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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NEW YORK — Absurd, incoherent, misogynistic, hopelessly outdated: thus do many dance lovers of today describe the story of “Giselle,” written by Vernoy de Saint-Georges, Theophile Gautier, and Jean Coralli, and choreographed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.

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.

From the Body to the World: Kim Can Dance — Can I Capture Her?; Cambodian Story-telling from Eiko & Koma & Friends

By Maura Nguyen Donohue
Copyright 2006, 2017 Maura Nguyen Donohue

NEW YORK — Dian Dong said that she didn’t think anyone had been paying attention when she and HT Chen were awarded a 2005 special citation from the New York Dance and Performance awards (a.k.a. Bessies) for their outstanding service to the community in NYC and NY State. Thankfully somebody on the Bessies committee had taken notice, and all you dance insiders should follow suit, punch their Mulberry St. Theater address into your hiptop and make it a destination in the future. While you’re at it, bemoan the recent missed opportunity to forge a new pathway, find good eats cheap and fast and get an up close and personal look at Sam Kim’s latest, which ran this past Thursday to Saturday.

To receive the complete article, also including Maura’s take on Eiko & Koma’s “Cambodia Stories: an Offering of Painting and Dance” and her own perspective on collaborating in Cambodia, first published on May 23, 2006, 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.

Women on the Verge: Vicky Shick, Screened and Unscreened

By Nancy Dalva
Copyright 2003, 2017 Nancy Dalva

NEW YORK — Vicky Shick is such a modest and reticent performer and choreographer that she does everything in her power, which is considerable, to disappear herself from the very stage on which she sets her work. Her new dance “Undoing,” first performed on March 4 and 5 at Dance Theatre Workshop (to be repeated on March 13, 14, 22 and 23), makes you feel as if you are spying on her, and on her four lovely female dancers (Juliette Mapp, Jodi Melnick, Eileen Thomas, and Meg Wolfe) glimpsing this and that through lamp-lit windows. This voyeuristic sensation recalls Trisha Brown, who made a solo called “If You Couldn’t See Me” some time after the six excellent years Schick spent in her company. (Incidentally but interestingly, another former Brown dancer, Stephen Petronio, otherwise a very different kind of choreographer and a totally different kind of dancer from Schick, evoked that same voyeuristic mood in his recent “City of Twist.” ) “Undoing” is elliptical, calligraphic, elegant, and unreadable, yet narrative. Imagine opening a book to find almost all the words erased — here and there an adverb, a noun, an indefinite article — and the pages out of order. That would be “Undoing.”

To receive the complete article, first published on March 12, 2003, 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.

Still Re-born: Jones/Zane Looks Back and Finds You Can’t Go Home Again

By Chris Dohse
Copyright 2003, 2017 Chris Dohse

(Editor’s Note: A fearless post-modern masterpiece. The review I mean, first published on September 12, 2003. See also my criticism of Deborah Jowitt for reviewing a work in which her own voice is featured, as well as Jowitt’s response, elsewhere in the DI Archives. Today’s republication sponsored by by Freespace Dance and Slippery Rock Dance .)

NEW YORK — This isn’t the first time I’ve found myself disagreeing with history. Or remembering it differently. I mean, I was there, dancing and making dances at the end of the 1970s and into the 1980s. Not in SoHo, not even in New York (though I did starve through a winter here), but I remember what concerns influenced me and the dancers I knew then. What compositional choices we made; what styles fascinated us.

Surely if we, many of whom are still members of the pomo dance so-called “community,” gazed into our ’80s navel, what would we find? Bill T. Jones, of course. Inescapably the bellwether of a generation of dancemakers who collided East Village performance and the ’60s avant-garde lineage into talking, gestural, identity-specific, polemical formalism.

Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company’s 20-year anniversary program at the Kitchen, “The Phantom Project,” memorializes two of the early duets (1980’s “Blauvelt Mountain” and 1981’s “Valley Cottage”) that established the pair’s careers, along with subsidiary pieces from that time (1982’s “Duet X 2” and “Continuous Relay,” 1981’s “Cotillion,” and 1978’s “Floating the Tongue”). The works are seen in archival footage — projected on a large wall — and recreated by a rotating cast of the company’s current dancers.

I couldn’t afford to see dance concerts during my previous time in New York (and I certainly didn’t have the “wild times at the Odeon” Jones reminisced about to Gia Kourlas in Time Out New York this week), so I welcomed a chance to evaluate this era-defining work. In these early dances, interracial homosexual desire, with its long heritage of taboo, had its first incendiary moment in the art historical eye.

But here’s the thing: The works recreated on the Kitchen program all look alike. And this endless duet isn’t really very interesting today. My memory tells me that, lifted from its original historical framing device it is no more compelling than what anyone else was doing around that time. It looks repetitive in a boorish way, overlong. The attack and intent of gesture (mostly lunging semaphore) and the staccato pacing become predictable and turn into a flat sort of nonlinear blur, like figures on an Etruscan jar.

Part of this is, of course, that the company members who take turns filling the parts originally danced by Bill and Arnie — and they are all individual knockouts — can only stand in the shadow of the mythos of the originals. It was the Jones/Zane relationship, at once subversive and inspirational, the statement it made at that moment in history and the way they turned it into mythology by laundering it — well, not laundering it so much as flaunting it perhaps — in their work, that was the star. With this passion only represented by absence, eulogy and ghosts, the material of the dances becomes textbook tedious.

We see spurts of movement in clearly designed space: Totems, the air between them heavy with the burden of centuries of objectification. Diaries of intimacy, a seemingly unedited pastiche of gestures from Hindu avatar to the cakewalk, the history of the middle of the last century and its debris of images as a series of gesture accumulations.

A tall Black man and an short Italian/Catholic/Jewish man showing tenderness to each other as performance was paradigm challenging then. And still is today, the way Jones has recast the roles (on Wednesday night most notably with Malcolm Low and Wen-Chung Lin in “Blauvelt Mountain”). Physically Lin and Low are as mismatched as Jones and Zane were. When they caress each other, the dance becomes a palimpsest of mixed-race discourse.

Nostalgia in our collective viewing consciousness makes the work poignant. Nostalgia for a time when post-modernism seemed a promising notion, before it ate itself and got knackered. Nostalgia for our own losses and glory days as we layer our milestones over ’80s timelines.

I begin to chafe at the incessant foregrounding of the dancemaker’s ego. And since the work has now been transferred into the vessels of a contemporary cast, of the interpreters’ egos. Movement/verbal diarrhea that privileges solipsism might lead its performers to personal awakenings, but it just falls flat as viewed action, swallowed by narcissism.

I absolutely reject the recorded voices of Elizabeth Zimmer and Deborah Jowitt folded into the sound collage, analyzing and commenting on the importance of these early duets as we watch them — I hear the words “camaraderie” and “structure,” the names Trisha Brown and Lucinda Childs — as if the opinions of these two critics dictate public record. Well I suppose they do actually, but really it is too much to be force-fed this canonization. I feel manipulated.

But Jones has successfully controlled what he calls, in his opening remarks to the audience, the “transformation of old things.” It is not enough for him to allow the work to be lionized by the critics into part of the official art historical canon. He seems to have answered his own question: “Where is the truth of what we make? In the past, the now, or out there somewhere?”

Surviving: Life for a ‘Luxury Item’ after 9-11-01

By Veronica Dittman
Copyright 2001, 2017 Veronica Dittman

(First published on the Dance Insider on September 15, 2001. Veronica Dittman is the founding editor of The Dance Insider. Today’s publication sponsored by Freespace Dance and Slippery Rock Dance . PS: Veronica, phone home.)

Dear Dance Insider Readers,

There is a long-standing delicate matter between my respected friend Paul, the editor of this venture, and me. It consists of my defensive insistence that he not print any of my submissions without letting me approve his edits to them. However, in this case, I am trusting him to not let this be too personal, too self-indulgent, or too full of parenthetical notes (but Paul, don’t you think an occasional glimpse of the subtext can be interesting? like when someone’s slip is showing?). He’s asked for written responses from us New Yorkers, but like everyone here, I’m a little strung out and am aware that my judgment is probably wobbly.

We’re quickly learning to live in the aftermath. Phone lines are undependable, the subways are undependable, there are 90 bomb threats a day, we hear fighter jets overhead patrolling us but mostly we can’t see them, and the air quality is horrendous in places. Just the same, I took ballet with Marjorie Mussman yesterday and the class was well attended (she comes in from New Jersey!), and Stef tells me she took class with Zvi at City Center this week. Friends came over to my apartment last night, and after the now routine exchange of stories and impressions, there was much hilarity.

Among my concentric circles of friends, so far I’ve only heard tales of luck, escape, and relief, so I’m grateful. But then, there are so many people gone that it becomes impersonal. If ol’ Martha was onto something with the idea of collective unconscious, there’s such a big hole here that we all feel it. There are fliers made on home computers and posted on bus shelters and lamp posts everywhere, with a photo and phone numbers: “If you’ve seen this person, please call.”

At my worst, I’m scared to drink the water, I’m scared to breathe the air, and I practically hyperventilate when the train stops for a routine red signal. In an outburst of selfishness, I’m scared that I won’t be able to get to my doctor’s appointment on Tuesday, or that the doctor will be busy with some new disaster. The hardest part for me is accepting that now the structures and systems I’d taken for granted are vulnerable and impermanent. Everything will be different now, unstable. (for once, I would love to be wrong. I would love to think back on this in a year and see myself as a melodramatic alarmist.) It’s possible, probable, that there’s more horror to come, that we’ll live with it. I’m aware that so many other cultures have had to live with this fear, and have adapted, but I arrogantly thought we were immune here.

I find I’m hopelessly in love with the physical, and my tangled theology reveals itself. I’ve got the Apostles’ Creed promising “the resurrection of the body and life everlasting” and I’m drawn to these Zen Buddhist dancing skeletons meant to confront “the impermanent nature of material existence” so that freedom, bliss, and enlightenment can become possible.

After an initial impulse to run like hell all the way to my parents’ house in Wisconsin, I don’t want to leave. As Fran Liebowitz said in a radio interview this morning, “I need myself here, even if no one else does.” I also related to her identifying herself as a “luxury item”: my skills aren’t particularly useful right now. She pointed out that construction workers and nurses, who never get any press around here, are desperately needed, and it turns out that the stylists and designers are temporarily unimportant.

Sending out good wishes to you all,

Veronica