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Season of the witch
by Laura Jacobs
An review of Angelin Preljocaj’s Spectral Evidence
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Spectral Evidence, Angelin Preljocaj’s new dance for the New York City Ballet, is as strange and beautiful as its title. It’s the kind of title Martha Graham often put on her work—a title like a hardwood floor in Emily Dickinson’s house. And it’s the kind of subject Graham was attracted to—a legend or event knotted with violence and desire. Spectral Evidence is about the seventeenth-century Salem witch trials, a shameful yet fascinating piece of America’s past. Preljocaj sees the story through a prism, a Swarovski crystal. Working a refined synthesis of ballet history, modern dance, and postmodern tropes, he slides content into dazzling form. Though the women don’t wear pointe shoes this is a classical dance, mercurial in its articulation, its flicks of eros, its licks of flame. That we know what’s going on without receiving a hint of a program note makes the work all the more thrilling.
The term “spectral evidence” is defined as “a form of evidence based upon dreams and visions.” The concept is dubious to be sure, but the Devil was very much present in Puritan life, and it was believed that his disciples could take animal form, could infiltrate dreams, and could also be in two places at once. This belief rendered the most airtight alibi moot. Religious magistrates—in a perfect storm of hysteria, accusation, and patriarchal power—brought increasing numbers of innocent women to trial and found them guilty based on such evidence, executing many.
Hysteria is no stranger to ballet and specters are everywhere in the repertory. One need only look back to Giselle, premiered in 1841, to see vapors rising. The librettists Théophile Gautier and Jules Vernoy de Saint-Georges drew the ballet’s supernatural aspect—the Wilis—from lines in Heinrich Heine’s book De l’Allemagne; Heine in turn drew from Eastern European lore regarding both the Vilas and the Rusalki. Water nymphs, she-devils, the undead, call them what you will, whether mischievous or malevolent, these apparitions—described by Gautier as “sprites in white gowns with hems that are perpetually damp”—meant trouble. In Giselle, Wilis are the vengeful souls of women romantically (and no doubt sexually) betrayed; they emerge from their graves at night and kill any man who enters their deep-forest domain. Danced by a corps tightly grouped and swathed in white tulle, the Wilis of Giselle are an ectoplasmic phenomenon, a psychic force—hysteria, one might say, rendered in mist. Giselle’s induction into the Wilis doesn’t begin with her death, but with derangement in her famous Mad Scene—she’s feeling the moonrise magnetism of Myrtha, queen of the Wilis.
Swan Lake, premiered thirty-six years later, in 1877, is another ballet that came together from bits and pieces, almost as if the art of ballet were an imperious Myrtha-like vortex calling in airborne symbols and sensations, which then coalesce into theater. But where Giselle has a gaslit ineffability about it, Swan Lake was stitched together like Frankenstein’s monster, the libretto shaped by many hands, including those of the composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. This weird tale of a spellbound swan-princess, Odette, and her sinister doppelganger, Odile, contains scraps of lore, a chord of myth, the swan from Wagner’s Lohengrin, a musical motif from Tchaikovsky’s failed opera Undina, and, underpinning it all, Tchaikovsky’s own double life: In public he was a beloved national treasure, in private a homosexual terrified of discovery and thus as spellbound as Odette. Like the moon on the lake, anxiety is a gleaming reflection on the surface of the ballet, present but silent. The 2010 film Black Swan made a splashy Grand Guignol of Swan Lake’s dualities: white-black, pure-impure, perfect-damaged, sane-insane.
By the mid-twentieth century, choreographers were treating hysteria clinically. Antony Tudor’s Pillar of Fire and Undertow, Agnes de Mille’s Fall River Legend, as well as her dream ballet in Oklahoma!, are full of perilous psychological plunges. At NYCB, however, the subject remained spectral. Jerome Robbins’s Dybbuk of 1974, based on S. Ansky’s famous play about Satanic possession in a Jewish village, is as out-there as Preljocaj’s ballet. And George Balanchine clearly preferred ghost stories to case studies. Both La Sonnambula (1946) and La Valse (1951) are carried on currents of madness and doom, but glamorously so. In 1974, three months before Dybbuk premiered at NYCB, Balanchine unveiled Variations for a Door and a Sigh, a German Expressionist take on “The Twilight Zone.” To Pierre Henry’s taped score, an electronic manipulation of amplified creaks and heavy breathing—things going bump in the psyche—a woman devours a man. Spectral Evidence looks right at home at NYCB.
In fact, the score of Spectral Evidence, which consists of five taped pieces by John Cage, recalls the chill vault of Door and Sigh. Preljocaj has arranged the Cage brilliantly, so that a sense of place and time is built in sound. Two of the pieces—the first and the last—are art songs of simplicity and puritan restraint. The first song, “The Wonderful Widow of Eighteen Springs,” fits text from James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake (“night by silentsailing night . . . ”) into a melody of only three pitches, an incantation surrounded by otherworldly knocks upon a piano’s wooden fall board. The final song is a setting of the E. E. Cummings poem “It Is at Moments After I Have Dreamed.” In between these two songs are Cage pieces of mysterious quiet and elemental disquiet, in which human panting, driving rain, and climbing fire paint the space aurally. It’s a floating landscape of dark ground and fevered brains.
The ballet begins in silence, with four men in black sitting atop a long bench upstage, like magistrates in a row. From behind each man a female face appears, out of nowhere it seems, to rest her chin on his shoulder, her arms coming round to frame and hold him. All four couples move in unison. They are four windows on one story, four facets of a diamond that cuts glass. Preljocaj is not going to deploy the expected compositional stratagem of classical dance—counterpoint, canon, long diagonals, tiers of activity. He hones tight to synchronization throughout the ballet. Except for when he doesn’t.
The costumes by the Belgian designer Olivier Theyskens, a star of the couture who’s always had a taste for goth, speak to historical Salem. The men are dressed like ministers, their jackets and pants sternly fitted, a clerical collar showing at the neck. The women wear ghostly white shifts—the whispering white of sylphs, wilis, and shades—but on the back of each, in a different place, a biomorphic blotch of red attaches like a scarlet letter or stigmata. As the eye finds these flesh wounds, the ballet’s plane of existence opens up: The women are innocent, but sexually dangerous because of their relationship with death.
The bench upstage actually consists of four wedge-shaped triangles, and these, pulled apart, are positioned to make a series of slides. The “witches” play lightly upon them as if out in bright moonlight—“like some losthappy leaf,” goes the Joyce text—and we feel their freedom from life. These triangles—not unlike the table in Balanchine’s Prodigal Son—will be fluently repositioned to create new refractions: Lined up sideways they make a long table, turned vertically they become four standing cells, arranged radially they are four ramps rising like small cliffs. The triangles work with Preljocaj’s choreographic symmetries, his kaleidoscopic four-as-one floor patterns, to give an icy, locked-in quality to the story.
And what does Preljocaj lock in? An homage to Paul Taylor’s Cloven Kingdom, a dance of chthonic bloodlust throbbing under a veneer of civilization (this to the sound of drumming, music by 79D). And the postmodern patterning of Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker, whose contemporary women can feel like witches of OCD, making poetry of private tics and corporeal postures. As in De Keersmaeker’s work, odd phrases begin to have power though repetition. For instance, Preljocaj’s women thrust their elbows forward (hands at their necks) and beat their elbows upward, like pointe shoes doing entrechat six, as if speaking a secret language. What’s marvelous is the ethereal texture Preljocaj brings to his terrible subject. These women spend a great deal of time in the air, their long hair dancing as they are lofted luminously upward by men who both condemn and desire them. They answer the men with erotic intensity.
Breath on glass, condensation in the cold, night dew, fog’s pallor, and phantoms—Cage’s “No. 22” from Song Books is the second piece of music in Spectral and it’s a haunted house of sound, dread webbing the common. All eight dancers are onstage, their partnering crystalline in design but clear in meaning: Palms that flatten together in prayer are then swung like an ax. The drumming section follows, a boiling dance for the men, and from this a pas de deux emerges. The music is Cage’s piano reverie, Dream, and it is danced by Tiler Peck and Robert Fairchild—first among equals in this excellent cast—delicate, ardent, she trusting, he troubled. They could be Hester Prynne and Dimmesdale.
Cage’s No. 52 “Aria No. 2” begins with cracks of thunder and the sound of a long kiss, which is enacted by Fairchild and Peck. He pulls back from her, pushing away this kiss of the succubus, but it’s too late, he is infected, possessed. Cage’s sinuous medley of fluids and fire, woven through with a stream of consciousness spoken in French, suggests a demon within, or dementia. Fairchild morphs and mimes in quicksilver derangement—or rather, alignment—his classical plastique housing a garrulous wit of the ancien régime. It’s a stunning tour de force, and Fairchild has never looked more articulate or artistically committed.
Spectral Evidence is allegorical, a story of fear and desire combusting into the question of who possesses whom. For even after the alleged witches writhe within their standing coffins, burning alive to the crackle of fire, they have not died. The upright wedges are laid down in slabs—low in front, rising toward the back—and arranged so that they echo the four radiating paths of the Salem Common. So begins the last selection of Cage, the setting of E. E. Cummings. Sung and hummed by a lone female voice, shorn of finish or vibrato, it is a wood-cut plainsong strung over wells of silence. The poem tells of “glassy darkness” and the “apparition of your smile,” of “such strangeness as was mine a little while.” The women lie on the slabs as if this were a lullaby and they’d been geographically put to bed, but they cannot sleep. They rise again, to play in the dark like forgotten children. Cage has left off the last two lines of Cummings’s poem so that he can end with an existential flash—“one pierced moment whiter than the rest.” Preljocaj’s women turn their backs to the audience and walk up their ramps, pausing on the brink of blackness. Then all four drop from sight, into eternity.
The pierced moment of self-obliterating and transcendent “whiteness” turns up in every art form, but never more so than in the art of classical dance. The moon and the moth, the lightning strike and the stars, Giselle’s lilies and the Sylphide’s pearls. Herman Melville, in his revered meditation on the color white—Chapter 42 of Moby-Dick—writes, “Though in many of its aspects this visible world seems formed in love, the invisible spheres were formed in fright.” It is the visible and invisible, both love and fright, that are married in the arcs, angles, spirals, rays, and chambers of ballet, over and over again. The same words that end Melville’s chapter can be applied to Spectral Evidence and its unnerving sirens in white: “Wonder ye then at the fiery hunt?”
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 32 April 2014, on page 50
Copyright © 2015 The New Criterion | www.newcriterion.comhttp://www.newcriterion.com/articles.cfm/Season-of-the-witch-7872
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