult and who are the kids, particularly when everyone's still waiting for the Feld of thirty years ago to soar." Simply condescending?

Finally, in a March 2000 piece called "Good Eliot, Bad Eliot: Will the Real Feld Please Stand Up?" published by The Dance Insider, critic Paul Ben-Itzak calls the "pesky devil" Feld to task for his "embarrassing jokes." He describes "Paper Tiger" this way: "To bluesy standards performed by Leon Redbone, the 15 dancers basically execute minor variations on one move: a sort of cartoonish shuffle, amplified by Willa Kim's faux hobo costumes.... The jokes ring flat -- like those embarrassing jokes at a party that everyone tries to ignore -- and, in their datedness, are bizarrely out of place with the decidedly non-out-of date performers, most of whom hover that side of 21. The ballet truly becomes a dog by the end, and I'm not being pejorative: the concluding joke is the howls the dancers burst into in the last number."

I was not put off by Feld's failure to live up to his potential, his embarrassing jokes, or his flawed attempts at "American Vernacularism." Like Ben-Itzak, I found "Paper Tiger" painful: "Watching" "Paper Tiger," Ben-Itzak wrote, "is, in a way, more painful than watching works by a choreographer we know is bad, because Feld can do so much better -- and go so much deeper." But I found it painful because I was watching racism happen; that's what minstrelsy accomplishes like no other form.

"Paper Tiger" seems to be part of Ballet Tech's repertoire; has it gone unprotested all this time? It seems to me to merit special attention, because it is so plain and so extreme. In the meantime, I'd love a little feedback on this. I've made an effort to avoid rhetoric here, but it's a really disturbing experience and it should not go uncontested.

(Thanks to Art McGee for references.)

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