Monday, January 25, 2010

In the Land of PC

As it pours outside and I wait for my cells to transform (which really isn't as cool as it might sound):

This has been bothering me for the past several days, ever since it made the mainstream news. Apparently the Australian Aborigines are offended by Oksana Domnina & Maxim Shabalin's OD, which is based on an aboriginal theme. Of course the news would use the photograph of the moment with the most outrageous expressions from Oksana, meant to elicit politically correct outrage:

Copyright AP, I believe.

However there are several problematic points with the Australian Aborigines' anger, and theirs as well as the general public's reveals their ignorance about ice dancing. Without addressing any specific complaint that the Australian Aborigines', ice dancing and ice skating as a whole is as much theatre as it is sport. And I mean that in the most respectful way possible. Although the ones giving the marks are ultimately the judges, who are sitting immediately rinkside, the audience and its reaction is a huge component of ice dance.

To this end, the makeup and costumes of ice skaters in general is often exaggerated (see: Miki Ando) because it helps drive the theme home while they skate at top speed (well, not all of them), especially to those sitting way at the top of the stands. Ice dancing, while highly technical and athletic, is usually the most theatrical of the diciplines and often borderline ridiculous (if not outright so). This Russian team in particular, compared to teams such as Tessa Virtue & Scott Moir and Meryl Davis & Charlie White, tends towards the more ridiculous on the ice dance spectrum and go for the costumes rather than dresses/shirt & pants. Oksana & Maxim's OD this year treats their theme no differently than they have past themes.
  1. "We see it as stealing Aboriginal culture and it is yet another example of the Aboriginal people of Australia being exploited. It's been absolutely stolen without our permission and without consultation of the relevant dance groups within Aboriginal Australia. ... It's not just intellectual property. It's straight-out cultural theft." -Sol Bellear, New South Wales Aboriginal Land Council

    The moment someone exaggerates to this extent, they immediately start losing credibility.
    • There is no exploitation of Australian Aborigines occurring. There just isn't. Every year the music of various cultures and persons is used, and the process for using the aboriginal music was no different than for others. If anything, the music of a highly successful program can in fact benefit, with fans (re)discovering music or the movies from which they were taken. After Mao Asada's win at the World Championships in 2008, the piece for her long program was one of the most purchased songs in Japan.
    • Choosing a piece of music for a program does not involve consulting the composer; instead, the skaters credit appropriately and indicate whether it is a compilation of two different songs, original cuts, etc.
    • Oksana & Maxim did not steal an aboriginal dance. They used an aboriginal dance as inspiration for their OD, much like Tanith Belbin & Ben Agosoto with their Moldavian dance. As above, they did not claim that this was a dance conceived entirely of their own creativity, and nor did they claim that this dance was taken from a different source than "aborigine."

  2. "Interest must be expressed in a way that is respectful. The ripping off of our art and songs is not, and nor is this depiction of my culture." -Bev Manton

    This, on the other hand, is much more reasonable and thoughtful, and I am sure she has a point. However, I still think that she does not fully understand the style of ice dance, and does not realize that many cultural pieces are "adapted" in exaggerated for the sport. If this is the first time she has fully looked at ice dance, then yes, the OD is probably offensive. The Internet was probably not the best sole source for research on this dance.

  3. There was also a protest on the fact that the costumes involved bodysuits made to make Oksana & Maxim's skin look darker. I have not been able to find this complaint since, so perhaps whoever said it realized that this was a foolish one and withdrew. Kim Navarro & Brent Bommentre also wear dark-colored bodysuits for their Afro-Brazilian dance, and Brent goes as far as to wear a leather headpiece meant to emulate long hair: "As far as the headpiece is concerned, they were trying to find a way for me to have longer hair. I was really hesitant about hair extensions, and I can't grow my hair out fast enough to have dreds." Where's the protest on this one?

  4. In addition, the "body paint" on the costumes has been criticized as looking as if "a 3-year-old child had drawn it on." -Stephen Page

    Perhaps to an Australian Aborigine, this is true. However, look at Maia & Alex Shibutani's OD costumes for this season, set to Japanese drum music:

    Copyright Michelle Harvath

    The Shibutanis are ethnically Japanese, so they would probably know a thing or two (or at least their parents would) about the culture. Yet their tops are stereotypically designed, and not at all like the solid, dark-colored, open front tops that one usually sees on traditional Japanese drummers. Yet in a world where most people have never seen a taiko performance, the point is made: this dance is Asian. Could the Russians have been more tasteful? Probably. But a point of the similar effect is made through their costumes, and that was reasonably their goal when they were designed.

  5. "First of all, in the ISU rule book there is a list of dances which are allowed for use in the Original Dance competition. In black and white it states Aborigines Dances. When creating an 'Aborigines' dance, we were not suggesting a specific geographic region, but rather a tribute to a place and time before the 'modern civilization.' We had no intent to make the dance specifically 'Australian,' because we realize our limitations to fully understand all the intricacies." -Natalia Linichuk

    Well, no one can really know for sure what their intentions were, but she does have a persuasive point. This woman is a force to be reckoned with, evidently.
I also found IceNetwork's coverage of this controversy to be slightly distasteful and lacking in journalistic standards. This article, titled "In ice dance, it's a fine line between tribute an insult" and written by Lynn Rutherford, directly addresses the issue and uses the relevant quotes. It gives a clear context for the quotes from Tanith & Ben and Meryl & Charlie--they were asked "What do you think about the controversy over Oksana Domnina & Maxim Shabalin's Aboriginal dance?"--and both teams answered accordingly.

In particular, Meryl answered, "We can't speak for anyone else, but for us, knowing that we didn't know anything about Indian culture going in, it was very important for us to do the research and do the dance justice. We didn't want to offend anyone or do something that was completely off base." It might not be a journalistic masterpiece, but it's fine. Meryl & Charlie come off very well, good for them.

On the other hand, THIS article (Bollywood scores blockbuster in Spokane), published the same day and also written by Lynn Rutherford, reuses the quotes from the other article and without context. (It also uses a terrible pun, but whatever.)
"[Specialists they consulted] broke it down, we worked off the ice, and they helped us explore all the areas of Indian dance. We really didn't know anything about Indian culture going in. It was very important for us to do research to do the theme justice, and know that we were not going to do anything to offend anyone or do something that was completely off base."
This comes in the middle of a discussion of how the dance was conceived, and given the controversy that everyone knew about, it just sounds like a not-so-subtle swipe at the Russians. Well, turns out, Meryl wasn't directly talking about creating the OD after all. Or... maybe this is the original quote, the other article reused it, and she's a little catty. :) But given the nature of the comment and Meryl & Charlie's sportsmanship in general, the first interpretation makes more sense.

But all in all, whatever. Ice dancing is ridiculous, and everyone (should) know(s) that. By continuing this outrage, the Australian Aborigines are giving the OD the serious consideration they insist it doesn't deserve.

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