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Violence in Ballet

Scapino Ballet Rotterdam: 'Kathleen', Rotterdam Dance Academy: 'Mt. Bulla'

by Maria Technosux

April 3, 2004 -- Amsterdam

"Kathleen"  (by Ed Wubbe) danced by Scapino Ballet Rotterdam. Uitmarkt Festival, Paradiso, Amsterdam, 30 aug. 2003

Oh my goodness what a gut-punching ballet. "Kathleen" by Scapino Ballet Rotterdam should be in repertoires all around the world. A ballet I'd love to watch again and again. Could I spend the rest of the year watching this ballet? Possibly. Give me a car, a driver's license and some money, and I will drive myself to as many of these performances as humanly possible. Ed Wubbe, did you really create ballets like this, once upon a time long ago? Everything I have seen so far by Scapino Ballet pales in comparison to "Kathleen."

The violence level was near tangible and I loved it. This ballet is a homage to urban violence, aggression and male bloodlust. People who love the movie "Fight Club" really ought to see this ballet. It takes everything that the movie makes pretence to and runs with it before running it straight into the ground. Why would anyone want to watch "Fight Club" when they can see a ballet like this? I know what I feel about violence and I know I'm right when I watch this ballet.

And that's the problem I have with liking it. Under no circumstances should something as feeble and ineffectual as a dance performance be mistaken for an expression of purpose or conviction. Consider this quote from Walter Benjamin's "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" (obligatory material in my school):

Mankind, which in Homer's time was an object of contemplation for the Olympian gods, now is one for itself. It's self-alienation has reached such a degree that it can experience its own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure of the first order.

Something gigantic resembling an atheist tombstone lies at the left side of the stage. No R.I.P has been carved onto it (too tacky), neither is a Christian cross inscribed anywhere (too obvious). A group/gang of girls appears to the left of the tomb. Loose hair, faded black knee-length sleeveless skirts, ankle-high black jazz boots. One by one they finger-walk over the stone, caressing the stone, swooshing their hair and recovering into a fourth port de bras with the arms extended sideways in straight lines. We hear tickly piano-sounds, a simple theme repeated over and over.

This was the only part of the whole ballet, which spoke the word "hope" to me. Considering that this was placed at the very beginning of the piece ultimately makes it a very faint semblance of hope -- delusional hope which is immediately destroyed by the subsequent action and the noisy Godflesh soundtrack.

And action it is. Principal Scapino ballerina Bryndis is nearly unrecognizable; so are all the other girls, and it isn't just because of their hair swooshing away and covering their faces. As for the boys: If I were a male dancer, I'd join this company just to be able to dance in this choreography. Watching these boys dance, I feel the same way I feel whenever I see a fast paced, all-male choreographic segment. Only this time, the feeling was multiplied and increased by a magnitude. "Kathleen" contains the best all-male choreographic movement I've seen this season. The des-axes went by at breathtaking speed, men catching each other, and then pounding themselves or getting pounded into the floor by others.

I had long waited to see this ballet. I didn't even know its title; all I knew was that it was the ballet that got writer Karin Spaink into the music of Godflesh. I had read her heavy metal essay "Infernal din and serial killers", in which she mentions "a breath-taking ballet" to the music of Godflesh. I can't say that this ballet inspired me to explore Godflesh's repertoire - quite the opposite. While curious at first, I decided that Godflesh isn't worth the trouble. I am sorry to say this, but the music has such a terrible continuous hiss, it sounds like it was recorded in a tin can full of bugs. Couldn't they get a better recording, or is this the fault of Godflesh being an underground band with not enough money for a proper recording? Whatever the reason, I wonder why Wubbe didn't just use some of the other metal music, like Megadeth or Metallica or Kreator's "Coma of Souls" album.

In the "Infernal din" essay, Spaink explains that metal music and punk music both create a sanctuary against the pretended normalcy of everyday life. I would appropriate that claim for my own purposes and state right here that "Kathleen" is a sanctuary against the overall normalcy of the ballet world.

Unfortunately, for all the violence and speed, the ballet is dated (but hey, isn't Giselle "dated"?). It can easily be classified as a typical early nineties "crash and trash" ballet. I'm obviously not talking about hip hop or R&B here; I mean the form, the pace, the waterfall of images, the heterosexism, the machismo. The choreographic parts for the girl gang, while more aggressive than usual, still had a typical balletic "coquettish" edge; that can only be explained as sexism. Once again, the boys are the ones who get to play real rough.

Speaking of "dated", the density of images reminds one of the MTV-video aesthetic. I only have to close my eyes to recall the avalanche of images: the Preljokaj black boots, the air-flying at high speeds, the overall stark post-goth blackness (a faded black, bearing no semblance to the elegant sheer black of respectable ballet-leotards), the Rite of Spring-like "keep your mouth shut and extend your arms to Gawd in the sky" in a vain attempt at transcendence and communication with whomever... it becomes obvious that the "Kathleen" aesthetic has been informed by MTV's "semiotic pornography".

Viewing "Kathleen" is like watching a heavy metal video during MTV's freak basement hours. Truth is, I didn't care whether this was positive or negative. I was hooked. Watching this ballet, I could only think of how unfortunate it is that time eventually mellows the most angry and frustrated heart. This mellowing down seems more like weary acquiescence and defeat. Rather than that awful term (i.e. "matured"), a term that is used all too often to justify this numbing calmness and loss of fuel that comes with age, I would use just these words to describe it.

Choreographer Ed Wubbe was interviewed before the performance and asked whether this 1994 ballet was still relevant in 2004. He rolled his eyes and said that obviously they wouldn't be performing it if it wasn't relevant. I, however, have a completely different concept of "relevance". I suspect that the ballet, which at the time was dubbed "The West Side Story of Scapino", would have been received in a completely different manner had it been danced by black and Arab kids.

Scapino dancers are overwhelmingly white with the usual dash of Asian and Latino one sees in most ballet troupes. The audiences who enjoy this ballet are the same people who fear Arab kids forming gangs - a very hot topic in the Netherlands due to recent mortal clashes between Arab kids and racist skinheads. Scapino's violence is 100% a-political and that anomie is real source of the audience's enjoyment. No doubt an explicitly racial ballet would have rendered the violence too realistic for the audience to enjoy.

"MT Bulla [Brindabella Ranges]" by Philip Adams, danced by the graduate students of the Rotterdam Dance Academy. ITs Festival, Frascati, Amsterdam, 23 jun. 2003.

The name of the dance refers to Mountain Buller, a snow-covered peak in North East Victoria, Australia, used for both mountaineering and skiing. The "[Brindabella Ranges]" part of the title refers to the Brindabella Mountains, south of Canberra, Australia. Philip Adams is a choreographer who likes to make ballets about the earth's physical features. In 2004, I saw another one of his ballets, called "Fern Tree Gully". Can we call these "geographical ballets"? Anyway, his subject matter is very original, and certainly more interesting than the usual "male-female pure movement pas-de-deux number 365" that others just can't get enough of.

Once again, the soundtrack is aggressive death metal, much faster than the Godflesh soundtrack. I don't recognize the band, but it reminds me a lot of the Slayer-soundtrack for the movie "Gummo". Coincidentally, that movie is partially about the geographical: the action takes place within a post-typhoon dystopia of an American white trash town. I find it telling that two completely different contemporary artists working independently in their respective fields, have both concluded that loud fast Death Metal music is their preferred soundtrack to natural disasters! In Adams' ballet, the disaster is not a typhoon but a snowslide. On the backdrop of the stage we see a projection of a big mass of snow racing down a mountain-slope at high speed. The dancers are all dancing right underneath this projection, and their
position towards the screen creates the association that they are about to be swept away by the down-rush of snow.

The stage is divided into two parts, left-bottom corner and right-upper corner. A rectangular mat lies on in each corner and marks the space where the dancing takes place. A lone female dancer in the middle of each mat represents the casualty (possibly an ignorant skier or snowboarder) engulfed by the snow-avalanche. The casualty-dancer is manipulated on all sides by her co-dancers, who simulate the impact on the dancer's body while the snow overruns her. This section included some of the most captivating partnering work I have ever seen. The manipulations were not primarily supportive, as one would expect from such dense partner work, but suggested the knockout, collision and the fracture of all her limbs. The speed accentuated the vulnerability and powerlessness of the dancer in the face of such awesome destructive natural power.

The casualty is subsequently rolled up into the mat (Adams has a bit of a fetish for that; he likes to roll up his dancers into mats, sheets and even sleeping-bags). Once again, he uses a very original use of unusual props, and it works. The rescue-team arrives too late, and the victim now looks like she's been rolled into a body-bag. She does not survive.

Once again, a violent ballet. In Mt. Bulla there is no place for the human tendency to pass moral values onto disasters. Can you blame a mountain? Can you blame the snow? We are all organic, we are all mortally vulnerable. The avalanche represents a violent force that doesn't have anything to do with human judgment, human revenge wishes or petty human bickering. This is the unconquerable force of nature, shattering human pride and vanity in its wake. This is violence that doesn't call itself that way. This is violence that simply is violence. This is the scariest violence of all, because it is unpredictable and (this is what humans can't stand at all) totally unanswerable and unaccountable.

It's easy to dismiss this ballet, as being primarily informed by Hollywood. Isn't this obsession with nature's destructive side just stupid Hollywood sensationalism imported into ballet? Do we need to see a ballet about natural disasters when we've seen disaster films like "Twister", "The Poseidon Adventure", "Earthquake", "Meteor"?

Could be. I can't sit through the usual cookie-cutter Hollywood flick. But I know I loved Mt. Bulla. I feel that this ballet has honesty in it, which Hollywood would never allow itself to even lightly touch. Violence in Hollywood signifies such a different modus operandi. In Hollywood movies, natural violence is often instrumental; it happens because of X or Y.  Violence has a purpose, and is often morally tainted (i.e. righteous Nature kills the bad guy; or, the good guy eventually manages to conquer reckless Nature out for his blood). In this ballet, violence has no moral causation and certainly no moral preferences.

Conclusion: Ballet for kooks? Ballet as therapy!

The first time I ever saw Scapino ballerina Bryndis dance (in "Out of China" by Wubbe), she chafed her knees during a slide over the floor. During a quiet moment while sitting on the floor, she quickly touched the bleeding wounds on her knees and put on a pained, worried face. She couldn't rush backstage for a plaster, because she had to be present on stage throughout the whole piece. At the end of the choreography, she took a bow while bleeding right there in front of us. I felt perverted as I clapped. What was I applauding at? Poor working conditions for ballet dancers? This wasn't stylized pain, this wasn't fake blood. This was the real thing. No stuntmen for this ballerina.

The guilt I feel for enjoying violent ballet performances is indirectly related to the widespread fear that the display of artistic or mediated violence might normalize violence to such an extent that oneself will have no reservation whatsoever against casual violence.

Images of violence arouse a burst of energy and strength in the viewer (as well as the dancer); an empathetic feeling at the coordination, speed and endurance of the dancers flying through the air and functioning at the edge of endurance. The heightened sense of awareness and mental concentration on the part of the onlooker is an intense experience. It feels really good.

The experience of such positive feelings in relation to violence surprises and scares me. Because of my studies, I am well aware of how violence can lose its meaning. An explosion in real life means "danger". When it's used in a video-clip, or a movie or a ballet - sometimes merely to mark the beat - the explosion loses its original meaning and becomes just a sensational optical effect. It just looks "cool", in a Beavis & Butthead "Fire! Fire!" sort of way. Likewise, the imagine of a male dancer flying through the air - often merely to mark the beat - loses its meaning. It no longer signifies danger, but coolness and a "cool" carelessness.

The fact that one can and does derive pleasure from violence is a paradox I could get lost in forever. I am fully aware that pleasure can be abused for manipulative ends. I've read all the right books like a good student, and yet images of violence still feel good. That is why I cannot use the terms "disruptive" or "subversive" in reference to these ballets. I feel guilty and confused. But I also feel vengeful and angry, and in need of a catharsis. These are what the ballets provide.

Research has shown that exposure to images of violence does not - as is the popular myth - cause viewers to go out and do it themselves. However, it does "desensitize" them... Is this outcome supposed to be insightful? I am rather tempted to think that this research does not bother to interpret its conclusion. "Being desensitized" is a state of mind. What is the pragmatic outcome of being desensitized? How do people *act*? And is it permanent? Isn't this what everyone wants to know?

Psychologists often tend to exaggerate the weight they put on so-called negative emotions, and usually do so for the sake of promoting a new therapy and/or psychotropic drugs. In the end, they don't have any answers, just a shallow concept of what should pass for normal behaviour - and a big bag of psycho-skittles, which are supposed to be the Silver Bullet. For the maintenance of normalcy, one must walk this path of shallowness. To which I say: If I were looking for normal behaviour, I wouldn't be attending a ballet. And I've never tried the psycho-skittles but I already know I prefer the normal ones! Oh, and I loved Nijinsky's diaries.

Edited by Jeff.

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