Choreographer Veronica Lee-Baik wants to raise awareness about teen suicide among young girls. From 1999 to 2014, the suicide rate in the United States rose a quarter, NPR reports, after decades of decline. Especially worrisome is the fact that the rate among girls aged 10 to 14 tripled over that period. Moreover, while suicide rates for Asian American women match the national average, that group thinks about suicide and attempts suicide at higher rates than other Americans.
Over tea at a cafe in Fremont, Lee-Baik tells me that statistics like these, and the complex stories behind them, partly informed her decision to create Giselle Deconstruct. One section of the show debuted at On the Boards for Northwest New Works 2016, but a full production premieres at Cornish Playhouse on January 6 and 7.
Lee-Baik says she's been fascinated by Jean Coralli and Jules Perrot's 1841 classic ballet since she started dancing early on in life. The old story follows Giselle, a sickly German peasant who falls in love with a nobleman. At the end of act one, she discovers her lover is duty bound to marry another and then dies of a broken heart as a result. In act two, the otherwise pastoral, sprightly, but melodramatic ballet descends into the underworld. A large group of gauzy, sylvan fairy creatures called Wilis conjure Giselle's ghost from her tomb. The Wilis are all women, and their job is to dance men to death. They threaten to dance Giselle's beloved to death, but the power of her love for him prevents them from doing so.
The first time Lee-Baik saw the ballet, she was struck by the moment in the middle of the dance when Giselle lets her hair down in a fit of madness.
"Those are the moments I crave in a dance," she says. "Can we just get real here? Why can't we let women onstage go crazy like that?"
Giselle Deconstruct seizes on and highlights the old story's wildnesses and shakes up the classical movement with modern dance, Sankai Juku Butoh, and Chinese dance influences.
Instead of a quaint German town, Lee-Baik sets Giselle in a garden of multicolored sticky notes that read "love me" and "love me not." Given that all the dancers in this production are women, the romantic story line in this version queers the boy-meets-girl narrative of its source material. And instead of dying of a broken heart, Giselle commits suicide. According to Lee-Baik's research, this choice restores the original plot of the ballet. "Audiences in 1841 didn't think it proper to show suicide onstage," she says, so the plot point was changed to a more romantic, if not less fatal, response to heartbreak. Finally, the Wilis no longer exist to execute fuckbois with two left feet, but rather to provide a model of feminist communal support that helps Giselle's spirit discover the strength she would have needed in her darkest hour.
Last summer at Northwest New Works, I watched these Wilis get born. A handful of dancers in dirty gold gowns squirmed around like baby snakes inside clear Tupperware storage containers. As bowel-loosening industrial music boomed and screeched out of the speakers, the dancers crawled out of the boxes, hissed at each other, kissed each other, and performed cobra-like strikes. They were training, drawing energy from each other, making each other stronger, massing their power against the forces of deletion. The movements, the music, and the whole writhing, shining spectacle of it mesmerized me.
Back in 2000, Lee-Baik formed her dance company, the Three Yells, to create work that addresses or somehow incorporates urgent, contemporary issues, especially those that effect disadvantaged and dispossessed people.
For each dance project, Lee-Baik organizes outreach programs that are thematically linked with the show. Since the Wilis offer Giselle a source of empowerment via movement, the company is running movement workshops with B.F. Day Elementary School and Young Women Empowered. The classes are designed to increase confidence, release stress, and to make the students and young adults feel more comfortable in their own bodies.
To address the performance's theme of suicide, Lee-Baik will ask the students to think of a person they've lost or don't want to lose, and then to make a gesture that recalls that person. From there, they combine everyone's remembrance gestures, smooth out the seams, and turn them into a single dance.
This sort of community-sourced choreography bleeds into Giselle Deconstruct itself. During the open rehearsal, Lee-Baik asked those in attendance—even non-dancers who were just there to support their friends—to display the way anger manifests in their body. Some clenched their fists, some twisted their faces, some screamed. She strung all the movements together and included them into three minutes of the 75-minute show.
Gorgeous, engaging, and intelligent as it is, Lee-Baik is under no illusion that her artsy deconstruction of an old ballet is going to "do anything" to combat the rising suicide rate among young girls beyond raising awareness.
"At the end of the day, the art is what will resonate," she says. "People can come and say they don't see [an argument about teen suicide] in the dance. Great! Go out and bitch about it and tear me to pieces. But talk about it. Talk about how we're sweeping this under the rug. And how it's rampant in the arts world, too! We never talk about it."