Thursday, April 22, 2010

Diaghilev and censorship in 1916

In fact what America would find hardest to accommodate would be the sexual content of the repertory, in particular the dreamy, quasi-masturbatory climax of Faune (which as Lydia had noticed had shocked even Paris) and the harem revels in Scheherazade. Even though audiences had seen Hoffmann's bowdlerised version of the latter, nothing in that staging could have prepared them for the sensual charge of Fokine's original, and especially for the unsettling eroticism embodied by its male lead, the Golden Slave. When Adolph Bolm first performed this role with the Ballets Russes in New York, his skin darkened with body paint, his supple gestures insinuating a disturbing mixed message of male desire and feminine acquiescence, American sexual and racial sensitivities were muddled beyond bearing. A wave of hysterical prurience was unleashed, causing the critic Grenville Vernon to remark that Bolm's 'remarkable negro' portrait would be impossible to perform 'South of Mason and Dixon's line', and the Catholic Theater Movement to head demands for the ballet to be banned outright.

On 25 January a legal injunction was passed against both Scheherazade and Faune, requiring Diaghilev to lighten the Slave's make-up and restrict the Faun's climax to a mute expression of longing. But even with these changes, censorship continued to plague the company throughout their tour. In Boston the mayor gave instructions that the Russians were permitted to bare only their toes; and in Kansas City, Captain Ennis of the Police Department gave stern notice that no lewdness was permitted on his watch. As he reported proudly to the Kansas City Star, 'Dogleaf, or whatever his name is couldn't understand plain English [so] . . . I told a fellow [the interpreter] "This is a strictly moral town and we won't stand for any high brow immorality. Put on your show but keep it toned down." I told him we didn't want to make trouble but if the show was too rank I'd come right up on stage and call down the curtain.'

Bloomsbury Ballerina: Lydia Lopokova by Judith Mackrell. 2008. Pages 93-4.

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