THE WALL STREET JOURNAL, May 29, 2019
A review of “The Story Box: Franz Boas, George Hunt and the Making of Anthropology” at the Bard Graduate Center Gallery , Through July 7
Cultural anthropology has lately been buried in politics. Critics have blasted its study of non-Western societies as patronizing if not far worse. But anthropology’s record of cross-cultural exchange deserves to be dusted off and put on display. Its history can be deeply humanizing, offering groundbreaking ways of understanding a people’s art and customs on their own terms.
This point is vividly made in “The Story Box: Franz Boas, George Hunt and the Making of Anthropology,” an exhibition now at the Bard Graduate Center Gallery. George Hunt and Franz Boas were the odd couple of American anthropology. Hunt (1854-1933) was an English-Tlingit guide who married into the Kwakwaka’wakw (pronounced KWOK-wok-ya-wokw) people of British Columbia. Boas (1858-1942) was a German-Jewish scholar living among the university people of New York. Over 40 years their collaboration and friendship faced down Canadian injustice toward the Kwakwaka’wakw to lay the foundations of a modern anthropology, one that truly valued the richness of indigenous cultures and societies.
Before founding the anthropology department at Columbia University, Boas headed field studies among the peoples of the Pacific Northwest that not only collected objects but also recorded intricate social customs. This research went on to advance a new understanding of indigenous cultures. While the reigning theory of social evolution mistook non-Western cultures as mere examples of primitive development, Boas argued for the equality of indigenous art and practice. This novel approach informed the creation of the American Museum of Natural History’s Northwest Coast Hall, which Boas opened in 1899. The institution’s oldest surviving gallery, now closed for renovation, was radical for first considering tribal art on its own terms.
Known as the father of American anthropology, Boas went on to shape his discipline the world over. The structural anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss credited an early visit to Boas’s hall with inspiring his own methodology. Zora Neale Hurston was a disciple of Boas whose groundbreaking work preserved key figures and folkways of the black South.
In his own fieldwork, Boas was never alone. Hunt was an equal partner in both writing and research. Their work culminated in “The Social Organization and the Secret Societies of the Kwakiutl Indians,” their extensive 1897 monograph of Kwakwaka’wakw culture that remains a case study in its thorough documentation of ceremonies, songs, language, stories and artifacts.
The Kwakwaka’wakw, meaning those who speak the language of Kwak’wala, comprise 18 independent village groups residing on the central coast of British Columbia, one among several nations that developed along the resource-rich coastline of the Pacific Northwest. “The Story Box” takes its title from a letter that Boas wrote to Kwakwaka’wakw chiefs in 1897. “It is good that you should have a box in which your laws and stories are kept,” he said of the cedar boxes used to store ceremonial regalia, which he considered akin to his book. “My friend, George Hunt, will show you a box in which some of your stories will be kept…. Now they will not be forgotten.”
Several examples of the artifacts, notes, recordings and photographs the two used in their research are gathered in this exhibition, enhanced with superb descriptions and digital displays. These include Hunt’s personally annotated edition of “The Social Organization,” comparisons of book illustrations with Boas’s own source photography of initiation dances, artifacts such as the serpent-decorated settee that Boas first documented in the field, and digitized sound recordings originally created on wax cylinders that feature the voice of Hunt himself.
The importance of such remembering is more than just academic. The Kwakwaka’wakw practices that Boas and Hunt recorded were already illegal at the time of their fieldwork under Canada’s 1884 “potlatch ban,” which sought to force assimilation by depriving indigenous peoples of their ritual artifacts and cultural legacy. This infamous law wasn’t overturned until 1951.
As a consequence of the potlatch ban, much of Boas’s fieldwork actually took place during the seven months in 1893 that Hunt and his extended family lived in an ethnographic display organized by Boas as part of the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. This unusual stateside residency allowed Hunt to perform his rituals in safety outside of Canadian jurisdiction.
Among the Kwakwaka’wakw of today, Hunt is a revered ancestor. His work with Boas preserved objects and customs that would otherwise have been lost to the potlatch ban. Their research has allowed contemporary Kwakwaka’wakw to reclaim cultural practices and artistic forms by reconnecting heraldic symbols with ancestral lines. This task of reconstruction began under Hunt and Boas themselves. The two spent decades after the publication of “The Social Organization” correcting and updating their field observations. The work continues today, as Aaron Glass, the curator of “The Story Box,” is developing an annotated digital edition of the book that will bring its documentation up to the present day.
On a morning I visited the show, the multimedia artist Corrine Hunt, a great-granddaughter of George Hunt and an exhibition consultant, was on hand to put the finishing touches on her re-creation of a “Transformation Mask,” a ritual headdress in the form of a killer whale that she made with Kwakwaka’wakw carver David Mungo Knox based on Hunt and Boas’s research. Such contemporary connections to Hunt, Boas and the people they documented over a century ago add poignancy to this small but compelling show, which will next go on view at the U’mista Cultural Centre in Alert Bay, British Columbia. “The Story Box” tells a story across time and cultures that is out of the box and urgent.
On Whipped Cream at American Ballet Theatre.
The story is almost too sweet to be savored. In the early 1920s, Richard Strauss wrote an extravagant ballet to mark his sixtieth birthday. Engaging the full resources of the Vienna State Opera, this “billionaire’s ballet,” called Schlagobers or “whipped cream,” was meant to reverse the fortunes of the opera house, where he was the co-director, and offer a sumptuous escape from the austerity measures of post-war Vienna. But faced with such abundance, the hungry audiences of Austro-Hungary did not bite. Another confection famously went on to take its place on the plate as the beloved ballet of the hungry billions.
There are more than a few sweet similarities between Schlagobers and The Nutcracker. Both have Divertissements of dancing chocolates, coffees, and teas. Even though The Nutcracker, with its endless delights beginning with its sublime score, cracked the nut of a ballet for children, it was not performed in the West until some five years after the Vienna premiere of Schlagobers on May 9, 1924.
Yet Tchaikovsky’s creation—made even more famous through Balanchine’s New York City Ballet adaptation—is now Strauss’s inevitable comparison. Performed next door to the home of City Ballet, American Ballet Theatre’s giddy new production of Whipped Cream is both an homage to that Christmastime spectacle and a cream pie to the face of wholesome family entertainment. If NYCB'’s Nutcracker is a ballet for the ages, ABT’s Whipped Cream is a ballet for our current age of punishing extremes.
With choreography by Alexei Ratmansky, Ballet Theatre’s artist-in-residence, and sets and costumes by the painter Mark Ryden, Whipped Cream stays true to the plot of Schlagobers, in which a boy eats too much whipped cream after his First Communion. But this new production, which premiered in 2017 and has returned to Lincoln Center for the second time, slathers on the froth in a sickly coating of contemporary corn syrup.
In many ways the ballet now belongs to its new designer. A West Coast pop artist, Ryden traffics in a popsicle aesthetic that mixes furry fandom, steampunk collage, and Japanese kawaii, or “cute,” culture. In Whipped Cream, he maniacally translates this sticky palette to a ballet of overindulgence. His set design tempts the senses like a Good Humor truck on an express ride to a very bad place. Towering Furby-like creatures abound, ably danced by company members, who should get hazard pay for performing in such giant costumes. Since this is a story ostensibly featuring children, the grown-up dancers are also scaled down by being surrounded by figures with enormous costume heads (one of which nearly tipped off a dancer’s shoulders during the evening performance I attended).
Much of Ryden’s artistic iconography has been translated verbatim to the Ballet Theatre stage, with little loss of strange effect. This is why even an image of Abraham Lincoln, from Ryden’s series The Meat Show, peers out from an upper story window of what is meant to be a Viennese street. Furry yaks and oversized bees make multiple appearances, as do the single all-seeing eye and other quasi-Masonic symbols. But it’s not all children and candies dancing in the sweets shop or up in the creamy clouds. In one scene, the overserved Boy lands in the hospital bed of a drunk doctor with a bevy of sadistic nurses, each of whom injects the Boy with oversized hypodermic needles.
Paired with Ryden’s sugary costumes, Ratmansky’s choreography distinguishes its various dancing treats. An ensemble of “Whipped Cream” dancers twirl into a diaphanous airy mixture. Prince Cocoa (Joseph Gorak, in my evening) comes off as haughty and aristocratic, while Don Zucchero (Arron Scott) plays his role flat-footed and dim. Prince Coffee (Thomas Forster) displays upstanding chivalry, while Princess Tea Flower, danced in my production by the sparkling Devon Teuscher, who took the cake, displays signs of caffeinated energy mixed with occasional weariness. A whimsical trio of liquors, led by Mademoiselle Marianne Chartreuse (Katherine Williams), also deliver plenty of the adult treats, toppling over the tippling nurses as these dancing bottles saunter on to the next party.
This rich serving of Whipped Cream can both satisfy and delight. As the lights went up on the opening scene of a cartoonish priest and oversized carriage driver—not to mention a white horse danced by two performers—my nine-year-old seatmate whispered, “I would never miss this.” For those young balletomanes who have seen it all, the phantasmagoria of Whipped Cream offers something new.
Nevertheless, for all of its family fun, the two of us agreed that the juvenile characters here were the least satisfying aspects of the show. Unlike The Nutcracker, in which real children are transformed into adults onstage and then wake up in Christmas Day apotheosis, “The Boy” of Whipped Cream (Jonathan Klein) is merely adult camp. Here is a character with hairy legs in knickers who merely transforms into something like the golden star of A Chorus Line. A show all about saccharine surfaces would taste even sweeter with some genuine depth of flavor. In this adult fancy, it still wouldn’t hurt to sprinkle in some genuine childhood innocence.