From the Archives: Is Ballet Irrelevant?

Lines Ballet at Yerba Buena CenterLines Ballet in Alonzo King’s “Sand.” Photo copyright Chris Hardy and courtesy Maison de la Danse.

“Things based on a universal truth can never be irrelevant. Ballet is based on universal themes. The same things that informed Copernicus, that informed geometry inform ballet. Most people think of ballet as a style, and they connect that style with 17th-century romanticism. They don’t realize that ballet is not a style, it’s a science of movement. It can be manipulated and explored in a million ways — it’s inexhaustible.”

— Alonzo King, director and founder, Lines Ballet. From the inaugural Summer 1998 print issue of the Dance Insider. Subscribe to the DI with PayPal for just $29.95/year by designating your PayPal payment to paulbenitzak@gmail.com, or write us at that address to find out how to subscribe by check, and get full access to the Dance Insider & Arts Voyager’s 20-year Archive of more than 2000 exclusive reviews by 150 critics of performances and art from five continents, plus the Jill Johnston Letter. The Dance Insider. Giving a voice to dancers and telling stories not told elsewhere for 20 years.

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Women aren’t just victims, IV: From Gaza to the World Stage — Nidaa Badwan’s Freedom-forging Odyssey

nidaa badwan100 Days of Solitude: Nidaa Badwan in her room transformed into studio in 2015. Photo by and courtesy Nidaa Badwan.

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Text copyright 2017 Paul Ben-Itzak

(Please join Nutmeg Conservatory Ballet,  Freespace Dance and and Slippery Rock Dance in sponsoring this article and the Dance Insider/Arts Voyager by designating your donation via PayPal to paulbenitzak@gmail.com , or write us at that address to learn how to donate by check. Please tell us our work matters.)

When we last checked in on Palestinian artist and photographer Nidaa Badwan in 2015, she’d just created the photography project 100 Days of Solitude, in which she’d transformed her nine-square meter room in Gaza into a pin-hole camera with a kaleidoscopic view, the 28-year-old’s response to Hamas’s releasing her from jail after eight days only after she signed a statement agreeing to only go outside with her body fully covered and accompanied by her father or brother — using imagination to spark creation and sequestration to produce liberation. (Badwan remained in this self-imposed quarantine from late 2013 through early 2015.) “This space,” she told the television station France 24 at the time, “gave me the freedom that I couldn’t find outside — a freedom from the dullness and ugliness of Gaza, from the Israeli siege, from the impositions of the men of Hamas.” If this inventively courageous response was not a complete surprise — Badwan even refused to leave her home during the 2014 Israeli bombing of Gaza — the happy ending that followed was.

Nidaa rooster smallDescribing the impetus behind what she considers her most important photograph, part of the series 100 Days of Solitude, Badwan explains: “In Arabic symbolism, the rooster represents the man. It’s a masculine energy that wants to silence me. I have an Oud with me, a Middle-Eastern instrument. With my gesture, I invite the rooster to shut up and let me be free to express myself and my art.” Photo by and courtesy Nidaa Badwan.

If Israel had refused to authorize her to leave Gaza to attend an exhibition of 100 Days of Solitude organized by the Institute Française in the West Bank town of Ramallah, Badwan was eventually able to depart, in September 2015, when the Italian municipalities of Monte Grimano Terme and Montecatini Terme invited her to share her works and protest and, later, when she expressed her concern about her security if she returned to Gaza, welcomed by the tiny Republic of San Marino.  In April of this year, the Italian municipality of Monte Grimano Terme offered her own atelier to create art and to organize animations for the public.

Badwan’s artistic itinerary since leaving Gaza, meanwhile, has included, in 2016 alone, collective and individual exhibitions in Denmark, Berlin, the French commune of Couthhures-sur-Garonne (for the Festival Internationale du Journalisme Vivant), Dubai, Miami Beach, and New York’s Postaster Gallery, often in group shows where she’s been surrounded by a choice selection of the leading young Arab (and young, period) artists. Meanwhile, the World Bank  in Washington acquired six of her works. She capped the year back in San Marino by participating in an evening dedicated to the theme of autism in which she displayed four paintings created by Abood, her autistic brother, and four of her own inspired by him, part of a planned  solo exhibition on the theme featuring more work.  “Along with me,” she recounts, “there was an autistic boy, very young, who played Chopin. It was an indescribable and marvelous evening.” Badwan’s comments to the assemblage should be required reading for every Beaux Arts student:

“My brother is nine years younger than me, has autism, and lives in Gaza. Stepping into this world and exploring it from within is a rich and unique experience. To penetrate the meanderings of this situation is neither difficult nor easy. Abood needs nothing. He doesn’t need words — he only needs a piece of paper and a pencil. He draws his own world, and usually he asks me: ‘How do you find it?’ To his question, I spontaneously reply: ‘Nice! I want to see more.’

“As time went by, I started to observe and interpret what his drawings revealed. In his works, there are many crying faces, usually smoking a cigarette and surrounded by curvy patterns. A sole fragment of a painting can harbor the contradiction between sadness and happiness. Abood has battled with solitude, the same feeling I experienced for two years. During my isolation, he would wait by the door to make me a surprise with a handful of drawings he made around midnight. Every time he saw me crying, he would give me a new painting. He knows that this makes me vibrate. I imitate what he does; I can follow the curvy patterns and draw like he does. I needed more of these sketches, and even more. I became autistic just like him, learning how to walk through his world. I learned how to speak to him, how to make mistakes in the sentences’ structures and to mutter when I speak. This world is very rich, if the poor ones like us know the truth.”

nidaa badwan new room smallNidaa Badwan in her studio in the Italian village of Monte Grimano Terme: “New Room.” Photo courtesy Nidaa Badwan.

Since the beginning of this year, Badwan has already participated in two exhibitions in Italy, taken part in a collective exhibition in the United States, and addressed the UNESCO conference “Cultural Heritage and Identity: an Arab Youth Perspective” in Carthages, Tunisia. She inaugurated her studio in Monte Grimano Terme in May, in the presence of the mayor, the former education and culture minister of San Marino, and Palestine consul for Italy Nidal Thawabi. In June she participated in both the White Nights of the University of San Marino, creating a sculpture in real-time on the theme of femininity, and the collective exhibition “Ri-crazioni” in Prato, Italy. Through January you can catch her exhibiting with (fellow) revolutionary Arab artists in Valencia, Spain, at the Institut Valencià d’Art Modern and at the “En Rebeldía” and, currently, in a touring version of this show on display in Berlin’s Gorki Theater.

This flurry of activity doesn’t mean that Badwan doesn’t miss her nest in Gaza, where her family still lives. As for  the butterfly emerged from its cocoon, the outside world can be as daunting as it is exhilarating. “When I was in Gaza,” she tells me, “I had a small space, my little world, but I had an infinity of ideas in my head. I could only spin the world with my mind.” She was confident that “this was my world, and I could do what I want. Now, paradoxically, I have all the freedom I want to turn and create in a vast space, like the world, but I do not have my ‘world,’ ‘my’ space where I can be quiet no one can tell me to ‘go away’ if I do not pay rent,” and does not have to think about things like changing her immediate environment.

Still, I can’t help but think that Badwan’s changed circumstances must be liberating. If her previous situation inevitably made her simple act of creating art be perceived as an act of ‘defiance’ by journalists (not to mention polemicists), she’s now escaped from the box and free to find her path without the constraints of her politically loaded identity. All the better.

“I do not define myself as a political artist,” she says, “and I would not like to be. I prefer to leave politics to politicians and to the Press. Of course, I personally have my own ideas, but art and politics should not be confused, though sometimes this may happen. For me art speaks of experiences directly lived, interior and exterior. That particular experience came to me. If anything else had happened, I might have talked about something else or in another way.”

For more information on Nidaa Badwan, including more examples of her work — and to keep up with her ever multiplying cavalcade of exhibitions — check her web site.

Women aren’t just victims, III: How do you solve a problem like “Giselle”?

By Alicia Mosier Chesser
Copyright 2001, 2017 Alicia Mosier Chesser

(First published on the DI on May 22, 2001, today’s re-publication of this aesthetic tour-de-force — next time someone tells you ballet’s too old-fashioned, throw this one in their face — is sponsored by Nutmeg Conservatory Ballet,  Freespace Dance and and Slippery Rock Dance .)

NEW YORK — Absurd, incoherent, misogynistic, hopelessly outdated: thus do many dance lovers of today describe the story of “Giselle,” written by Vernoy de Saint-Georges, Theophile Gautier, and Jean Coralli, and choreographed in 1841 by Coralli and Jules Perrot. You know how it goes. Act I: Young girl with a love of dancing and a weak heart (or, in the opinion of some dance historians, a bun in the oven) falls for a count disguised as a peasant, who falls for her too but turns out to be engaged to a high-falutin’ prince’s daughter, which revelation sends girl to a frenzied demise. Act II: slightly creepy “ballet blanc” idealization of ghostly virgins, who dance their former fiancees to death in revenge for the fact that they (the virgins) have died before their wedding day. (Or something.) And here’s the worst of it: the girl actually spends the whole second act defending the guy who deceived her and ends up saving him from death-by-exhaustion. Almost every newcomer to dance whom I’ve taken to see “Giselle” has no patience for Act I — all that pantomime! — but the chilling purity of Act II (in which, in today’s productions, there’s very little story left) always leaves them breathless. Is it possible for viewers today — especially, perhaps, for feminist young women — to appreciate “Giselle” as a whole?

That’s really a question about how we look at art. We generally expect art to reflect our political and ethical values, or at least to express the artist’s individual, uncompromising point of view. This approach makes an artifact like “Giselle” very hard to swallow (although, ironically, this approach is just as much a part of our inheritance from the Romantic movement as this ballet is). It may seem an obvious and somewhat banal suggestion, but I’d propose that “Giselle” be taken as the artifact it is — that is, as the embodiment of Romantic values in a fully integrated dance-drama. Taken that way, the ballet can still have two different effects on an audience. It can excite only the most antiquarian sentiments, as American Ballet Theatre’s Ashley Tuttle and Angel Corella showed in their performance last Tuesday at the Metropolitan Opera House. Or, as Julie Kent and Jose Manuel Carreno showed on Thursday, it can shoot us deep into the enduring mysteries of drama, dance, and life on earth.

Tuttle’s “Giselle” was a confused girl-child from the start, a little thing whose lack of personality made it easy to see how she could be so taken in by Albrecht. In the Mad Scene at the end of Act I she became an overwrought 12-year-old with quivering arms, grabbing her head and shuddering on the floor. (Much of “Giselle,” it’s true, is ridiculous. Arlene Croce once described the Mad Scene as “an extended absurdity that an incurably cultish sentimentality has elevated to the status of a touchstone.”) For all the meltingly sweet balances and brisk hops on point Tuttle executed in the famous Act I solo, I couldn’t see that this Giselle had anything in her — any fire — that would make her go crazy from betrayal. She projected a sort of mild blankness and nodded her head in the same dumb way every time someone asked her a question. Albrecht would really have been a lout to take in a child like her — except if, as in the case of Corella, he was just as much a kid. When Corella came on at the beginning of Act II with a cape two sizes too big, stepping around “aristocratically” with toes so pointed he could hardly get one foot in front of the other, it was the perfect image of his undercooked interpretation.

With Kent’s Giselle, Albrecht faced a more complex situation. Act I can only make sense if Giselle is a fully fleshed out woman. From the beginning Kent had a mind of her own, a distinctive private life. We saw her imaginary world (centered on the hunter’s cottage, out of which she daydreamed a handsome gentleman emerging); her self-regard and smart self-protectiveness at the advances of the manly, magnetic Carreno; and most of all her sense that love was almost too beautiful for her to bear. In this performance it was Giselle’s love, and her loving nature, that defined her. She took love so seriously that it could literally kill her. In Kent’s lush Act I solo, it was as if love was coming out through her toes. (Love and dancing — and the love of dancing — are magically knotted together in this ballet; it’s a 19th-century instance of meta-narrative.)

Carreno wanted to come into this Giselle’s light; here the high and low of castle and village was transformed. When Kent invited him to join in a little peasant dance, it took him a moment to learn the dance (he’s used to doing the allemande, at court), but he picked it up quickly and thus entered into the heart of Giselle’s world. Kent’s Mad Scene continued the modern sensibility that marked her whole performance. She began to yank the petals from her invisible flower as if bitterly remembering Albrecht’s first deception, when he secretly pulled off the petal that would have said “he loves me not.” You could almost hear her clenching her teeth and saying, damn him, damn him, I love him and he dares to play games with love! Her death is his indictment.

Giselle’s defense of Albrecht in Act II, then, is two things at once: mercy for the sinner (with a little heaping of ashes on his head), and justice for the true love who was true of heart too late. Kent does not interpret Giselle simply. In Act I she is both wily and easily moved, generous and covetous, trusting and proud. Her entrance in Act II is terrifying. Whereas Tuttle appeared to be spun around by the wind in that whirling opening dance, and only took off around the time of her traveling entrechat quatres (making up for her limitations in the meantime with bizarrely elongated phrasing), Kent was wild and wraithlike, spinning out a continued perplexity that might never be resolved.

A big part of that perplexity is caused by the presence of Myrtha, Queen of the Wilis, danced by Michele Wiles on Tuesday and Gillian Murphy on Thursday. Wiles’s Myrtha was chillier (those wide, bone-white shoulders, that forthright presentation, those tall arabesques), Murphy’s more authoritative and more exciting. Murphy brought to the part the dramatic power that is crucial for a coherent Act II. When Kent covered the deeply pensive Carreno at the grave, we saw Murphy trumped for a moment; she bowed slightly as she turned away to come up with another plan to get Albrecht out in the open. Murphy’s Wilis had absolutely no love left (behind her, they had personalities, whereas Wiles’s crew were mere shades). In front of them, Kent’s Giselle stood out all the more. There were a few shaky moments in her deft-as-a-spiderweb solos, but I didn’t care. I was listening, with Carreno, to her otherwordly, very present voice.

A few words about the ballet’s supporting characters. The role of Berthe, Giselle’s mother, centers on one bit of pantomime in which she tells about the Wilis: they get awful little wings, she says, and spend eternity tormenting men who get lost in the woods. Erica Fischbach did her duty by this moment on Thursday, but Karin Ellis-Wentz made my skin crawl Tuesday night as she sank into her terrible reverie, made more terrible by the knowledge that it could happen to her own daughter. As Hilarion, John Gardner was good and bitter, Ethan Brown more sturdy and more mocking in his scenes with Albrecht. I liked Xiomara Reyes better on Tuesday as Moyna, Myrtha’s first deputy, than in the Peasant Pas de Deux she performed with Joaquin de Luz on Thursday. Although her natural love of risk worked splendidly in the pas de deux (a big difference from the floating, serenely classical interpretation of Ekaterina Shelkanova and Gennadi Saveliev), her love of rubato brought a surprising richness to the part of Moyna. Carmen Corella, with her perfectly straight pointes and thoughtful port de bras, did the same for Zulma (Deputy Wili No. 2) on Thursday.

For sheer high excitement, almost nothing in classical ballet can match the dance of the Wilis at the beginning of Act II. The audience always applauds the long sequence of traveling chugs in arabesque, partly because it’s famous, but mostly because of the way it builds and builds as more Wilis take the stage and the music’s tension rises. I always wish there were about eight more dancers in the pack, and that it would go on about two minutes longer than it does. It’s a dance of death — as all of “Giselle” is, in a way — which Giselle turns into a dance of life-sustaining love. Giselle and Albrecht dance all night; they dance *through* death; and the love that remains in the morning of this ballet is as charged and haunted as any you or I have ever known.

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freespace small(Dance Insider Principal Sponsor Ad) The Star-Ledger’s Robert Johnson calls Donna Scro Samori  / Freepace Dance “astonishing and wonderfully gratifying.”  For info on classes and upcoming performances, click here. Above: Freespace Dance artistic director Donna Scro Samori and Omni Kitts, as captured by Lois Greenfield. Photo copyright Lois Greenfield. (To advertise your dance program, performance, audition, or product on the Dance Insider, please contact publisher Paul Ben-Itzak at paulbenitzak@gmail.com . Subscribe to the DI by Friday, December 8 for just $29.95/year, and receive a free one-month Home page ad.)

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freespace small(Dance Insider Principal Sponsor Ad) The Star-Ledger’s Robert Johnson calls Donna Scro Samori  / Freepace Dance “astonishing and wonderfully gratifying.”  For information on classes and upcoming performances, including the company’s December 2 appearance at the Montclair Arts Festival, click here. Above: Freespace Dance artistic director Donna Scro Samori and Omni Kitts, as captured by Lois Greenfield. Photo copyright Lois Greenfield. (To advertise your dance program, performance, audition, or product on the Dance Insider, please contact publisher Paul Ben-Itzak at paulbenitzak@gmail.com . Sponsor ads just $49 when you sign up by November 30, 2017.)