In fifth grade, I distinctly remember learning and performing a dance for our studio’s June recital. Our role was to be Chinese court dancers, in the studio’s ballet-adapted version of Marco Polo. Later, in eighth grade, my friends were asked to preform traditional Burmese and Balinese dances, that Ruth St. Dennis had “discovered”, as a part of a study on the origins of modern dance. My classmates and I loved the dancing and the costumes, but it wasn’t until our high school years that we realized just how strange we felt performing dances that weren’t part of our cultures. We adored learning the new styles, but looking back we acknowledge that we were a group of American kids dancing a style from an area of the world we didn’t know much else about.
Dance and its relationship with Orientalism is fascinating. The representation comes in the form of a story to be performed for an audience, leaving many obvious examples of Orientalism intact. Many studios/companies today still don’t quite understand what it means to teach their students about the true nature of the cultures they learn dances from, or how these dances do not accurately depict these cultures.
From modern dancer Ruth St. Dennis’s “discoveries” of traditional dance during her Denishawn School’s 1925 travels to Asia to one of the most famous ballets, Le Corsaire, the examples of Asian culture depicted from an Orientalist view are endless. In particular, Le Corsaire is glaringly obvious. As it is based on a Lord Byron poem, the ballet is a perfect example of Orientalism. According to an article from Dance Magazine,
…[Le Corsaire] is morally repugnant: Centered around the selling and stealing of sex slaves, it basically portrays women as weak, non-human objects, and Muslims as evil or buffoon-like. (Yep, the last stereotypes that need to be reinforced today.)
The ballet only depicts the western idea of the “East”, however, there is obviously much more to the culture there than what is shown through the story. Although today there is much more information available to the people performing the stories, it is important to recognize them as inaccurate.