Please permit me to enter into this conversation unannounced. I agree with you completely. Form is not outside of ideology. And this is not a new thought. Walter Benjamin told us this in 1936, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” There is ideological content in form. I think Rob is making a case that because form is an abstraction, it is neutral. Unfortunately, he is wrong.
Ballet is the most collectively oppressive form of art as it maps compulsory heterosexuality and whiteness, and uses the body as its sole instrument for this message.
While dancers of ‘other’ (other meaning non-white, non-hetero) genders or races may experience a thrust of personal agency because he appears on stage and may express himself, he is making himself a spectacle for someone else’s pleasure. And even if that exchange is pleasureable to him, which is not wrong in itself, (one does choose to perform, after all, one is not forced) he is still catering to a dominant ideology. Even happy dancers have felt like chattle or prostitutes at least once in their performing career. Spectacle is objectification, we can’t get around that. As long as art remains commodity and operates with in the consumer market, this is a dynamic we must accept and, I hope, whose power we can redeploy.
It should be said that Ballet is not the only genre of dance that is oppressive. Many forms of dance do the same thing and through various means. Commercialized Hip Hop stages a live auction/brothel for us every time we turn on the television-bling and bootie around every corner. It is also the prime example of capitalism’s excesses. Even Common, a hip hop artist I used to enjoy, has succumbed: “Peace, Love and Gap,” he raps in his most recent commercials. Is he crazy?! I’ll state the obvious in case we’ve lost site: Social Justice and Slim Fit Stone-washed are not synonymous. But back to the subject…
The most difficult part of the ideological debate over Ballet for me is that it undermines the hard work of so many people. Their talents and sacrifices get swept under the rug when I dismiss Ballet as oppressive. Ballet is part of the dance community and the people it employs are our fellow artists who deserve our respect and our love. It is with deep contemplation and a little regret that I express to them that their practice, the reason for living to some, is wholly useless and destructive as a contemporary mode of expression. I have not been able to reconcile these conflicting feelings as I respect the creativity and spirit with which dance is made and performed. I’d like to think I do this in all its genres, but maybe I can’t.
I know that some people are thinking, “What’s wrong with appreciating beauty, can’t I just take pleasure in prettiness, why do we have to ruin it by getting deep?” First, there is no such thing as ‘just beauty.’ Beauty is not outside the discourse of oppression or ideology. And no, we can’t stop getting deep. Getting deep is the only thing we’ve got going for us. Furthermore, thinking does not render something un-beautiful. Thinking does not destroy art or artfulness. In order for creativity to survive, it must be cultivated. Cultivation requires critical, by that I mean ‘deep,’ thought. So it is not a good idea to stop ‘getting deep.’
Form is ideology, ideology is culturally embedded. Ideology guides and constructs the means by which we express. The means can not be separate from the ends in this instance.
When means are separate from ends we run into a new conflict: We don’t recognize what we see and because we don’t recognize it, we do not assign the same cultural value to it. Ed Tyler’s work is the perfect example of what happens when an artist refuses to participate in the oppressive discourse that is classical Ballet. Audience’s expectations of dance are uprooted so thoroughly that they don’t know what they are looking at. Part of the reason Ed’s work received so many different and confused responses, is because he uproots our expectations of concert dance at almost every level: costume, narrative, movement vocabulary, partnering, casting. He does this in favor of imagining an alternative way of being in the world, an inclusive space, which nurtures some unknown, and therefore, frightening, possibilities of human experience. As a community, we simultaneously court and tame this kind of innovation. We want things to be new and different, but not so different that it disrupts our value system. This is where we need to stop and think about what we need/desire most for our art. Do we want to move forward or do we want to live in 18th Century Europe?
I’ve never seen Ballet that doesn’t racialize, engender, classify and stratify. The kind of cultural work Ballet does is bad for us. But to conclude more diplomatically, I do not know the solution to these problems. I want to continue discussing it because I think the ideological/form issue is one of many that maintains concert dance as a marginalized art form.
Diana Dinerman is a Washington, DC-based writer and Founder of the Horton Summit. For more information on the Lester Horton Dance Theater Foundation, Inc., please visit www.hortonsummit.org
originally published in the Focus Section “Technique” – Bourgeon Vol. 2 #3