Byrd's 'Life': Twists and Turns on 'Giselle'

The first two acts of Donald Byrd's "Life Situations: Daydreams on Giselle" can be seen as another trenchant analysis of American culture in the manner of his brilliant "Minstrel Show" of 1992.

Presented at Cal State Los Angeles on Friday, the new work gleefully dismantles the highbrow Eurocentrism of classical ballet and the illusions of its audience. After reducing the 1841 Romantic icon "Giselle" to primal dramatic and choreographic themes, Byrd infuses and undercuts them with everything the hyperconservative balletomane wants kept out of classicism: modern dance angularity, rock 'n' roll rhythm and, most forbidden of all, black attitude, black humor, black people .

But even more prominent than the broad and often hilarious parody in the work is Byrd's high-velocity fusion of American dance idioms, his daring experiments with ballet partnering, his ability to retell the story of "Giselle" with eight fearless barefoot modern dancers and make it take hold in contemporary terms. Imagine a tight multicultural community, a suspicious, light-skinned outsider, a spunky but overly trusting young woman. . . .

Working again with composer Mio Morales, Byrd makes the betrayal of Giselle calculated and unforgivable, changing the ending of the narrative so that Albrecht actually dies for once--not so much danced to death (though he still gets his batterie-unto-collapse) as raped by the entire Wili-corps.

Unfortunately (also for the first time), there's a third act--not a continuation of the story but a partnering lab showcasing four guest ballet dancers: Pascal Benichou, Alexis Manuel, Marie-Christine Mouis and Elizabeth Parkinson.

Here the source-choreography seems less "Giselle" than the duets from Balanchine's "Stravinsky Violin Concerto" and, beyond a few hellion-on-pointe strategies a la Karole Armitage, the result proves curiously tame and even reverent. But, oh, that first and second act and the blazing performances of April Wanstall (Myrta), Antonio Carlos Scott (Albrecht) and, especially, Leonora Stapleton (Giselle and the Peasant Pas de Deux)!

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