Giselle Deconstruct: A Survival Story
What is romantic about madness, grief, anxiety, and suicide? Nothing, Veronika Lee-Baik communicates with Giselle Deconstruct, an evening-length work which reinterprets the Romantic ballet Giselle through a more realistic, contemporary lens, choreographed by Lee-Baik and performed by The Three Yells, her all-female dance company. The Three Yells is not your average modern dance troupe, though; they work across artistic disciplines to create work which integrates the visual, aural, and physical into a visceral platform which stands not only to entertain but empower.
Lee-Baik’s cross-disciplinary mission for her company is clear from the moment the house doors open and the audience floods into the theater. A performer dressed in a modern interpretation of the traditional ballet tutu places red sticky notes atop a sea of white ones that cover the back wall of the stage. As red penetrates white, I begin to wonder what the evolving background represents. Is it a pulsating heart beat? A streak of blood? The program states that this production explores, “death through love by suicide rather than a failed heart.” In the original ballet, Giselle discovers that her lover has deceived her. In a fit of madness, she dances until her weak heart gives out, dying tragically. Given how Lee-Baik has reinterpreted death in her production, I imagine each blood-red square symbolizes an individual suicide.
The performer concludes her task, and the house lights darken. Stunning, dystopian light fixtures by Tristan Robertson illuminate the stage and a droning, hollow, synthetic soundscape begins to play. Dancers emerge in massive tubular headpieces, manipulating their sculptural costumes and moving their bodies in response. As they exit, another dancer suddenly falls into the space. Three more follow, collapsing onstage as if shot by an invisible gunman. The collective eventually pick themselves up from the ground and sway to the droning sounds, their legs rising with resistance to their sides.
More dancers emerge, some dressed in white, others in black, a representation of the “Yin and Yang, the contradictions and ambiguity…of this subject,” according to Lee-Baik in a talk-back following the show. Although the dancers are dressed in contrasting colors, in their moments of unison they are almost indistinguishable from each other. Even their breath, which punctuates their movement, is simultaneous.
Lee-Baik’s choreographic strengths do not lie in large group sections, however, but in duets that highlight the physicality of the two performers. Partnerships enact choreographic Rube Goldberg machines: one dancer touches their partner with an elbow, foot, hand, hip, or head. Each touch causes another touch in response, evolving into a complex phrase that travels through space lithely and organically.
Through this sinuous movement, Lee-Baik builds a tumultuous, emotional base for the madness to come. At the end of the first act, dancer Emily Durand escapes the pack of dancers and writhes wildly on the ground as if something pinches her emotional core. Durand expertly achieves The Three Yells’ goal of transcending pure movement and cultivating an emotional response in the viewer. I want to run onstage, hold her, and comfort the spirits of love, grief, and desperation inside of her.
Instead I watch the second act, which takes place in the realm of the dead, from my seat. The final half of Giselle Deconstruct brings Lee-Baik’s wish, “to use dance as a platform bigger than artistic movement” full circle. Her work explores clear suicide imagery, but also proves how dancers can, “empower us with their honesty and truth.” The act begins with the cast of women drowned in plastic tubs, a disturbing, shocking image, and eventually evolves into a virtuosic work of pure movement, showing off the dancers’ athleticism and personal strength. The dancers face the subject matter as it stands and respond by performing with gusto.
Instead of pained, slow movement, they complete animalistic, aggressive, and powerful movements. They undulate and thrust, embracing their sensuality. They throw punches and move in unison through staccato poses. They flock collectively across the stage, confident in their solidarity and congregation.
Lee-Baik uses the second act to emphasize her belief that through performance, she can “transcend female degradation into liberation and empowerment.” Speaking after the performance, she confidently adds that, “Even though I’m tiny, Asian, I have a kid, I have a voice and it needs to be heard.” Her voice is heard, loudly and clearly, and it communicates a bold, feminist message that even in dark, scary places, women have the ability to survive depression, sorrow, hopelessness, and conquer anything, both emotional and physical.
Giselle Deconstruct, January 6 & 7, 2017, 8 PM, Cornish Playhouse at Seattle Center.