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NEW YORK — Absurd, incoherent, misogynistic, hopelessly outdated: thus do many dance lovers of today describe the story of “Giselle,” written by Vernoy de Saint-Georges, Theophile Gautier, and Jean Coralli, and choreographed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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Women aren’t just Victims, II: The Tragi-Fabulous Destiny of Camille Claudel

claudel small abandonCamille Claudel, “L’Abandon,” large model, circa 1886. Bronze, brown patina, 24 3/8 x 22 7/8 x 9 5/8 inches. Signed “C. Claudel.” Last of a series of 18 cast from this model between 1905 and 1922. Estimated pre-sale by Artcurial at 600,000 – 800,000 Euros or $660 000 – 880 000; sold to a private international collector for 1,187,000 Euros or $1,412,530 including charges. Image courtesy and copyright Artcurial.

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2017 Paul Ben-Itzak

“No, Joan, it’s not the priests who judged you. When those ferocious beasts gathered around you, their hearts full of rage and foaming at the mouth, those priests, those politicians, the Angel of Judgment who controls the scales, with a whistle he made the miter, the cowl, the frock tumble from their heads and arms.”

— Paul Claudel, “Joan of Arc at the Stake,” 1939 (Editions Gallimard)

“There’s always something absent which torments me.”

— Camille Claudel, Letter to Rodin, cited on a plaque affixed to the facade of 19, quai de Bourbon on the Ile St. Louis in Paris, where the sculptor lived and worked in a ground floor studio from 1899 until 1913, when she was committed to an asylum.

Dedicated to the memory and living legacy of Ruth Asawa, imprisoned by her government during World War II because of her Japanese heritage; Black Mountain graduate; sculptor; lithographer; teacher.

What do Hokusi, Hansi, Antoine Coysevox, Adolphe Cassandre, and Paul Claudel have in common — besides being men? You’ll find them all in the 1981 edition of the French encyclopedia “Le Petit Robert 2,” a bible of everything you need to know about French and world culture and history. You won’t find an entrée for Camille Claudel (1864-1943), assistant to, collaborator with, and lover of Auguste Rodin whose sculptures often exceed the master’s in their sophistication, intimacy, vulnerability, and heart-rending pathos. This was before the 1984 publication of a biography and Catalogue Raisonné by a descendant, Reine-Marie Paris, determined to resuscitate the reputation of the ancestor who spent 30 years in an asylum, possibly against her will, before dying of potentially hunger-related causes in 1943; several books published beginning in the 1980s, notably Anne Delbée’s 1982 best-seller “Une Femme, Camille Claudel”; two movies featuring Isabel Adjani and, more recently, Juliette Binoche as the sculptrice; a rage of exhibitions around the world; and the opening last spring of a museum dedicated to Claudel’s remaining oeuvre (estimated at between 80 and 99 works) in the remote Paris suburb of Nogent-sur-Seine, previously best known as the home of accordion legend Yvette Horner.

Camille Claudel’s ascendance — corresponding with the increased rarity of brother Paul’s plays on French stages — was capped by last week’s largest-ever sale at Artcurial Paris of works coming directly from Claudel’s descendants (via her sister Louise) for a combined total of nearly 3.6 million Euros or $4,283,048, more than three times the global pre-sale estimate, with a phenomenal 12 of the 17 lots by the artist on sale pre-empted by the State to go to French museums.

To receive the complete article, including more images, subscribers please contact publisher Paul Ben-Itzak at paulbenitzak@gmail.com. Not a subscriber? Subscribe to the Dance Insider & Arts Voyager for just $29.95/year by designating your PayPal payment in that amount to paulbenitzak@gmail.com, or write us at that address to learn how to pay by check. Subscribers receive full access to the DI/AV Archive of 2,000 exclusive reviews by 150 leading critics of performances and art on five continents from 1998 through 2015. You can also purchase a complete copy of the Archives for just $49 (individuals) or $99 (institutions). Contact Paul at paulbenitzak@gmail.com.

Freespace, Free Dance Ad

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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Subscribe to the DI this week, for just $29.95 / year, and have your dance company, school, university dance department, or product featured on the DI front page for free. Just sign up by noon EST Friday by designating your PayPal payment in that amount to paulbenitzak@gmail.com,  or write us at that address if you prefer to pay by check. Your sub entitles you to the complete versions of new articles (and art), plus access to our 15-year archive of more than 2000 exclusive reviews by 150 leading critics of performances on five continents,  plus art. The Dance Insider & Arts Voyager. Celebrating 20 years of telling stories not told elsewhere, building the dance and arts audience, and giving a voice to dancers and other artists.

100 ans, Danielle Darrieux, et on a toujours soif de vous*

darrieux coverDanielle Darrieux in Max Ophuls’s “Madame de…,” playing at the Cinematheque Toulouse Thursday. Image courtesy Cinematheque Toulouse.

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2017 Paul Ben-Itzak

I’ve spent the past month or so in the company of the most charming, droll, drop-dead gorgeous, glamorous *and* down to earth, alluring, funniest, romantic, and timeless of French actresses — the one who formed the mold for all the others who followed. Since Danielle Darrieux died at the age of 100 on October 17, I’ve been catching up on some of her films, from Henry Koster’s 1938 American comedy “The Rage of Paris,” in which the 21-year-old Darrieux plays a New York chorus girl who poses as a Parisian femme du monde to bag a millionaire through the 1958 “Drole de Dimanche” and “La Vie a Deux,” the latter a series of sketches about troubled marriages. I haven’t yet had time to re-screen Jacques Demy’s 1967 “Les Demoiselles de Rochefort,” the musical in which Darrieux, portraying the mother of Françoise Dorléac and her real-life sister Catherine Deneuve (whose model she may have been, although Darrieux is smarter), was the only cast member whose voice wasn’t dubbed, the actress also being such an accomplished chanteuse that not only did she sing, but her singing often set off the plot. (And when I say she sang, I don’t mean that she was another one of those French actors who thinks s/he can sing, a la Gerard Depardieu in his new album covering Barbara. I mean that if she wasn’t an actress she could have been a full-time singer; the sheer warmth and beauty of her voice even went against the high-pitched ((Frehel)) or morose ((Piaf)) tonalities that were the mode when she came up. Grover Dale, our colleague who played opposite Darrieux in Demy’s film, told the DI and AV, “It was apparent that Danielle was a wise and melodious woman. What a privilege it was… just being in the vicinity of her music.”)

Unfortunately, the only film I’ve screened which seems to be part of the  Cinematheque Toulouse’s tribute, running through December 13, is Max Ophuls’s 1953 “Madame de…,” a 19th century melodrama in which she cheats on Charles Boyer’s dignified general with Vittorio de Sica’s caddish baron, which screens in the French Midi city Thursday. What that film has in common with all the others — besides Darrieux’s blood-warming singing — is that she inevitably succeeds in re-conquering a man she’s betrayed, rejected, or otherwise disappointed: James Mason as a traitor she’s double-crossed, who can’t help smiling at how he’s been out-foxed at the end of the 1952 “Five Fingers”; Douglas Fairbanks Jr., who falls for her anyway after spending most of “The Rage of Paris” trying to unmask her before his enchanted best friend, the millionaire (and in which film, like any good comedian, Darrieux’s not afraid to show herself at unflattering angles, as when she gets stuck in a collapsed window, leaving only her pajama-covered butt projecting into the room); Bourvil as the estranged husband who finally relents after spending most of a “Drole de Dimanche” plotting to kill her (there’s a droll scene in which a very young Jean-Paul Belmondo, pursuing the couple in a roadster with Bourvil’s landlord to try to derail his plot, pulls out a trumpet to mimic a police siren to get the car ahead of them to pull over); and most of all a heartbreaking Boyer, who finally challenges de Sica’s baron to a duel not for cuckolding him, but for abandoning Darrieux and sending her into a mortal spiral. At one point Boyer’s general (whose own cheating, it should be pointed out, is one chain in a series of seemingly chance events sealing his wife’s doom), agonized by her growing distance from him and apparent determination to let go of life, tells her, more with regret than rancor, “I’m not the figure you’ve made me out to be.” As an actor, part of Darrieux’s gift was to make all her partners better than they were. (If Boyer was always a deft comedian, I’ve never seen him so poignant; he almost steals the show, his character’s fate seeming just as tragic as hers — and it’s clear that being a helpless witness to Darrieux’s demise sets this off.)

Darrieux Madame de ballroomDanielle Darrieux and Vittorio de Sica in Max Ophuls’s “Madame de…,” playing at the Cinematheque Toulouse Thursday. Image courtesy Cinematheque Toulouse.

For her part, Darrieux was as brilliant a comedian as she was a heartbreaking tragedian. If her desperate, eyes-shut refrain “Je ne vous aime pas, je ne vous aime pas” while pounding her head against the door of her mansion as de Sica parts on the other side, meant to convey the opposite of “I don’t love you,” is devastating, her impeccable rhythm in a fracas with her lover in “La vie a deux” is also an example of verbal repartee and physical timing that should be required viewing in every acting class.

In the one film I haven’t yet had the courage to watch in its entirety, “Crime doesn’t pay,” yet another of the formulaic ‘sketch’ films that were popular in Europe in the early 1960s, Darrieux, still ravishing at 45 and having derouted yet another male who would have had her hide, ends the film with a semi-deliriius, flirtatious, luxuriant “J’ai soif” from her bed. 100 ans, Danielle Darrieux, et on a toujours soif de vous.*

PS: Darrieux isn’t the only grande dame of French cinema we’ve lost this past year. Jeanne Moreau, Michelle Morgan (at the age of 97), Emmanuelle Riva and, most recently, Anne Wiazemsky, one of Jean-Luc Godard’s muses, 70, have also disappeared. (To hear an audio broadcast, in French, of Wiazemsky’s autobiographical story “Mon Enfant de Berlin,”  click here.) All these deuils are enough to make one regret that the State no longer throws national funerals for departed giants of the theater, like the mass procession for Sarah Bernhardt. (Whose name pops up in “Madame de …” when Boyer, having confirmed Darrieux’s infidelity but refusing to discuss it, proclaims, “Tonight we shall speak only of Sarah Bernhardt.”)

*100 years, Danielle Darrieux, and we still haven’t got enough of you.

 

She wore lemon: Concocting the feminine image with D. Chase Angier

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2000, 2017 Paul Ben-Itzak

BROOKLYN — I know, I know, the borough of Brooklyn is part of New York City, so it’s as ridiculous to make that the dateline for this Flash as it would be to make it “MANHATTAN.” But living in Manhattan — GreenWich Village, no less, to para-tone Bob Dylan in “Talkin’ New York” — I’ve tried to ignore the increasing number of dance flyers with a Brooklyn venue that have flooded the DI inbox. That’s not from snobbery, it’s from fear of getting lostery. As anyone who’s ever accompanied me to an event where a subway is involved will tell you, when I emerge from the station I can’t even figure out which way is uptown and which way down. So the prospect of trying to find my way to a hidden theater in a strange town has always been daunting. Only a friend or an artist I know and REALLY want to see will get me there, and even then only if there’s someone to hold my hand along the way. But when I heard Chase Dance Theater was in the house with “an Evening of Beauty and Madness,” including a reprisal of D. Chase Angier’s mostly-new-to-me riff on female image consciousness “Lemons for Loveliness,” I was tempted. And when I heard the house was a spanking new space, Williamsburg Art NeXus (or WAX), it seemed my duty, as we’ve been ranting here about the shrinking space for dance in this town, to check it out. And finally, when I was told WAX is right on the L line — folks, this is a ten-minute ride from downtown Manhattan, half the time it takes you to get uptown, and you’re in the company of a way cooler Boho crowd — this young man had no excuse not to go east.

To receive the complete article, first published on October 9, 2000, subscribers please contact publisher Paul Ben-Itzak at paulbenitzak@gmail.com. Not a subscriber? Subscribe to the Dance Insider & Arts Voyager for just $29.95/year ($99 for institutions gets full access for all your teachers, students, dance company members, etc.) by designating your PayPal payment in that amount to paulbenitzak@gmail.com, or write us at that address to learn how to pay by check. Subscribers receive full access to the DI/AV Archive of 2,000 exclusive reviews by 150 leading critics of performances and art on five continents from 1998 through 2015. You can also purchase a complete copy of the Archives for just $49 (individuals) or $109 (institutions). Contact Paul at paulbenitzak@gmail.com.

Return to Innocence

Fall AC two contemp Combas smallReturn to innocence: The painter Robert Combas and the troubador Georges Brassens have much more in common then their hometown Sete on the Mediterranean. The apparent frequent wickedness of the oeuvres of both men ultimately reveals itself as owing more to Eden than bawdy barrooms. It was thus no surprise when the contemporary artist devoted a whole series of large-scale paintings to the late anarchist singer and poet. But there’s no homerism or even regionalism in Combas’s 1992, 76 3/4 x 111 3/4 inch acrylic “Dans l’Eau de la Claire Fontaine,” on sale Monday in Paris for Artcurial’s Post-War & Contemporary auction. Signed, dated, and titled upper left. Artcurial pre-sale estimate: 50,000 – 70,000 Euros. Image courtesy and copyright Artcurial.