Spectacle Beyond Academia

As part of my research project SPECTACLE, I worked backstage of the ballet performance Le Ballet des Porcelaines.
This show was produced and co-created by Meredith Martin, Professor of Art History at NYU, and Phil Chan, choreographer, activist for Asian rights, and co-founder of the organization Final Bow for Yellow Face. In her fascinating project Meredith Martin turned the story of an 18th century libretto founded in the archives in Paris, into a live performance, bridging the gap between academic research and performance production.

Written in 1739 by the Comte Caylus (1692-1765), Le Ballet des Porcelaines is a divertissement staged for the first time in 1739 at the Château de Morville for a group of artists and aristocrats. It narrates the story of a prince searching for his lover on a faraway island ruled by an Asian sorcerer obsessed with porcelains. The sorcerer transforms the inhabitants and any trespasser into porcelain object until a princess breaks the spell and rescue the prince. On the one hand a standard Orientalist fairy tale, the ballet is also an allegory for the intense European desire to know and possess the secrets of making porcelain. Although it would later inspire famous ballets featuring sleeping beauties and porcelain princess, Le Ballet de Porcelaines is virtually unkown. Except for the libretto and for the musical score written by Nicolas Racot de Grandval no information (costumes, settings, choreography) on the performance survives. The show was then re-imagined by engaging a world-class creative team of designers, choreographers, baroque dance consultants, and live musicians, including star dancers form the New York City Ballet, Broadway and Oakland Ballet. The show toured in different locations of the US and Europe.

My tasks for the project:

  • Wardrobe supervisor
  • Assistance with Italian translation of parts of the libretto
  • Training the dancers in acting some lines of the libretto in Italian
  • Supervising the backstage activities during the performances
  • Supporting the media communication during the Italian tour

Dates and Locations I have attended:

  • 2021, December 6-7: Metropolitan Museum New York
  • 2022, March 2-3: University of Chicago
  • 2022, April 17-18: University of Princeton
  • 2022, June 25-26: Real Bosco e Museo di Capodimonte (Naples)
  • 2022, June 28-29: Palazzo Grassi (Venezia)
  • 2022, September 27-28: MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Boston)

Working at this project was an opportunity to reflect on the impact that European visual arts and theatre performances have had in depicting other cultures. This reflection opens to future confrontations on racial representation in performances, and to further discussions on what is culture representation and what are outdated portrayals of races, groups, and genders.

I have also been motivated to consider different ways of approaching an 18th century theatre production, such as whether it is more appropriate to rely on an historically informed reconstruction or make use of a restaging that speaks to contemporary audiences.

  • Left: Elisa Cazzato - Right: Meredith Martin

Elisa was an invaluable addition to our Ballet des Porcelaines team and was a passionate participant in each step of the creative process. Through attending and assisting with rehearsals, wardrobe, scholarly presentations, and media events (including an Italian TV spot where she effortlessly communicated the artistic aims of our production in under a minute), Elisa gained experience and learned how to bridge her academic background with the practicalities of a ballet production. She also provided full assistance backstage with most of our performances during the U.S. and Italian tours. Elisa was wonderful at problem solving and being flexible in understanding everyone’s needs, and she supervised all of the activities backstage with precision, attention, and great care.

Meredith Martin, art history professor at New York University and the Institute of Fine Arts, co-creator and producer of the Ballet des Porcelaines.

We were so fortunate to have Elisa assisting us on the road during the tour of the Ballet des Porcelaines. Her attention to detail and logistics, as well as her academic art history background were invaluable in helping us navigate multiple performance venues. Her can-do attitude, personal warmth, and proactive intuition are critical skills in any budding producer.

Phil Chan, choreographer and co-founder Final Bow for Yellowface

Elisa was a dream collaborator when I was performing in a reimagining of Nicolas-Racot de Grandval’s Ballets des Porcelaines. From our premiere at the Met Museum in New York to our tour stops in Venice and Naples, she gifted my colleagues and I her intelligence, humor, and generosity. Our performances could not have happened without Elisa. She is a true animal of the theater.

Daniel Applebaum, soloist dancer NYCB

Elisa Cazzato is more than a brilliant scholar--she has an innate sense of what needs to happen for artists backstage. In her work for Ballet des Porcelaines, she was costume mistress, dresser, tour organizer, and translator. Elisa is an all-around tour de force.

Patricia Beaman, Wesleyan and NYU; Baroque Consultant for Ballet des Porcelaines

Elisa was a calming presence backstage, preparing costumes and guiding performers with a quiet non obtrusive but get-the-job-done demeanor. She was very mindful of the needs of the performers as well as the vision of the project’s creators, ensuring that things went smoothly. We all felt confident in her work and guidance. When she had to depart from a tour early due to scheduling delays and chaos at a venue, she left clear instructions for a smooth transition but she was most definitely missed.

Leah Gale Nelson, Visiting Scholar /Part-time Lecturer, Rutgers UniversityArtist in Residence, Church of St. Luke in theFields, NYC