Women have it rough in classical ballet. Sleeping Beauty eats poison and must rely on a prince to awaken her from eternal slumber. A virgin dances until she literally drops dead in The Rite of Spring, and The Nutcracker's Marie (or Clara, depending on the version) may well be the victim of a perverted uncle, if you believe the Freudian analysis. Basically, these gals are always in peril, they pay for their transgressions with their lives (witness slutty Carmen's comeuppance), and they wind up waiting for a man--or for a feminist revolution far off in the future--to get them out of a fix.
And then there's Giselle, poet Heinrich Heine's wispy innocent, celebrated in composer Adolphe Charles Adams's 1841 ballet, who is also stranded in an inhospitable past. After sitting through yet another traditional performance of this agonizing chestnut (and then viewing the Ballet of the Dolls' campier version), choreographer Risa Cohen, the founder and artistic director of Precipice Theater, decided it was time to help liberate this heroine from her usual binds. The result is Giselle 2000, a rather epic work for 17 dancers, premiering this weekend in Red Eye's Isolated Acts Festival.
"Who was Albrecht? And why did he leave his fiancée for Giselle?" asks the 32-year-old Cohen, a lithe, dark-haired woman with a feline face. "In this piece I answer a lot of questions for myself. For example, I have compassion for the fiancée: Why is she so peripheral?"
In the original Giselle, Albrecht's betrothed is only a name until she emerges at the end of the first act and sends Giselle into a frenzy of despair. Cohen has created a video of Bathilda's daily life that plays throughout the initial scenes and portrays her waiting for Albrecht (played by Nathan Carlton) as he woos Giselle (Audrey Ghebille). And so a voiceless and somewhat demonized character becomes a more complete one. We can sense Albrecht's double betrayal of Bathilda (Emily Jackson) and Giselle: Now he's the villain.
"In the original ballet, Giselle dies of a broken heart," continues Cohen, who has the role of Giselle's domineering mother opposite John Beasant III's drunken father. "She is described as very fragile and weak. I looked this up in my psychology books"--Cohen was a neuropsychology major at Maryland's Towson State University--"and decided that she might be anorexic. She dies of a heart attack, in my mind." Now her dysfunctional personality is the result of an unhappy home, and while Giselle remains a victim of sorts, Cohen has fashioned a better explanation for her deadly fixation on Albrecht. Giselle is obsessive all right, but she's had a tough time of it; Albrecht's lies seal her fate.
Giselle is probably best known for the heroine's descent into a shadowy underworld where Queen Myrtha (Tina Anderson) rules over the beautiful but rather bloodthirsty Wilis, a band of restless spirits. Again Cohen tweaks the story, concentrating on Giselle's eternal fate. "Myrtha actually liberates Giselle. She teaches her to be wild, while her mother represents tameness. It's a metaphor for who we are inside. Giselle finds the happy medium between pure oppression and pure wildness." Instead of killing Albrecht, then, Giselle spares him. "She is finally freed," explains Cohen. "She can return to the grave to live on in her next life." Perhaps a better one, we hope.
While dance is Cohen's key form of expression in Giselle 2000, movement theater--her first love--informs the action: The dancers move with a dramatic tension, their faces involved as much as their limbs. A devotee of master mime Etienne Decroux ("I'm really captivated by the way he used the human body as an instrument"), Cohen began her career as a member of Margolis Brown and stayed with the company for five years in New York and Minneapolis. Recently she has returned to ballet classes, but her technique also draws references from modern and ethnic dance. "I'm not trying to be an angsty choreographer," she says. "I'm really interested in humor and getting into the depths of the human condition."
Asked whether she intends to give other ballets the Cohen treatment, she laughs and quickly responds in the negative, although she has enjoyed putting her imprimatur on a classic. "There's such substance here," Cohen says. "This is the first time I've ever messed with a legend. Before, I've created my own stories. I don't know why more people don't do this!"