Late last month, following her debut at the Los Angeles Hollywood Bowl, Chinese pianist Yuja Wang had hearts, and headlines, aflutter. For, during a solo in which she was accompanied by world renown LA Philharmonic, the highly accomplished 24 year old set about igniting The Bowl and its highly refined patrons. Her tool of choice? A piano, of course. Oh, and there was that poppy red mini-dress with equally amped up heels to match.
The Los Angeles Times not only ran an initial piece reviewing the show in which critic Mark Swed stated: “Her dress Tuesday was so short and tight that had there been any less of it, the Bowl might have been forced to restrict admission to any music lover under 18 not accompanied by an adult. Had her heels been any higher, walking, to say nothing of her sensitive pedaling, would have been unfeasible.” After receiving mixed feedback regarding the place of such blatant clothing assessment in a classical music review, decided that two subsequent articles addressing the review would grace the Calendar section as well.
My first encounter with this “issue” was via the follow up article titled “Classical gasp: Yuja Wang’s dress at the Bowl causes a crescendo,” while on a summer sabbatical in the less moisture laden air of Southern California, my initial reaction upon reading the first line of the piece could fairly be summed up in a single word: Really?
Pianist Yuja Wang struck a chord at the Hollywood Bowl this month and not just with her performance of Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto. The 24-year-old Chinese soloist had necks craning, tongues wagging and flashbulbs popping when she walked on wearing an orange, thigh-grazing, body-hugging dress atop sparkly gold strappy stiletto sandals.
Female sexuality… add cultural and categorical norms, throw it to the press, and we can’t be too surprised this was a catchy headline in the making. These descriptions, I thought, seemed to be going from bad to worse. Surely the news worthy-ness of Wang’s performance outfit is about more than simply the assumption that, in the classical arts, notions of traditional costuming has never been pushed before. We know better than this.
So then, are performers to be separated from their performance? And moreover, can they be? In the case of classical music, is the artist to take a backstage to the perfected notes they emit? To say, you must not speak louder than your instrument? While I believe that in the end, as noted in many of the articles regarding the controversy, Wang vs. Costume comes down to tradition (for both the fine classical arts as well as the Chinese descent of the artist), the dizzying list of implications for a 24-year-old causing such a stir with a, gasp, age-appropriate curve accentuating outfit boggles the mind.
Especially under the pretense that today, strong public persona combined with sex appeal are rarely knocked. Simply watch any one of the myraid of music based reality TV programs and you will have learned that the first step to successful mass stardom is the careful selection of a public persona. An act which serves to demonstrate that by and large, as an artist, persona is as, if not more, important than performance. Of course, this translates in small ways to the everyday, the way in which we choose to present ourselves to the external word is the way we perform. However, that is only given if we take the age old question of identity as performance into account, and furthermore accept it as true.
I therefore ask, if we perform our gender (and I believe we do), then how about when our identity is part of a performance? Does the public’s need for a positive, contained, appropriate, and therefore understood persona add validity to the claim as well?
In the land of PR and calendars that cycle around perpetual red-carpet-best-dressed-get-noticed Awards Seasons, it’s interesting to examine the lines between acceptable and unacceptable divisions in attention grabbing personal style. Perhaps patrons felt taken aback by this young woman’s choice of outfitting. Instead of headlines and body paragraphs language alluding to her technical mastery, they took a turn towards puns about music and sex appeal, discussed what was deemed less than appropriate concert attire (which in any other context, would have been glossed over, if not praised). After all, a teenage pop star in not enough clothes does not a Calendar piece make. Because, for heavens sake, dresses like that are for Pop stars regardless of age. Right?
Interestingly enough, word is that Wang’s management company refused to make the artist available for comment.
I guess she will have to let her dress speak for itself.