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Why the American Premiere of Ballets Russes’s Firebird was Failed?: A Reception Analysis of its “Russianness”

Jeong, Ok Hee 1

1성균관대학교

Accredited

ABSTRACT

This study reconstructs the American premiere of Firebird of the Ballets Russes. Shown as the first work of its first American tour’s opening night at the Century Theatre, New York, on January 17, 1916, Firebird, however, failed to draw the American audience’s attention, let alone transmitting its intention to represent Russianness. Based on the premise that the meaning of an art work lies not only on itself but also on its context as well as reception, I traced what the intention of “Russianness” was and how it was perceived in the specific context. The research has three different theoretical grounds all of which are tightly connected with my research structure and methodology. First, the research is grounded on the Modified Cultural Diamond model suggested by Victoria D. Alexander, which includes distributors in addition to creators, society, consumers, and artwork as components of the arts. Second, based on Ferdinand de Saussure’s Diachrony/Synchrony structure, I contextualized the American premiere with other performances in history, horizontally, and with its sociopolitical and cultural atmosphere of New York at that time, vertically. Although this study limits its scope on the vertical expansion due to the length, the specific meaning of the performance only exists in the crossed map on which resides. Third, based on the sense of community in modern society that shares a new homogeneity of native language networks based on print-capitalism, as Benedict Anderson said, I particularly analyzed the primary sources of newspapers and magazines at that time and suggested the specific audience for Firebird as a culturally and financially homeogenous group. Tracing the creation and reception of Firebird, I drew four reasons for which it was dismissed by the American audiences. First, the principal dancers’ mediocre dance failed to satisfy the audiences, who especially expected to see legendary Karsavina and Nijinsky. Second, the lack of professional dance criticism naturally drew the focus of reviews to music and design rather than dance and choreography, which rendered Firebird as the actualization of Stravinsky’s music. Third, the sensations that Schéhérazade and L’Aprés-midi d’un Faun aroused regarding sex, gender, and ethnicity were so strong in Puritan American society that Firebird’s Russianness was overshadowed. Fourth, the limitation of live performance and oversee tour could not fulfill the American audiences’ expectation that had been mystified through years of exposure in print journalism. In addition to these external reasons, the serious and catholic quality of “Russianness” that Firebird’s creators intended has not been fully transmitted to the American audiences, since it was perceived as another fairytale ballet done by Russians just like Sleeping Beauty. Rather, “Russianness” had a differing layer of meaning in the American context as the American audiences connected it with boldness not only in fashion and design but also in cultural behavior. The daring color combination--such as pink and blue, crimson and gold--and leg-revealing costumes, which had been tabooed in theatres and operas for the high society urged the rigid American high society audience to shorten the skirt and to put on an exotic hair ornament without a sense of guilt. Moreover, liberal approaches to sex and gender shown in Ballets Russes’s works pushed the envelop of the artistic expression in Puritan American culture. As the first major production of so-call “national” ballets directly targeted to the audiences abroad, Firebird and its “Russianness” has many implication for the issue of “Korean ballet.” While it is natural to express one’s national identity through ballet, the strong intention of representing nationality is not always successfully transmitted, mostly because the audience of other cultures perceives the piece with different interests within their own cultural context. Thus, the discrepancies between the intention and the reception of an art work, especially its representation of conceptual ideas such as “Russianness” or “Koreanness”, should be viewed as magnets attracting various and even contradictory perspectives and desires.

Citation status

* References for papers published after 2022 are currently being built.