[Image above] Dancer Karina Eimon takes part in a performance of “Ballet des Porcelaines” at the MIT Center for Art, Science & Technology. Credit: Sham Sthankiya, MIT
With Thanksgiving in the U.S. just around the corner, families are dusting off the fine china that sits on display except for one or two holiday meals a year. But as the porcelain dishes and cups are arranged on the table, few likely think of the contentious history that brought this material to the Western world.
Porcelain was invented in China over a centuries-long development period. The first primitive form emerged during the Tang dynasty (618–907), while the form best known in the West appeared during the Yuan dynasty (1279–1368).
When the Portuguese and the Dutch established commercial trade routes to the Far East during the 16th century, there emerged a robust market of export ware, with porcelain objects made exclusively for Europe.
Europeans became obsessed with the translucent ceramic. However, they could not create the material themselves because the recipe was closely guarded by Chinese potters. It was not until the early 18th century that some German alchemists successfully produced the first continental European hard-paste porcelain.
Meredith Martin is well versed in this history. Martin is associate professor of art history in the Institute of Fine Arts at New York University. She specializes in French art and architecture from the 17th to 19th centuries, as well as French interactions with Asia during that period.
With this background, Martin was immediately intrigued when her friend Esther Bell, previously chief curator and now deputy director of the Clark Art Institute, told her about a lost libretto in the archives of the Bibliothèque Nationale de France.
(A libretto is the text used in an extended musical work, such as an opera, operetta, masque, oratorio, cantata, or musical. It includes the lyrics to be sung and sometimes interpolated spoken passages.)
Called the “Ballet des Porcelaines” or “The Teapot Prince,” this early-18th-century libretto, with a runtime of only 15 minutes, tells the story of a prince and princess who must shatter the spell of a magician who transformed the inhabitants of a faraway island into porcelain.
Martin recognized how this story could read as an allegory for Europe’s pursuit of porcelain. However, she also knew pursuing a historically accurate reconstruction of the ballet would risk reinforcing harmful racial stereotypes and exoticization of Asian cultures—but a creative reimagining could critique and connect the present and the past.
Martin applied for a fellowship at the Center for Ballet and the Arts at NYU, and there she met choreographer and activist Phil Chan.
“The instant I met him and heard about his work through Final Bow, it became immediately apparent that this is the partnership, the collaboration I want to have. This is the person I want to work with to try to bring this work to life,” she says in a presentation on reimagining the ballet.
Together they conceived of a restaging of the ballet that would center Asian American experience within this history and challenge the racial typecasting of the original performance. For example, instead of having the evil magician identified as Chinese, as in the original ballet, the magician is portrayed as a European collector haunted by his obsession with porcelain.
Their reimagined “Ballet des Porcelaines” premiered at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2021. The ballet has since traveled to leading cultural institutions in the United States and Europe, with a recent September staging occurring at the MIT Center for Art, Science & Technology.
For more details on the reimagining of “Ballet des Porcelaines” and 18th-century porcelain history, view the presentation below, which was hosted by the Center for Ballet and the Arts before the 2021 premier. The second video provides a look at some of the reimagined choreography.