The Ballet des Porcelaines, or The Teapot Prince, was an eighteenth century ballet in the chinoiserie style, for which costumes, sets and choreography are lost; only the score, by Nicolas Racot de Grandval, and the libretto, by the Comte de Caylus, survive.  In 2021 Meredith Martin, Professor of Art History at New York University, and Phil Chan, choreographer and co-founder of Final Bow for Yellowface, collaborated on a re-imagining of this work, which is now touring European venues that included  Waddesdon Manor on 16 and 17 June.  The animation of porcelain was a popular eighteenth century motif, and the original ballet’s story, in which a Chinese sorcerer turned a prince into a teapot, epitomised the simultaneous ‘othering’ and plundering of Oriental culture by Europeans.  The project’s goal was to recreate the work remaining true to its original artistic intentions while revealing the narrative from a broader post-colonial perspective.

On Friday morning, Wes Williams, Director of TORCH, introduced a series of panel discussions, chaired by Professor Kate Tunstall, in the presence of Mia Jackson, Curator of Decorative Arts at Waddesdon Manor.  During the two sessions that I was able to attend, Chan and Martin discussed their work, and creative artists Hannah Lim, Matt Smith and Edmund de Waal, offered their personal responses to the ballet, which they had seen the night before.

Chan and Martin had recast the ballet’s story, and substituted a European porcelain collector for the Chinese sorcerer.  The deconstruction of stereotypes drew out themes such as the Western desire to steal the secret of porcelain manufacture, and the capitalist greed to accumulate wealth, and asked the question, ‘who counts as human?’

The Teapot Prince is a ballet that was effectively lost, so Chan, who was born in Hong Kong, had the freedom to integrate both authentic Chinese classical and Baroque dance into his choreography.  He vividly described what it was like to have a lesson in Baroque dance in the snow on the New York waterfront at a time when it was forbidden to meet indoors because of the pandemic.

He spoke of the need to move away from eighteenth and nineteenth century stereotypes in dance, if audiences are to see themselves represented truthfully on stage.  The traditional Nutcracker ‘Chinese’ dance movements, with waggling heads and pointy fingers, derive from the porcelain Pagode grotesque figures with wobbly heads, still found in English historic houses.  Although based on images made with skilled craftsmanship, the dance perpetuates a caricature, rather than letting the people of another culture tell their own story.  Chan likened the false representation to covering one eye with the hand, so that the field of vision has no depth.

Panellist Hannah Lim showed how, just as for Chan, ‘owning’ her cultural roots frees her to create new work, which in her case explores her British and Chinese heritage.  Lim shared a series of slides illustrating the inspiration that she draws from traditional Chinese porcelain snuff boxes.  During the panel discussion, de Waal passed around examples of porcelain for us to touch and weigh in our hands.  By handling them we could feel their strength and fragility, and reflect on their permanence over the centuries, in contrast with the impermanence of dance.

De Waal described the calm and steady tempo of his daily work at the potter’s wheel, before speaking passionately about the horrors of counting, the accumulation of goods and the devaluation of human beings into objects that can be traded in exchange for things.  He used the image of a white collector surrounded by white porcelain, and I imagined the creative rhythm of the ceramicist throwing pot after pot reflected back in the distorting mirror of obsessive and repetitive acquisition.

I asked Chan about repetition in ballet, and he spoke eloquently on its value in dance practice for enabling the bodily awareness and expression that transcends technique.  Counting, too, is part of every dancer’s experience:  Deirdre Chapman had used counting, initially, to teach an extract from Les Noces during the joint symposium with DANSOX the previous week.  Repeating and counting in order to create is not the same as repeating and counting in order to possess and dominate, but I wondered where de Waal’s revulsion for white counting leaves the traditional nineteenth century ballets with their multiple white swans, bayadères, sylphs and wilis.  Scenes such as La Bayadère’s Kingdom of the Shades, in which thirty-two dancers descend a ramp repeating a mesmerising sequence of movements again and again, carry and convey immense power, and it is uncomfortable to think that there may be a link between the abstraction of such beautiful corps de ballet works and Europe’s exploitative trade with the East.

Matt Smith in his response to the performance discussed the erasure of certain groups, and the commemoration and glorification of others in public art, and how difficult it is to bring about change.  Martin and Chan, on the other hand, explained that each performance venue transforms The Teapot Prince; the dance is different at every showing, and there is continual renewal.  Ballet’s capacity to hold multiple meanings and subtexts within an ephemeral moment enables us to revisit and reframe dances in new ways that question and reflect upon our worldview today:  in this context, dance’s vulnerability becomes its strength.

Maggie Watson

22nd June 2022