On (in)Appropriate Cultural Appropriation

Nakotah Larance in Totem, photo by Greg Horn.
Nakotah Larance in Totem, photo by Greg Horn.

In the late 1800’s, William Cody, more popularly known as Buffalo Bill, toured the United States and Europe with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West, a production that featured sharpshooters, re-enactments of Indian attacks (it was said to have ended with a presentation of Custer’s Last Stand) and, later (when the title was appended to include “and Congress of Rough Riders of the World”), feats of derring-do from people from the Middle East, Mongolia, Central Asia and more. This human menagerie traveled the US and the world, allowing Cody to meet the Pope, set up a tent at (okay, near – they wouldn’t let him in) the World’s Fair, and buy a large plot of land in Nebraska.

According to Wikipedia, Cody “respected Native Americans.” Also according to Wikipedia, Cody most often portrayed Native Americans as “attacking stagecoaches and wagon trains in order to be driven off by cowboys and soldiers.” And right there, in those dueling sentiments, is the problem at the intersection of cultural appropriation and the capitalist enterprise.

I was reminded of Buffalo Bill and his show Friday night as I watched Totem, the new touring Cirque du Soleil show being presented through December 11 at AT&T Park. And perhaps it’s a sign that I’ve had the fortune to see too many Cirque shows that I found myself distracted from the incredible acrobatics by a vague feeling that I was supporting the Borg in their race to total domination.

As directed by Robert LaPage, who also directed the Chinese-Kung Fu-legend themed Cirque-in-Vegas extravaganza KA, Totem, like all Cirque shows that I have seen, holds on only most tenuously to its “plot” and “themes,” instead allowing a vague haze of “something of import” to float over what is a technologically and technically extraordinary circus act. Which is not to take away from what they do. As I watched flawless wire work and insane(ly expensive) mechanics work without a hitch, I wondered why the Spiderman people hadn’t just hired Cirque and been done with it. But in each Cirque case there is always some abstract theme, whether it’s the pseudo-insect world of Ovo, the dead clown’s funeral (!) of Corteo, the strange Dadaist dream of a child in Quidam. And if I had to describe the theme of Totem, I would, if I were being generous, say “ceremonies from around the world” and would, if I were being less generous, say “look at the other-colored folks in their crazy outfits.”

As I watched Cirque parade out first Native American dancers in full regalia, then four (European-lineaged men) dressed as some sort of African or New Guinean hut men, completed with pointy-bushy grass headdresses, then five small Asian women (doing amazing acrobatics, to their credit) dressed like Chinoiserie curios – while a rumpled white “professor” character, a crazy Italianesque Guido clown and a red-faced Spanish bullfighter looked on – the feeling that I was watching something exploitive rather than expressive was hard to shake. As those other cultures gave way to a prolonged section about apes and gorillas (not kidding), I wondered what the message was I was supposed to be getting.

Cultural appropriation is hard to do well, especially when you are an organization like Cirque du Soleil who makes a habit out of using the cultural and social traditions (and acrobatics) of others to cast an exotic hue on what is otherwise an extraordinary (and animal-free) variation on Ringling Brothers. This is the first time that I’ve really felt uncomfortable because of a Cirque theme — perhaps in part because, as I think they fully hope people do, I generally disregard the specifics of the theme, allowing the holes in logic, the stupidity of the clowns, the random nonsensical pointing to a theme that doesn’t really pan out, to simply wash over me as I wait for the next cool acrobatic act.

But with Totem, I found myself oscillating between trying to puzzle out whether Cirque was attempting to insidiously make a comment about the oppression and condescending observation of the “other” by the dominant European ruling class (which I would heartily congratulate them for having the bravery to do, but which I can’t quite allow myself to believe was the case), and seeing only an attempt to inject a stereotyped, “magical Negro”-esque feeling of the exotic in a way that was insensitive to the reality of our world.

Cirque does better when the appropriations they make are more abstracted, more layered under crazy sequined outfits with outlandish, extraordinary make-up. I guess, then, what I’m saying is that Cirque does better when they’re less obvious in their borrowing–more Beyonce-pays-homage-to-Fosse than Beyonce-blatantly-steals-from-a-Belgian-choreographer, if you know what I mean.

It is a credit to the amazing talent-finding machine that is Cirque du Soleil that despite all of that odd discomfort, I still very much enjoyed myself. The acts in the show are absolutely extraordinary (and, to point it out, mostly drawn from white Europeans with, I think, three exceptions). And when I was, especially in the second act when they stopped working so hard on whatever they were trying to say about world cultures, able to go back to allowing the theme to brush by me on the way to the next acrobatic feat, I felt myself in the company of masters and was nothing but impressed.

Is it faint praise to say that I was able to really enjoy the show when I could forget the narrative? Maybe, but then, that’s Cirque.

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  1. Ed says

    Last night I witnessed the show in Boston and walked away appalled. While the cultural appropriation may have been done in a side show manner, I felt it more a celebration of cultures presented, with an effort to show them in a favorable light. All acts imposed on a culture seemed celebratory. That is all but one, the italian clown. Only this italian stereotype was an intentionally negative portrayal that relied far too much on defining the character as italian, a distinctly italian bouffon. As an italian-american, this was unacceptable. I tried to overlook this and enjoy the rest of the show, but the italian bouffon’s prominence made this impossible. I proceded to the box office and received a full refund for the cost of two tickets and will be making a formal complaint to the production.

  2. Cayo Hern says

    I’m tired of all this furor over political correctness….The show introduces new cultures to a mass audience and does so in a respectful way. It also does more to awaken curiosity about these peoples and civilizations than ANY other source I’m aware of….Sure it’s entertainment….but what’s wrong with that? Most people aren’t even aware of fhese other indigenous groups and this goes a long way toward educating them that’s there’s a lot more going on in the world than their local neighborhood. The Italian “buffoon” comes from a long history of Italian clowns….and his routines were damned funny! If this type of homage bothers you, DON’T GO and leave more room at the shows for the rest of us!