Dancers on the power of witchy roles
That makes a witch? Is it just warts and a mastery of the black arts? Or is it strength and intelligence united in a woman whose power frightens people? Witches creep through dance in various forms, and they almost always cause trouble, or at least scare the pants off people. Think of evil Carabosse in The Sleeping Beauty, or fortune-telling Madge in La Sylphide. In a dark corner of early modern dance lurked the masked witch-woman in Mary Wigman’s solo Hexentanz II (1926); and more recently, The Bell Witch cast her spell in a ballet choreographed by Ann Marie DeAngelo for Nashville Ballet.
But what makes these witches such troublemakers? Often, it’s jealousy. Carabosse, the wicked fairy, is enraged at not being invited to Aurora’s christening and flings out a curse, ruining the party. Madge takes revenge on James for throwing her out of the house when she reveals to his fiancée that he loves another (the Sylph). The Bell Witch is said to have harrassed the Bell family in Tennessee out of jealousy or spite. Only Wigman’s witch dances purely from a sense of her own power. With Halloween looming, Dance Magazine set fear aside and spoke to several dance artists familiar with these roles to find out more about the creatures behind the makeup and masks.
One Fairy Gone Bad
The trouble with Carabosse, says Malcolm Burn, artistic associate and ballet master of the Richmond Ballet, is that no back story is given about her. “Why did she end up being a bad fairy in the first place, the one they didn’t invite?” he asks. “I would love to know.” When Burn staged The Sleeping Beauty last year, he performed the role of Carabosse himself. The lack of clear motivation doesn’t bother him. “That’s what makes it all the more delicious to be her, because truly she is vicious,” he says. “There’s nothing redeeming. She’s just the epitome of evil.”
Carabosse has often been performed by men. “We used the masculinity inside the female costume to create a female who moves differently from other females,” says Burn, whose costume included corset, wig, and elaborate makeup. “She’s big, she’s not fairy-like, she doesn’t have those beautiful legs and feet and lovely tutu. So one tries to exploit that to make her look more imposing and cold.”
But the evil fairy is also performed by women. Carmen Corella, who was cast as Carabosse in American Ballet Theatre’s recent production of The Sleeping Beauty, focused on subtleties like facial expressions in her performance. “I tried to do the role in a way that the expressions would be strong enough to read,” she says, “instead of just screaming and making noises.”
From a Dark Place
Sorella Englund’s Madge, from the Royal Danish Ballet’s La Sylphide, is possibly the most famous characterization of the role today. Allan Ulrich, a Dance Magazine senior advising editor, says, “She looks like a great beauty of yesteryear gone to seed. Her red hair suggests a Klimt painting. Sorella interprets Madge as a jealous, spurned lover. She seems to have gotten under James’ skin psychologically, and thanks to her RDB training, she possesses a wonderful specificity in mime.”
Englund has performed the role for over 25 years, not only with Royal Danish Ballet, but also with The Royal Ballet and Boston Ballet. “I would never have believed I would tour as an old witch in my old age,” she says. “But it’s deeply exciting.”
The witch’s character is not simply evil. “There are no human beings who are born only evil or only good,” Englund says. “Most witches in history were incredibly bright and very passionate. This woman Madge—I think she was never loved. What maybe was worse for her was that nobody wanted her love.” Her Madge does not rely on the usual witchy tricks of cackling or cursing. “I think it’s much more dangerous when you’re quiet,” she says, and offers an interpretation that could be the key to her success with the role: “Maybe she is the shadow or the dark side of the Sylph.”
When coaching other dancers in ths Bournonville classic, Englund gives them a certain amount of freedom. “I try to tell them to find their own dark place,” she says, “because all art, I think, is personal. If it’s not personal, it’s not very interesting.”
Sorella Englund as Madge in Boston Ballet's La Sylphide
Photo by Angela Sterling, Courtesy Boston Ballet
A Local Legend
In Adams, Tennessee, in 1817, the family of John Bell began to experience violent disturbances in their house and on their land. Bedcovers were yanked off; pillows were thrown; they were slapped; their hair was pulled; strange voices tormented them. The “Bell Witch,” as the ghost became known, achieved notoriety throughout the region for her nasty temper and irrepressible violence. In 2003 the Nashville Ballet commissioned Ann Marie DeAngelo to create The Bell Witch in homage to the feisty poltergeist.
Nashville Ballet in The Bell Witch, by Ann Marie DeAngelo
Photo by Marianne Leach, Courtesy NB
To portray the Bell Witch and her mischief, DeAngelo says that she relied on both theatrical effects and dance devices. The Witch was thought to have tried to prevent the marriage of John Bell’s daughter, Betsy, to her suitor Joshua Gardner. Choreographically, that idea became a pas de trois where the Witch keeps preventing Betsy and Joshua from getting close to each other or touching, though they don’t actually see her.
“We portrayed the witch a little more sympathetically. There were scary moments and there were comic moments, so it made it really entertaining,” says DeAngelo. “I didn’t create her with some bizarre kind of movement vocabulary. I humanized her a little bit more. I know people who know ghosts, who’ve experienced it, and say that the ghost feels very real.”
Behind the Mask
Scholar and dancer Betsy Fisher has reconstructed and performed Mary Wigman’s famous Hexentanz II (1926), or Witch Dance, which was influenced by her ideas about mysticism. In this solo, the body unleashes demonic energy from the unconscious or supernatural forces. A fragment of film from the original piece shows Wigman, face hidden behind a smooth and sinister mask, seated with her knees drawn up. The music crashes discordantly as she claws the air and then advances jaggedly towards the viewer, still seated, but wrenching herself forward with legs and arms.
“I always get the feeling that there’s an incredible power in this figure; the power that can destroy and the power that can create,” says Fisher. “In a way she’s like the mother earth: It can be the volcano or it can be the nurturer of new life.” When she performed the piece recently at American University, Fisher says, “A young man came up to me afterwards and said, ‘Look what you did!’ He’d been grabbing his pen so hard that it exploded in his hand. His hand was filled with ink.”
Kansas City Ballet's Kimberly Cowen in Wigman's Hexentanz
Photo by Steve Wilson, Courtesy KCB
Fisher feels that everyone who performs the piece discovers a different witch. “You know, when they find that creature inside of them and when they let it go explosively through their whole body, then they’re going to have the witch, and it won’t be like anybody else’s.”
Part of the witch’s power comes from the mask. Kansas City Ballet’s Kimberly Cowen, who learned the dance from Fisher, says, “When you put that mask on, it takes away your inhibitions. Then you’re able to just be the character instead of thinking about yourself in the character.”
Reflecting on the role, Cowen says, “There was a little bit of desperation in her, and because of that she used her power to scare and influence people.” And scare people she did—at least young people. Apparently one young boy, during a recent Kansas City Ballet performance, tapped his dad and said, “This is kind of scary.” A few minutes later, he tugged on his dad again and said, “I think we need to go. ”
Good and Evil
Malcolm Burn, musing on the idea of the witch, says, “There is inherent in all fairy tales, and in our biblical tradition, and just about every tradition, a very strong sense of good and evil. What we teach our children in the fairy tales is that evil is actually there, and good is also there. And one is to be desired and one is not. And then as they get older we can say to them, ‘Both are within you.’ ”
Lea Marshall, a freelance writer based in Richmond, VA, is co-founder of Ground Zero Dance Company and teaches at Virginia Commonwealth University.