Castration, Female Genital Mutilation, and Male Spanish Choreographers Making Sexist, Un-American Faux Pas!!!

Yep, rollicking great fun in Brooklyn the other night! On Thursday night I went to the Brooklyn Academy of Music to see Spanish choreographer Nacho Duato‘s modern dance troupe, Compania Nacional de Danza, which I have been wanting to see ever since I saw a brief piece he’d choreographed for ABT a couple years ago. On the program were three pieces: “Por Vos Muero,” a beautiful work celebrating the variety of social dance in 15th and 16th Century Spain, set to lovely Baroque music and spoken word by pop musician Miguel Bose (whom I used to have a big crush on when I was first introduced to him in Spanish class); “Castrati,” an absolutely breathtaking all-male piece about the centuries-old Italian practice of castrating male opera singers so they could perform soprano roles, set to Vivaldi; and “White Darkness,” a dance that illustrated the effect of drug use through movement, at times spasmodic and violent, at times euphoric.

All three works were filled with beautiful movement that alternated between dark and heavy and light and lyrical to show different moods or states of being. The pieces were all gorgeously danced and Duato has a very strong, athletic, good-looking company. My favorite piece, though, was the second, “Castrati.” It began with one group of men all wearing these very interesting, almost foreboding, dark brown, monk-looking robes, which opened to reveal a muscular chest, then were buttoned tightly at the waist, and then flared into a skirt which was open in the front to reveal nude-colored footless tights. These men also wore these heavy black wrist-bands which added to the virility to the costume. This ensemble produced lots of high, heavily-landed jumps, hard kicks, fists pounding in the air, and crotch-grabbing, almost in Eminem fashion. So, it was very virtuostic, puissant, very manly. Yet, the way the skirts flared seemed to contrast sharply with all this “manliness”; it added a lyrical, more feminine quality. I guess you could read this group as either the ‘male’ men of the opera (the baritones and tenors), or as the pre-castrated version of the sopranos, or perhaps the sopranos’ lost masculine selves.

Then that group of men exited and a man wearing only skin-toned shorts danced a sad, lonely, frightened-looking solo, as he crouched on the floor in a fetal ball, shuddering. I was really scared for him.

His solo was followed by two men wearing powdery face makeup, white corsets and tights — so, the castrati, or the sopranos. This duet was obviously meant to evoke effeminacy, their dancing very feathery light and tightly controlled, their movements very small and slight, rather dainty, I guess, but in a beautiful, not silly, way. It was both sublime and immensely fake, like modern men in drag, as their built chest muscles popped out over the upper ties of the corsets. They looked sad, but was that because their painted-on faces were meant to be so, or because of what they had endured?

The three groups alternated, at times the baritone / ‘masculine’ men danced alongside the feminine men, sometimes partnering them, and in the end both groups hovered over the poor sole man wearing only the nude shorts, who ended up devoured and then, ultimately, bloodied by the group (fake blood of course). When the three groups danced together, the movement all became fluid and lyrical to me — making it both beautiful and violent and frightening. It seemed at times the ‘manly’ men would take on some of the more lyrical charms of the sopranos, symbolizing the fluid nature of masculinity, of gender, perhaps. Basically, what I loved about this piece was that it both made me think about the nature of masculinity and the issue of castration — it produced beauty but at what cost? — and it stimulated my visual and aural senses with the beauty of the movement and music. So, it engaged me both intellectually and sensually, which, to me, is what the best art does.

Anyway, according to the rather detailed program notes, the practice of castrating men to perform the soprano roles was borne of the Church’s forbidding women to speak in church, or in a theater. Opera, originating from church choir, was thus was forbidden from using women singers. “Castration,” the program says, “produced extraordinary vocal skills and a rather peculiar color to the voices, which meant castrati were in great demand and highly paid.” The program notes also give a brief history of castration in general, asserting that Egyptians used it as punishment, Arabs for religious reasons, and Turks to create a group of men with no sexual urgings to guard their harems. The program didn’t need to go into all of this detail, but it’s interesting that it did.

After the second show of every run, BAM holds an audience Q & A with the choreographer. There were a few interesting moments at this BAM dialog. One man approached the audience mike, and in a very agitated tone, asked Duato who was responsible for making the audience understand the meaning of the work. Duato looked confused and asked him to repeat his question. The man again asked whether it was the dancers who were supposed to impart meaning, the choreographer, or how the audiences were supposed to understand what was going on. Who decided the meaning? He seemed very frustrated; he sounded like I felt after the Wheeldon! Duato thought about it a bit, then told us how he worked: he went into the studio with music and a thematic idea; he did not go into the studio with any movement in mind, the dancers were responsible for that, and he worked out the movement together with them, to the music, after telling them his themes and ideas. So, everyone was responsible. He also likened dance to poetry, said his dances had no narrative, but he tried to give his audiences images to reflect and express his ideas, and if the viewer got something from it, even if it wasn’t what he had in mind, then he is happy with that. He gave an anecdote: a woman once told him she hadn’t read the program notes and thought the drug piece was about the passage of time, the salt thrown down from above onto the dances not a powder drug, but the sands of an hourglass. She was really shocked to discover it was intended to be about drugs. But Duato was happy because she loved the exploration of the passage of time that she saw. He was happy that his work spoke to her in that way, in a way that had meaning to her.

A little later, two young women, very Barnard-looking (but possibly young graduate students), approached the microphone. One asked, reading from her notebook, whether he ever considered setting the “Castrati” theme on women, and if so, how would that look. Murmurs sounded throughout the (rather packed, for a discussion) theater. Duato looked thoroughly confused. “No, but this is about the men, can’t be women,” he said frowning.

“No, I mean, in the context of female castration in general..” she began to clarify… But he didn’t seem to hear. “To have women jumping around aggressively like that,” he continued, “no, women can’t do those kinds of things.” At this, “Ooooohs” reverberated through the auditorium. Elizabeth Streb, where are you when we need you!?

“No, she means female genital mutilation” someone, a male voice, said.

“But… wait, why not?” Barnard woman said, now looking rather dejected at his answer to her misunderstood question.

“No, no,” Duato said now realizing, with her expression and all the “ooooooohs,” he’d said something very wrong but not really knowing what. “I mean, those jumping, it doesn’t look right on women. Too much. Women are beautiful.” More, louder “oooooooooooooohs!” “No,” he continued now getting flustered. “Women … I LOVE women,” he said spreading his arms out, He’s Got The Whole World In His Hands style. “Women, they are beautiful, but they are delicate,” he said, open-mouthed and flailing about. Many many more ooooooooohs. Duato looked flummoxed.

“But but but … that’s not … right…” Barnard started.

“No, she doesn’t even mean that,” another male voice called out. “She means female genital mutilation,” someone else said. Pandemonium was starting to happen, papers shuffled, people sat up, whispered to each other. “Ask your question again,” another male voice (all were male voices!) said. “Go back to you question, ask it again,” said another.

Barnard, now visibly upset from Duato’s women can’t do the same things as men faux pas said, “Yeah, I meant female castration, how would you show that?”

Duato looked even more befuddled. “Female… what? No, no, it can’t be,” he nervously laughed. “I mean, how can it be? These are men this happened to, the castrati, can’t be women?”

“No, female genital mutilation, female genital mutilation,” audience members started shouting. Poor Mr. Duato. First it was a sea of “ooooooooohs,” now a chorus of people chanting “female genital mutilation” at him. He looked horrified. Looking back it was rather funny.

Eventually, the moderator had to close the discussion and send us all home because it was so late, but as people began to gather their things and put on their jackets, several men approached the young women. “You just didn’t ask your question properly,” one said to her. “Yeah, he didn’t understand what you were trying to ask,” another agreed. I wanted to stay around and listen to their conversation but ushers were now walking up and down the rows asking people to leave and I had a long commute home. If I would have thought, I would have given her my card and asked her to email me or comment on my blog. Sometimes I just don’t think!

Anyway, I found the whole experience interesting, from the question itself, to some of Duato’s answers, to his misunderstanding of her, to all of the men who were trying to help her get her question across, obviously taking great interest in it. I thought it was a rather odd question to ask an artist, though I think I understand why she asked it. I think because the program notes went into such detail about the history of castration, she probably thought he was speaking to the entire history of the practice and not just the sopranos. Duato clearly didn’t seem to understand what she was saying, though I wasn’t sure whether he thought she was asking how would women look dancing exactly as the men had danced including the masculinity of the baritones, whether he didn’t understand that she was asking him to think of castration in an entirely different context, or whether he really didn’t even know what female genital mutilation was. It could have even been a language barrier issue with his Spanish, who knows. But I found her question interesting in that, to her, dance spoke at least in part on socio-cultural terms. On my way home I thought, well, what was she asking, and how could he have answered? If female genital mutilation in the places where it is still practiced stems from the belief that women are not entitled to their sexuality, which must be quelled in order to avoid a supposedly chaotic society, and the practice is so deadly dangerous, then where is the beauty, which was a huge element of Duato’s dance. The contrast of the violence with the beauty was part of what made the piece work for me. But then I realized that these sopranos were pre-pubescent boys when they were castrated and their fate was someone else’s decision. Certainly from the perspective of the young boy, what happened to him was not only through his own volition, but rather violent as well. So, where was the beauty in that? Maybe those corseted sopranos were only sad and it was my superimposed notion of beauty that made me think of them as such, that they weren’t like men in drag at all and I shouldn’t be thinking of the work in terms of its challenging gender assumptions.

Anyway, in the end, the whole evening from performance to discussion made me aware of what I look for in dance, and taught me that others share some of the same issues I do — others have a hard time deciphering meaning in abstract forms and don’t understand how the process many choreographers use aids in that; and others look for social relevance in art and don’t always focus on the visuals and the beauty of the movement and music. It also taught me that very good art provokes discussion, makes people more curious, and is ultimtely a dialog, a give and take, between the creator and the receiver. I hope Duato thinks about that question she asked even if just for the same reasons I did and not to construct another dance out of it.

And as for those notions of what female dancers are and aren’t capable of or what will or will not look good on them, I think Mr. Duato needs to be taught a thing or two!


  1. Fascinating! I wish I would have been there — I love those kinds of tension filled moments where the energy might resolve itself or escalate into something more controversial. Also, the way you explained the piece in the first half of the entry made me really interested in seeing it. Good entry, Tonya!

  2. Two excellent novels dealing with the castrati are Anne Rice’s CRY TO HEAVEN and Margriet de Moor’s THE VIRTUOSO. Also worth checking out: the film FARINELLI in which the voices of a countertenor and a female soprano were morphed to create the imagined sound of the castrato voice. In addition to Farinelli’s career, this film deals with the sexual fascination of the castrati who held both men and women in their exotic, erotic thrall.

  3. If you’re interested, it’s actually possible to hear a castrato singing here. It’s a gramophone recording of a castrato who was past his prime but even so you can hear that his voice has quite a different quality from a female soprano or modern countertenor.

    My understanding is that the castrati were generally from very poor families and were sold to the castrator. And many of them never developed a fine enough singing voice and thus went through life as eunuchs with no artistic success or anything of the sort to show for it. Horrifying. And yet even in the recording I linked to, you can hear that the voice castration created had a very particular beauty. So there certainly is an interesting juxtaposition there.

    Anyway, the dancing sounds absolutely fascinating. Wish I had seen it.

  4. wow! other choreographers may vote against discussions if this kind of thing ensues 🙂

    actually, i don’t like it when people bring their “own agendas” to these things, and ask choreographers such off-the-wall questions. i mean, on the surface, male and female castration may seem “similar”…but honestly, they are two different beasts, if you will. Opera castrati is in the past; it has a romantic quality, a beautiful sadness to the voice. On the other hand, FGM occurs now, is shrouded in secrecy and extremely taboo, and is based on discrimination and utter disrespect for the female body. there is nothing “lyrical” or “romantic” about it.

    it’s like asking a choreographer why he didn’t use a certain color for a costume, or use children for dancers, or different lighting. he should have just ended it, saying, “I chose to focus on castrati, not anything else” and ended it like that. The cultural implications surrounding the two topics are so unique and different. He probably didn’t know about FGM and was confused by the question.

    Obviously, the girls should have realized that FGM wouldn’t work for this piece because in a society, all girls undergo FGM and there are none that escape this fate, unlike the castrati who are surrounded by baritones/tenors.

  5. Thanks you guys — thanks for that link, Meg! That is so cool — I kept wondering what they actually sounded like but just assumed that since the practice was ended long ago recordings probably wouldn’t exist. Wow, that would have been interesting if Duato had used a bit of it! And you’re right, it does sound really different than a female soprano, in ways that I can’t describe. Everyone listen to it! Thanks again Meg! I’ll have to check out those books, Philip — the vampire woman, Anne Rice!? Wow!

    Yeah, Jennifer, when she first asked her question, I thought what an odd question for an artist — any artist (a painter, etc.) because she really was asking him to examine another subject that was kind of sort of related to this, but totally different. FGM is performed for purely political reasons (to keep women subjugated), not for any kind of beauty. I totally agree that there is nothing romantic or lyrical about it! I guess she probably wanted to get him to think about that issue, and how to treat it as a subject of art, maybe? I mean, art doesn’t always have to celebrate beauty (ie: William Forsythe’s You Made Me A Monster — about his wife’s death from cancer). Also, because the program notes went into the history of castration (other than just the Italian soprano castrati), and because he was choreographing about the effect of drugs, she may have seen him as a choreographer who’s into examining social issues. What I found so interesting was how many people in the audience got into it and wanted him to answer!

  6. It’s completely logical that he wouldn’t understand the question. As you stated above, the two subjects are different. The major problem with the question is that the piece was called “Castrati” and obviously referred to the Italian castrati tradition, which is a very specific subject. The castrati were men, not women. Her question brings to mind opera directors who basically jettison the plot and superimpose their version of the plot on the opera. Those productions often don’t work.

    I think it was last year that NYCOpera set The Elixir of Love in the West. The translations at one point said that they were singing about electric fans. The only problem is, they weren’t. They were singing the original Italian text. I have no problem with changing the time or location of a work, but when you start changing the text, or not really changing it but translating it as though you did, why don’t you write your own opera (or choreograph your own piece)?

  7. Ohad Naharin has a piece called Black Milk which I have seen danced by a group of all females and by a group of all males. It is a modern dance which projects a very strong aura of tribal community and ties, and how these ties can be positive and negative forces for an individual. The dance originally had a very female – Mother Earth look to it and it was striking to see it danced by men in skirts.
    I think it is 100% Duato’s right to determine how his dance should be performed (and to hell with political correctness), but isn’t it funny how a dance about strong women can be appropriated by men yet a dance about weak/vulnerable men can’t be appropriated by women?

  8. Oh I saw an excerpt from Black Milk performed by Naharin’s group once (or actually it was Cedar Lake, but they had been coached by him), and there were so many excerpts I now can’t even remember whether it was women or men! But I loved the whole evening, and I can’t wait to see him again when he comes to … BAM maybe… I can’t remember where they’re going to be performing, but somewhere in NY soon. That IS really interesting how the same dance can look differently on men and women and how it could end up having different implications and evocations. I wish I could have seen the two in contrast. I think that is more what this person was getting at — I didn’t mean to paint her as this nutcase who was trying to force her politics down someone else’s throat; she seemed like a young, rather shy (she was speaking softly and with her head pointed down at her notebook) student who was really just interested in broaching a discussion about how art can reflect on or broaden our views of certain social issues.

    The gender issue you mention is really interesting: a few months ago, I saw a series of works at Symphony Space whose common theme was challenging gender assumptions (it was called an evening of Gender Bending, or something like that). The most striking images to me were of the men dressed in skirts and wearing lipstick and nail polish and crying or rolling up in a fetal ball, etc. When the women wore suits or Army fatigues and assumed macho-type poses, it just didn’t look odd or out of the ordinary at all. And if the women were the ones dressed in the skirts and nail polish and crying it wouldn’t have any gender implications at all; I think I would just be thinking, what am I supposed to get out of this?…

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