Fancy Free, choreographed by Jerome Robbins, has all the feel of a 1940s Broadway musical, without any of the lyrics.
The dance is structured around a thin narrative about three boisterous sailors on shore leave and the women they encounter as they loiter on a New York City side street on a hot summer night in 1944.
I saw it on one of this year’s last warm nights in Minneapolis, when Salt Lake City-based Ballet West opened the new performance season at Northrop Auditorium at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities.
The sets and costumes stirred up the kind of nostalgia found in an Edward Hopper or Norman Rockwell painting.
Ballet West performed Robbins’ clever movement skillfully, and a few times, managed to elicit laughter from the audience. Though, the three male leads seemed to have a hard time finding center stage, and the slightly off balance spacing was distracting at moments.
Yet, Fancy Free’s content came off as dated — bordering on problematic.
Audience members shifted in their seats, visibly uncomfortable when the sailors harassed a young woman towards the top of the ballet. For those unfamiliar with the Robbins piece, to gain the woman’s attention, the sailors steal her pocketbook and taunt her as she tries to recover it from them. After recovering her property, this woman joins the sailors for a drink in a nearby bar.
That wouldn’t likely happen nowadays, nor does it seem likely to have happened in 1944.
There were other uneasy moments throughout the ballet, mostly when the sailors ignored physical and social boundaries in their interactions with the female dancers.
It was impossible to ignore the fact that the three women characters had no other purpose in the dance beyond the role of romantic interest or, more accurately, sexually objectified individual.
This performance was Ballet West’s world premiere of the ballet. Ballet West’s Artistic Director Adam Skulte was not the choreographer of Fancy Free, so the issue centered on contemporary arts programming practices.
Much of what was troubling was inherent to Fancy Free’s storyline; so it seemed the only way to altogether avoid Fancy Free’s awkward subject matter would have been to avoid performing the ballet.
But does content like this have a place on a stage in the year 2015? Do certain works become so dated, and even offensive, that they should eventually be retired from repertoires?
Best practices for situations like these have not been established or standardized among arts organizations, and the issue continues to arise.
Dances like American Ballet Theater’s Othello highlight a history of racism.
Decisions, like ABT’s makeup team painting the lead character of the ballet with dark brown makeup, demonstrate how prominent racism still is.
Minnesota’s Raw Red Meat Productions presented a gruesomely violent reimagining of Frankenstein. That production, paired with its five-star audience review and positive response from several press outlets, made me angrily aware of how desensitized many are to depictions of violence against women.
Arts organizations should not act with such socio-cultural ignorance.
Continuing with the classic New York City feel, Ballet West rounded out the evening with a crisp and colorful rendition of George Balanchine’s Who Cares?
What fun it was to watch this ballet. It was like a remix of the classical ballet structure; a jazzy, theatrical take on the ensemble, pas de deux, and solo variations. And though it was choreographed nearly 100 years ago, it doesn’t bring a problematic depiction of social relations to the stage in the way that Fancy Free does.
Syncopation was the hallmark of Who Cares?, as with most of Balanchine’s choreography. In it, dancers moved seamlessly between symmetry and asymmetry, placing rhythmic stresses and accents in spots where they wouldn’t normally occur — shifting between pure versions of ballet movements and Balanchine’s innovative reconsiderations of them.
Katharine Lawrence gave a standout performance in “Stairway to Paradise.” Her movement quality was as powerful as it was lyrical, which made her a great match for Gershwin’s melody.
Ballet West has tapped into the growing enthusiasm for retro, nostalgic, and old-fashioned experiences.
Still, the question of their repertory’s relevance lingers.
There is no place for insularity in the 21st century arts community. If Ballet West is to make a lasting contribution to the arts community they, like other arts organizations, must engage with the world as a whole by exhibiting social awareness in their programming and creative decisions.