Connected \\ September 16, 2022
Porcelain Pirouettes – Reimagining the Ballet des Porcelaines at PEM
Porcelain Cabinet, Charlottenburg Palace, Berlin. Photo by Roland Handrick
On left, Meredith Martin, Associate Professor of Art History at NYU and the Institute of Fine Arts. Photo by Joshua Kwassman. On right, Phil Chan, Co-Founder of Final Bow for Yellowface and author of Final Bow for Yellowface: Dancing between Intention and Impact, and the President of the Gold Standard Arts Foundation. Photo by Eli Schmidt
To do so, she approached Phil Chan to collaborate with her to reimagine Ballet des Porcelaines for 21st century audiences. Chan, a dancer, choreographer, and arts activist, was the perfect partner for this ambitious project. Together they have reanimated a ballet for which virtually no information has survived – on the staging, costumes and choreography of the original productions. Other 18th century French ballets could certainly have offered them a template to follow. But at the outset, the team acknowledged that aspects of the original ballet were problematic for contemporary audiences and risked reinforcing harmful stereotypes about Asians. Chan noted, “When I first heard the original plot of the ballet, I couldn’t help but think of my father, who throughout the Covid pandemic has been too afraid to leave the house – not just because of the disease, but because of the spike in anti-Asian violence. So when Meredith approached me with this ballet scenario, all I could initially think was why do we need to resurrect this story now?” Chan’s work as the co-founder of Final Bow for Yellowface presented a different path forward for the reimagined production. This non-profit works to improve how the international ballet community represents Asians on stage. “Yellowface” refers to the derogatory practice of white actors changing their appearance with makeup in order to play East Asian characters in performances. Final Bow for Yellowface invites all who stage ballet to commit to eliminate outdated and offensive stereotypes of Asians on our stages.
Artists in Arita, Japan, Pair of covered vases, about 1680. Porcelain. Peabody Essex Museum, museum purchase, made possible by an anonymous donor, 2000, AE85765.1AB-2AB
Chan and Martin reimagined their new production with a primarily Asian cast and tapped Korean-American costume designer Harriet Jung to design costumes, which are inspired by Japanese Kakiemon and French Chantilly porcelain that was popular among European collectors at the time.
Chantilly Porcelain Manufactory, Chantilly, France, Ewer, 1738–44. Soft-paste porcelain. Peabody Essex Museum, museum purchase, made possible by an anonymous donor, 1988, E82560.
Rather than recreating the evil 18th century Chinese sorcerer from the original production, Chan and Martin reimagined him as a mad European collector of living porcelain statues.
Louis de Silvestre. Portrait of Augustus II the Strong, oil on canvas, Courtesy of Nationalmuseum Stockholm
Chan and Martin based this alternate nemesis on the larger-than-life figure of Augustus the Strong, the Elector of Saxony, whose passion for porcelain was unmatched in early 18th century Europe. His so-called porzellankrankheit–or porcelain sickness – led him to amass a collection of nearly 30,000 Chinese and Japanese pieces of porcelain. Desperate to finance this extremely expensive habit, Augustus imprisoned Johann Friedrich Böttger, a young German alchemist who claimed he had transformed lead into gold. While Böttger was understandably unable to achieve that goal, he accomplished something else, finally discovering how to make “white gold” (porcelain) in Europe for the first time.
View of the porcelain wall in the Sean M. Healey Gallery of Asian Export Art at PEM. We acknowledge the Richard C. von Hess Foundation and its trustees for generously supporting the installation of the porcelain wall at PEM.
Augustus’ obsession with porcelain is a story that plays a central role in PEM’s Sean M. Healey Gallery of Asian Export Art, which includes both an animation about Augustus the Strong and displays one of the 15 monumental blue and white porcelain vases that the Elector traded for an entire regiment of mercenary soldiers. Given PEM’s internationally significant collection of Chinese and Japanese porcelain for European markets and the Asian Export Art gallery’s complex narratives about ceramics, PEM is the ideal host for this pantomime ballet on European obsession with porcelain.
Artists in Jingdezhen, China, Augustus the Strong’s covered vase, 1710–15. Porcelain. Peabody Essex Museum, museum purchase, made possible by an anonymous donor, 2001, AE85782.AB. Photo by Dennis Helmar.
The reimagining of Ballet des Porcelaines at PEM promises to be a beautiful and engaging multisensory experience for our audiences. PEM’s productions will be performed by dancers from the Oakland Ballet Company, led by artistic director Graham Lustig. Accompanying the dancers is an ensemble of musicians from New York City, led by baroque violinist Leah Gale Nelson, who will be performing both the historic score and new music composed by Sugar Vendil for the reimagined Ballet des Porcelaines. We hope that this production of Ballet des Porcelaines will both help to dismantle historic biases in the medium of dance and connect our visitors in new ways with one of the museum’s great treasures – its collection of Chinese and Japanese export porcelain.
Listen to Episode 007 of the PEMcast, PEM’s award-winning podcast, to learn more about the blue and white magic that caused porcelain sickness and how it featured in PEM's 2016 exhibition Asia in Amsterdam: The Culture of Luxury in the Golden Age.