The Massachusetts Review: The Offending Classic
By Juan Ignacio Vallejos
27 November 2020
On the Intolerable in Dance
I recently saw Angelin Preljocaj’s Rite of Spring (2001) on film. This was the latest of many ballets staged by the French choreographer from the repertoire of the Ballets Russes. Earlier Preljocaj had offered the world his Le Spectre de la Rose, L’Oiseau de Feu, and Les Noces. Though considered a choreographer of contemporary dance, most dance critics agree that Preljocaj’s works are indebted to the tradition of classical ballet and to neoclassical techniques. In his inventive version of Rite of Spring, the choreography is structured in particular around the idea of a primitive energy related to sex and violence.
This is not an irrational reading of the theme of the ballet. Maurice Bejart’s version was in the same vein. However, Preljocaj includes scenes of rape which are cruel. In addition, the central rape scene, which involves all female and male dancers, is followed by a “reconciliation” scene between the aggressors and the victims; both scenes are prelude to the final rape and sacrifice of the Chosen One. I have to admit that watching all this was disturbing—at least for me. Not because the scenes contained explicit violence, but because the neoclassical technique employed somehow transformed a horrible act into “beautiful” choreography. The male bodies subjugated women through formal movements that harmoniously followed the cadence of the music with perfect technique. The beauty of the movements felt like an invitation to “enjoy” the dance, which was truly unpleasant.
It surprised me that this work—originally premiered in 2001—didn’t arouse any criticism at the time. I’ve found only one text, from 2013, which analyzes versions of the ballet by Maurice Béjart and Angelin Preljocaj; it is published in the feminist blog “Laios & Terpsichore,” and its title is “La culture du viol dans la danse – Le Sacre du printemps” [The culture of rape in dance – The Rite of Spring]. The author writes, “I have nothing against erotic scenes in contemporary dance, [but] to talk about sex through a history of violence shows that these choreographers did not understand what rape is. Rape is a relation of domination, not unbridled sex.” The author’s statement seems well founded, yet it is surprising to find that it was published more than a decade after the premiere. One hopes this essay demonstrates that something has changed in the last ten years. I, for one, would like to think that, thanks to the global feminist movement, some artistic practices related to violence against women have become intolerable for a significant part of the audience and for the artists themselves.
The concept of the intolerable refers to a specific moral configuration that emerges when the transgression of a limit becomes impossible to assimilate. In dance, this impossibility is understood and felt as part of the sphere of perception itself involving both body and mind. When something becomes intolerable, we can feel it in our bodies, even if the impression is not already clear to our minds. Given that all human affect is the product of historical and social conditions, the content of what is considered intolerable varies accordingly. What is found intolerable today may not be in the future and, vice versa, what was tolerated in the past today may not be. As such, the concept ultimately designates a terrain of dispute, an arena in which different factions struggle to impose their limits.
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