Should ballet dramatize sexual assault on stage?

The Pacific Northwest Ballet premiere that has audiences arguing about sexual assault storylines.

Raku at Pacific Northwest Ballet, with Noelani Pantastico and Kyle Davis

Pacific Northwest Ballet principal dancer Noelani Pantastico and soloist Kyle Davis in Yuri Possokhov’s "RAkU." (Photo: Angela Sterling/PNB)

In the program notes for “Emergence,” the current triple bill at Pacific Northwest Ballet, artistic director Peter Boal says one premiere work “pushes the limits of what we expect from ballet and promises to prompt a few heated dialogues.” He is correct on all counts.

The piece spurring the conversation is “RAkU,” created in 2011 by Ukranian-born Yuri Possokhov, who danced with the Bolshoi Ballet in Moscow before becoming the San Francisco Ballet’s resident choreographer. The subject matter is the true story of the Buddhist Golden Pavilion in Kyoto, Japan, which was burned down in 1950 by a mentally disturbed monk.

That might seem a compelling enough story to relate through dance, but Possokhov chooses to set the event centuries earlier, in a vaguely medieval Japan, and invents significant plot elements: A princess is put in the care of the monk when her Shogun husband goes off to war. The monk sexually assaults her. The husband dies in battle, the monk torches the temple, the princess takes a sword and kills herself, hara-kiri style.

On opening night last Friday, a good portion of the audience gave the piece a standing ovation, but others remained seated and still. During intermission, overheard discussions included irritation and outrage, both regarding questions of cultural appropriation and the portrayal of sexual assault on stage. (The PNB program and website both contain warnings that “RAkU” contains themes of sexual violence.)

On Facebook, some viewers questioned whether we really need more balletic portrayals of females as victims — even when stunningly executed — a conversation that has been long ongoing in the field, at least since 1984, when choreographer Mark Morris famously yelled, “No more rape!” during a performance of Twyla Tharp’s “Nine Sinatra Songs.” (Worth noting: this was a male choreographer calling out a female choreographer.)

In the printed program, PNB issues a hope that “RakU” can be a vehicle for “dialogue about a challenging subject.” As part of that dialogue, Crosscut spoke with Boal over email about “RakU” and audience reactions.

The interview has been edited and condensed.

What led you to choose "RakU" for this year’s PNB season — and did the content give you any pause? 

I have been impressed with Yuri Possokhov’s choreography and wanted to introduce his work to our dancers and audiences. The conversation began over two years ago when Yuri recommended "RAkU" and sent a copy to me. Yes, the content gave me pause. In the end, I see ballet as a potential forum for issues in our world and recognized this work would prompt a dialogue about sexual assault.  

What’s the range of feedback you’ve been getting — is it what you expected?

The first dialogue was with the cast. I met with all of them last summer to discuss the topic matter. I wanted them to know this work would generate all kinds of responses and as the artists portraying the characters in "RAkU," it would be best to have a conversation at the outset. People have been stunned by the work, admiring of individual performances and rattled by the storyline.

Ballet has a long history of portraying “exoticized” cultures. Is there a way to respect historic works but acknowledge today’s understanding of cultural appropriation?

Cultures should not be presented in a way that stereotypes or ridicules. I believe Possokhov presents Japanese culture in a way that is reverential. I realize others will have a different take on this and it is valid. Their views should be expressed and heard.

What are your thoughts about recently created ballets, such as “RAkU,” which portray another culture from an outsider’s perspective?

I don’t want to deny anyone — writer, artist, filmmaker — the right to tell a story. It is a mistake to think someone does not have the right to express. We also cannot know their personal history and how their lives or beliefs intersect with the subject matter. In the case of "RAkU," the story was developed with Shinji Eshima [composer], Gary Wang [libretto] and Judith Kajiwara [butoh dancer].

The main character in "RAkU" is defined mainly in terms of the men around her (brave husband, protective soldiers, predatory monk). Her agency is only expressed when killing herself — removing herself from the story. As a woman, it's a drag to see this characterization portrayed over and over. (One female friend joked, “Why couldn’t she go all ‘Kill Bill’ instead?”) Thoughts?

This may have been the case with the protagonist, but her story is brought to audiences through this ballet and the crime is not hidden or unheard. Rape is happening all around us in every country and in high schools in Seattle and college campuses everywhere. We should be angry after seeing a ballet like this. We should feel sick and we should be moved to conversation and action.

The twentysomething women sitting next to me on opening night were upset about the portrayal of rape as “entertainment.” What would you say to these young women about the value of portraying societal ills on stage?

Oh dear. It’s not entertainment. I don’t even see the ballet itself as entertainment.

The majority of prominent ballet choreographers are white males. Last fall, PNB’s “Her Story” program featured all women choreographers. In what other ways does PNB support female choreographers and choreographers of color?

I am looking to rectify an imbalance that exists in ballet. This takes time, but we are starting a choreography class for our 15- and 16-year-old girls next year, and our NEXT STEP choreographers this year include three women (out of six). I have invitations out to half a dozen women and choreographers of color to create for the main stage in future seasons. Providing these classes and opportunities is essential and important.

In terms of the future of ballet generally — and having different points of view expressed on stage — are you seeing more female choreographers coming up in the ranks, and does their storytelling look different? What about choreographers of color?

I see more ballets that address previously undiscussed subjects. Crystal Pite on the refugee crisis, Ulysses Dove on domestic violence, Steven Loch on mental disorders and our students creating work about the obstacles and opportunities Sonia Sotomayor faced in her career. Choreographers are leaning in and drawing from their own stories and I see this as an important direction for our art form.

PNB's "Emergence" program, which includes Yuri Possokhov's "RakU," continues at McCaw Hall through April 22.

Crosscut arts coverage is made possible with support from Shari D. Behnke.



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