Connected \\ September 16, 2022

Porcelain Pirouettes – Reimagining the Ballet des Porcelaines at PEM

An 18th century ballet known as the Ballet des Porcelaines–or Le Prince Pot-à-Thé (Teapot Prince, as it was also called)–tells an enchanting story of a prince searching for his long-lost love. His search ends on a “Blue Island” where an evil sorcerer has turned all the inhabitants into porcelain statues. This French ballet was originally staged during a period of intense European fascination with porcelain production, a skill that Chinese potters mastered more than a thousand years earlier than their European counterparts. Europe’s obsession with porcelain remained unabated for decades, but the Ballet des Porcelaines was performed only twice – at a château near Paris in 1739 and 1741– and largely forgotten for centuries.

In 2016, Professor Meredith Martin first heard of the existence of the Ballet des Porcelaines, whose score and libretto have survived in the archives of the Bibliothèque nationale de France in Paris. Martin, an art historian who specializes in French art and architecture, is an authority on the 17th and 18th century European craze for creating porcelain rooms. Given her interests, this long-forgotten ballet that centered on porcelain was a particularly exciting discovery. Rather than simply publishing an article on the ballet, Martin envisioned a more engaging and multidisciplinary approach to sharing this find with broader audiences. She wanted to perform the ballet again for the first time in more than 200 years.

Porcelain Cabinet, Charlottenburg Palace, Berlin. Photo by Roland Handrick

Meredeth Martin and Chan

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.

two vases

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, France, Ewer, 1738–44

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 painting on canvas, Courtesy of Nationalmuseum Stockholm

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.

Porcelain Wall

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.

Augustus the Strong’s covered vase, 1710–15

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.

For more on the history of the original ballet and the development of the contemporary production, see the new publication Reimagining the Ballet des Porcelaines: A Tale of Magic, Desire, and Exotic Entanglement, edited by Meredith Martin.

Tickets for the two public performances on Saturday, October 1 are sold out, but a limited number of same-day tickets for the performance on Friday, September 30 at 5:30pm will become available at that morning.

This program is made possible by
The Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation.

Cornell Foundation logo

TOP IMAGE: The original Ballet des Porcelaines cast in the Venetian Room, Albertine Headquarters, Cultural Services of the French Embassy, NYC. Photo by Joe Carrotta. Courtesy NYU Center for Ballet and the Arts.

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