Ballet West opened its 2016-2017 season this past weekend with Stanton Welch’s Madame Butterfly. This is the second time the company has staged the Houston Ballet Artistic Director’s ballet redux of the classic Puccini opera. First Soloist Sayaka Ohtaki achieved the transporting sweetness of an impossible dream as the eponymous Butterfly, and the production’s glittering aesthetic stood rich and imposing against John Lanchbery’s adaptation of the iconic score.
The supporting cast performed with beautiful technique to match. Jenna Rae Herrera, as Butterfly’s loyal friend, zipped with easy grace through tricky allegro sections while maintaining a convincing grasp of character. The moments she and Ohtaki danced together at the beginning of Act II were a small but sincere delight. Stepping softly between following and leading, the two women engaged in a conversation of tender and enduring friendship. Oliver Oguma as Goro delivered a supremely entertaining mix of propulsive athleticism and slyly comedic trickery.
Principal Artist Chase O’Connell performed opposite Ohtaki as Pinkerton with loping elegance, floating through multiple pirouettes and moving widely with confidence. The two leads’ pas de deux were stunning. Employing some extremely difficult partnering, they conveyed the out of control soar of a first love. Flying, falling lifts and dizzying turns echoed Butterfly’s romanticism, and Ohtaki was fully committed to a stirring portrayal of passionate, adoring elation. O’Connell practiced a sweetly soothing charm that swept up the audience alongside his bride.
And yet, for all its technical and visual splendor, I found Madame Butterfly acutely unsettling. The opera is considered to be one of the art form’s greatest classics, and I had come to the Capitol Theatre hungry with the promise to be profoundly moved. Instead I left feeling emptied and frustrated, with a ringing discomfort.
The first source of this unease I can only identify as my impression that the ballet’s sumptuous production values failed to communicate an essence fundamental to these characters and their circumstances. Madame Butterfly really isn’t a very good love story. Stripped of its finery, it reads more as a tale of the deliberate and callous abuses endured by a young woman and her terrifying desolation. To recap, a destitute, orphaned child (she’s 14) is forced to sell herself to a U.S. Navy officer in marriage to survive. She is seduced and lied to and willfully betrayed by this “love interest”. She is cast out of her own society and eventually coerced into giving up her beloved child. She kills herself in despair and humiliation. Her traumatized four-year-old son will presumably be carted off to a foreign country by strangers.
The essential plot is agonizingly poignant, touching on themes that could easily find resonance in a modern audience. But the execution felt strange and misleading, and despite a fairly direct course of action, the production was hard to follow without a close reading of the synopsis. Transitions were disorienting and Act II in particular suffered from an overabundance of dancers entering and exiting and using different parts of the stage during critical acting scenes. The beautiful circus of sets and costumes proved far more distracting than supportive. In the end, the sudden conclusion was jarring in a manner more confusing than heartbreaking, saved only by Ohtaki’s emotive powers.
Characterization was handled with a similarly flashy but clumsy approach, relying on reductive stereotypes and gimmickry. The character of Butterfly is incredibly one-dimensional. She is allowed two flimsy emotions, spending most of the ballet giggling coyly before slingshotting to sudden hysteric anguish at the very end. There is no growth in her internal psychology and the dotty, Juliet-esque quality was frustrating to watch. The seppuku (a Japanese samurai tradition of ritual suicide) Butterfly commits in the final scene is meant to be a calmly serious act in defense of her honor. But she never takes us toward any sensation of that strength.
The way Pinkerton was rendered, in typical balletic leading-male fashion as a gallant hero, was equally disturbing. His irresponsibly cruel behavior is the direct cause of every bit of suffering that ensues. Yet the production placed him on a shining pedestal (quite literally at one point) and allowed the tragic course of action to rest on a sense of “well, sh— happens, I guess.” Several tenderly playful pas de deux and an ending tableau reminiscent of Romeo and Juliet were lovely, but the relationship between Butterfly and Pinkerton isn’t the saccharine, star-crossed love those scenes suggested. The sympathy we are designed to feel for him is so completely at odds with his abhorrent actions.
Beyond the two leads, the supporting cast and framework did not fare much better in terms of depth. The tired ballet trope of simple, cheerful, gossiping villagers was in full force. Tyler Gum’s clowning as Prince Yamadori raked in the laughs (never mind why it’s considered comically disgusting that he wants to purchase Butterfly but it was perfectly okay when the handsome American did it). There were several lazy jokes about women playing with makeup and not knowing how to read, and like Butterfly, most of the women on stage spent most of their time giggling. One particular Act II scene for the company’s women was an aggressively unpleasant flurry of frills and grotesque facial expressions backed by what sounded like actual screeching bird calls from the orchestra pit.
Many story ballets construct fairy-tale settings with less than plausible characters. What makes this case especially troubling are the cultural context and historical tensions being distorted. These kinds of temporary “marriages” were a common practice in Japan at the turn of the 20th century, and the opera is loosely grounded in semi-autobiographical accounts. Divesting Butterfly of a realistic internal landscape not only robs the experience of emotional depth, but also dismisses the humanity of a real group of women and proliferates stereotypes of Asian femininity as submissive, doting, self-sacrificing, and simple-minded. Butterfly becomes a cliché and a cartoon.
My other chief criticism relates to visual aesthetics, specifically the use of exaggerated orientalism as a racial signifier in costuming and choreography. Seeing a majority of the cast in yellow face is a first and inescapable concern . Obviously Butterfly employs a particular setting and characters with specific backgrounds, and that is an indispensable part of the narrative. Pinkerton is very much the spitting image of the reckless destruction of white colonialism; a way to showcase cultural and ethnic distinctions is needed to incorporate the deeper layers of meaning at play. However, it would be imperative to do this in a respectful way and not merely for added spectacle. I’m not convinced Welch’s production achieves that goal.
As an example, geisha makeup is a specific and revered tradition worn by an exclusive group. However, a rough approximation of the style using white paint, red lips, and heavy slanting eyebrows was used to characterize every Japanese female character on the stage. Butterfly is meant to be a member of a geisha order, but her maids and other background characters are not. By ignoring its specificities, that tradition is mutated, relegated to the role of ornamentation and an inappropriate racial marker.
A second example is found in the excessive stylization of Prince Yamadori, his entourage, and Butterfly’s male relatives. They were variously dressed in a mashup of elaborate ceremonial costumes, samurai accoutrements, and Kabuki theatre-esque makeup and masks. I can’t speak fully to their degree of historical accuracy, but the amplified exoticism of these “bad”, “scary”, and “gross” characters was highly at odds with the Americans who were afforded a level of dress much more casual and everyday (e.g., Pinkerton and his hapless buddy Sharpless are naval officers but they never appear in any distinctive uniform, only simple light colored pants and jackets).
The use of dubiously appropriated cultural aesthetics for embellishment moved beyond visual design and into the movement as well. A servile, hunched-over posture, stilted parallel bourées, and a shuffling, flexed-foot heel-to-toe walk were employed to distinguish Asian characters. Similar to the infamous “index finger pose” used in many a Nutcracker for the Chinese divertissement, these motifs were an unnecessary way to racially shade in characters. More intricate footwork, quick fluid allongé in port de bras, a softly bending upper body, and repeated attitude devant and derrière patterns were also used to define the vernacular of Butterfly and her friends, and were a sufficient and much better way to contrast them with the American Kate and her corps of dancers.
I recognize many of my reservations about this production are intrinsic to its original source. Like most art, that opera is a product of its time. Puccini’s work reflects an era of colonial imperialism when racism, misogyny, and a distorted fascination with “exotic” cultures were prevailing forces in the zeitgeist of the western world. When we re-stage classic works today, those shadowy undertones often come along for the ride. So how do we deal with all these problematic tropes? Can we present a widely beloved masterpiece without perpetuating racism and dishonestly crude caricatures of human experience? What is the best approach to take?
I certainly can’t give you a satisfying answer. But I do think it’s possible, and necessary, to try for better. With a re-adaptation (particularly one making the jump to an entirely different art form), there is always some degree of opportunity to use either more or less of the source material. New freedom is afforded to fill in gaps, explore, and make choices with responsibility and respect. It would have been nice to see a production that endeavored to find a little more humanity in this story, instead of relying on cheap laughs and familiar stereotypes. There is so much emphasis in ballet on preserving tradition and creating beauty at all costs. But our ability to produce truly resonant work becomes stunted by poor cultural sensitivity and a tendency to forgo the complexities of human existence for a circus of technique and frothy love stories. A beautiful form does not make up for a grave mishandling of context.
Just as filmmakers, writers, musicians, and other artists are scrutinized for questionable content choices, we as dancers and choreographers must also reflect on our flaws and be accountable for what we put out into the world. Continuing to uphold versions of our stories that deny their characters a justly representative and fully realized humanity only aids the reinforcement of harmful labels outside the theatre. As artists, we give tangible shape to connection. Our imperative is to draw people together, linking one dream to another. Part of the vital responsibility of that work is to think more carefully about how we treat other people and the relationships between us.
Emily Snow is a graduate of the University of Utah's Ballet Department. She most recently spent several seasons dancing with Central West Ballet in CA.