Jacob not biting his Pillow any time soon; at least, not outside

Rinfleisch and Company

Rindfleisch and Company

It was in the spring that I found out that Elke Rindfleisch’s 80% of Love–which premiered last summer in NYC at the Ohio Theater, and on which my opera ensemble, Collective Opera Company, had collaborated–had been slated for the outdoor stage at Jacob’s Pillow this summer in what the festival calls its Inside/Out series. Needless to say, all involved were thrilled at the prospect of performing at this vibrant and historic festival of dance. Dropping “Jacob’s Pillow” in any dance-crowd conversation seems to draw a sudden round of “oos” and “ahs”. And rightly so. The festival is a testament to the importance of dance to east coast culture, and proof that dance, on its own, can be a destination for those seeking enlightenment through entertainment.

So, it was not without some disappointment that we were alerted by the festival organizers that the word “sex”–which appears three times in some spoken text written and assembled by dramaturg Joseph Gallo–had to be removed from the performance. The explanation for such censorship was that the outdoor performance series, being free to the public, is geared to attract family audiences. Right…

BEFORE I GO ANY FURTHER: In no way do I speak for Ms. Rindfleisch. These thoughts and criticisms are my own, and I am solely responsible–as the Counter Critic–for their appearance on this blog.

So let’s get into it…

Now, what is probably the more obvious of two issues that arise from the request for and justification of the removal of the word “sex” from this dance piece, is that which concerns definition of language:

How does Jacob’s Pillow define “family” in this instance?

To address the first point. I don’t have a family as I believe Jacob’s Pillow is defining it; I do not have a spouse with whom I share children. I articulate this because one must assume that it is the protection of children from inappropriate material that is at issue. We cannot imagine that the festival is actually concerned that two adults will come to a performance, hear the word “sex”–not even a sexual description mind you, but the actual three letters in a non-suggestive passage of dialogue–and run away crying.

No, they are no doubt more concerned with the kind of family–the kind of family to which the festival is choosing to limit its definition–that would come to a free dance performance that is advertised as a “For The Family”, would hear the word “sex” spoken and then have to lunge for their children’s ears to protect them from the evilness that is the word sex and all it entails in its three satanic letters. This is the family that Jacob’s Pillow seems to be censoring its artists in order to appease.

Now, there is no way that this definition represents the majority of families out there, especially the kinds of families that are apt to bring their children to a dance performance in the first place (dance has long been regarded by moral fundamentalists as a borderline transgression; see the film “Footloose,” or live in NYC). So, to be as accurate as possible, the festival should call this programming “For People Who Don’t Want Themselves or Their Children To Be Confronted With Other People’s Perceptions/Representations of Sex. Ever.”

What’s further confusing, is that when you click on the “For The Family” link, The Pillow’s website has this to say: Although a youth discount is offered for all performances, parents may not find each and every program to be equally appropriate for their children. If you have any questions about the content of any particular program, please call the Box Office.

So the festival already has a CYA (cover your ass) set up on their website in the event that an audience participant should walk away from a performance up-in-arms about something they just witnessed, you know, cuz they should be able to predict exactly what happens in front of their eyes at every waking moment, even in a performance that has nothing to do with them except for the fact that they chose to show up and watch, voluntarily, without a gun to their head.

So why, then, did the festival still ask Ms. Rindfleisch to remove the word sex from the show, especially when they did not ask Ms. Rindfleisch to remove what is an intense and blatantly sexually suggestive duet between a male and female dancer that occurs further in to the piece?

We have to ask ourselves if the festival is censoring the literal but being laissez-faire about the representational. Is The Pillow suggesting that watching a female dancer grind her pelvis on top of the pelvis of a male dancer somehow escapes the label of indecency, while simply uttering the word sex (one specific example: “I don’t understand sex” as a fragment in a series of text fragments) qualifies as inappropriate for “family” fare?

They reviewed a video of the performance in order to determine whether or not to select the work. We can assume they watched enough of it to know that the word “sex” was spoken at some point. But the most sexually suggestive dance passage occurs later in the dance. Are we to assume that they did not watch the video in its entirety? Either that, or the festival does, in fact, permit sexually explicit representations of sex as physical action for their “For The Family” programming, but does not allow the subject to be addressed in even the most perfunctory verbal context.

But of more concern, why did the festival put Ms. Rindfleisch in the position of having to censor her work by programming her in a series that has such restrictions on content? Aside from the dance alone, pretty much all of her company’s promotional materials indicate that her dances are “sexy” in one way or another. It’s a bit like inviting Pamela Anderson over for dinner, but then asking her to cover up the twins.

It’s also setting up the artist to have to make a decision: either censor one’s work, change one’s artistic vision, betray one’s artistic integrity and be able to present at an event that could do wonders (or at the very least have a positive impact) on one’s career, or, to refuse to censor and deny one’s self and one’s collaborators such rare opportunity.

It is absolutely unfair to the artist. The festival is in a position of power, and they–intentionally or not–wielded that power in such a way as to place the artist in a position that is demoralizing. To be clear, I don’t think the festival is the big bad guy here. My hope is that, more than anything, this was merely a bureaucratic disconnect; you know, two sides weren’t talking, or, they haven’t yet ironed out uniform standards of content for the outdoor series. That is my hope. If it’s anything more than that, then we should be concerned.

Ms. Rindfleisch chose to bring her work to the festival. That is definitely her responsibility. (That is also , naturally, why I am compelled to write this, and not she.) But I don’t know of many dance artists–particularly whose careers are at the stage Ms. Rindfleisch’s currently lies–who would turn down the opportunity to bring work, even censored work, to this esteemed festival.

The sadest part of this entire situation, though, is that the beautiful reality of what happened once we got to the festival and performed is nullified by such preemptive procedures of caution on the part of this or any festival, deference always being paid to the sliver of people who become a pain in the ass if their moral sensibility is challenged.

There were definitely families with children present. I would say, we had probably a little over a hundred viewers. And I did notice, after the aforementioned sex-dance, about ten-to-fifteen people up and left; conspicuously. I don’t fault them for that. If they want to object to sexual content by removing themselves from the situation, great! But the festival seems to want to play into the hands of this spare and loose collection of easily offended people, and completely ignore that fact that eighty to ninety percent of the audience remained, including lots of children.

One delightful thing I should point out–and please take note anyone who thinks that your sole job is to protect your children from the evils of outside influence–children do not care as much about the adult world as adults would like to imagine. Kids are far more concerned with things like dirt, scabs, imaginary monsters, and snacks.

As I was up on stage, there was a continuously rambunctious group of kids that kept running around the audience, climbing on tree stumps, running in a row behind the crowd and disappearing again. It was amazing. Here we were, presenting serious work, and all these kids just running around, totally not impressed. Awesome. I think both sides, audience and performer, learn from this. But more importantly, for the audience: kids don’t make a big deal about the adult world unless adults teach them to make big deal about it.

After our performance, I spoke with one woman who sat in the front row with her young daughter. The woman, without any prompting, told us how much she enjoyed the performance and that her daughter was inspired by all the dancing, and decided to imitate some of the movement, doing her own stretches in the aisles; no word as to whether she was grinding her pelvis on the nearest bench. Because the girl is too young to care about any kind of erotic symbolism or analogue that an adult will pick up on. The dance was made by and for adults. But if a freaked-out and over protective parent suddenly casts an aura of shame and anger around a child, then the child is going to have some serious issues, issues they would never have even dreamed of had the hyper-protective parent not even mentioned it in the first place. It’s a classic example of the paradox of having to divulge inappropriate information to children in an effort to shield them from it.

But will The Pillow recognize that the vast majority of the audience, including parents with children, stayed and emphatically embraced the performance, and by doing so, take greater risks that the general population is mature, engaged, interested and willing to look past some sexually explicit content even if it offends them? I hope so. Because the worst thing we can do as a culture is to inflate the power of the smallest of minorities of people who use fear and threats to coerce people into bending to their own narrow ideas of appropriateness.

These folks are definitely the minority. And out of respect for the artist and the great majority of people who opened their minds to this new, if provocative work, the festival would do well to rethink its policies regarding content for families. I think more and more, families are realizing that there is much in the world we can learn from each other; that there are broader ways of learning about and experiencing life. Viewing art is one of the wondrous ways in which people share this communal experience. But if we continue to let a few miserable prudes keep steering the conversation, we will never get to the answers that we all crave as responsible, mature, open-minded, and engaged human beings; citizens; families; Americans, even.

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4 Comments

  1. I’m always amazed by how much people assume children need to be sheltered from the sexual, especially in light of how much less we see censorship of violence. A movie full of cruelty and violence can slip by with a PG-13 rating, but god forbid you show full frontal nudity — that goes straight to R, no questions asked.

    I was at a Star Trek Convention this weekend (totally analagous event, I know) and a lot of the actors mentioned sex at one point or another. None of the kids or parents looked shocked or scandalized. Maybe in the 24th century…;)

  2. […] love this post by Counter Critic. Jacob’s Pillow (the esteemed summer dance festival held in Massachusetts) accepted his […]

  3. Thanks for sharing this story. It’s amusing and sad that Jacob’s Pillow even had a CYA statement for audiences but still felt need to censor.

  4. Wonderful post and I agree that this was likely a “bureaucratic disconnect” on the part of the festival. Having realized their mistake, I assume they thought that asking her to change the word rather than the choreography was preferable. The minority are unfortunately very loud in most of these incidences and I’m sure they made their grievances clear to the festival. How many of the majority speak up, though? Did anyone go and thank the festival for including this work in their family series? Herein lies the problem.

    The minority do have the right to their opinions and the right to decide what is appropriate for their children, and perhaps they did have reason to be a little disgruntled afterall- let me explain… For several summers I was the director of dance at a summer camp in Mass. I often took groups of children (aged anywhere from 8 to 15) to view Inside/Out performances at the Pillow. Most of these kids ARE old enough to understand (or at least know enough to talk about it later) “adult” symbolism and innuendo. If I wanted to save myself the headache of having parents on MY back, I needed to make sure that what they were going to see was relatively clear of anything that would make the kids focus on the “naughty” thing they saw instead of the dance itself (not always an easy task). Since many of the companies on the Inside/Out stage are not widely known it is more difficult to know what their content might be like. So, on a couple of occasions I called the Pillow offices to find out details about the content and was told that if it was on the “for the family” menu it should be appropriate. They didn’t seem to know any more than I did, which kind of defeats the purpose of that CYA statement don’t you think? And, it is no help for parents or teachers who really are just trying to be responsible and do right by the kids in their care. I guess my point is, if the festival is going to offer family events and then try to shift blame in the case they make a mistake, they should at least be prepared to answer questions about the material they are presenting.

    Anyway, your statement about divulging inappropriate content in order to shield children from the content is spot on (perhaps this is why so many young kids seem quite savvy these days). I hope that with my own child (he’s only 1) I will be a discerning but not overly protective parent. Already I have learned that often ignoring an unwanted behavior works more effectively than drawing attention to it by saying “No!” It’s a lesson I think many parents forget.


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