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Giselle in Hell


By Deborah E. Copaken

GISELLE is one of those ballets imbued with the power to melt audiences. Mikhail Baryshnikov has been known to do the same. One would think that a cinematic synthesis of the two could offer an hour and a half of entertainment.


Written by Sarah Kernochan

Directed by Herbert Ross

At the USA Copley

Dancers--said synthesis--has even been directed by Herbert Ross, whose 1977 The Turning Point accrued 11 Academy Award nominations. But in this endeavor, something seems drastically awry as Ross tries to translate the classical plot of Giselle into a modern-day romance between Baryshnikov and a 17-year-old siren.

Baryshnikov plays Tony Sergeyev, frigid Adonis ballet-god who likes to sleep with lots of women and say poignant things like, "It feels terrible to have no feelings." Tony has been placed in charge of both directing and dancing the lead role in a performance of Giselle which is to be filmed in Italy. The leading lady (Alessandra Ferri) is his mistress. The other female principal dancer, Nadine the acid-tongued misanthrope (Leslie Brown), is his former mistress. And now he has the hots for Lisa (Julie Kent), the long-legged wunderkind of the corps de ballet.

In between whining to her mother over transcontinental phone wires, Lisa, like Giselle, finally submits to Tony's advances. Tony, whose ego matches Baryshnikov's, tells Lisa, "Try to think of me as just a guy." Lisa stares at him demurely and squeaks, "I'll try." But the encounter means little to Tony, so Lisa, with tears in her eyes, runs off and gets a tattoo. Really.

Even more absurd than this plot line is Ross' insistence on pummeling his audience with the parallels of the ballet Giselle with this film of Giselle. Shots of Giselle's grave in the staged ballet are interspersed with fuzzy-lensed shots of Lisa looking sickly angelic. And since Dancers is a film of the filming of Giselle, Ross attempts Bergman-like self-referentiality--with shots of cameras and film crews, lenses and light meters--but only succeeds in overstating his own inadequacy as a film director.

FORTUNATELY, the actual filming of Dancers offers some viscerally exciting movement and light. Especially well-executed are a scene of the dancers eating pasta in the Italian countryside as well a sequence in which Tony dances alone bathed in five o'clock sunlight. Why, however, such flawless cinematography was not employed during the 20-minute-long sequence of the actual staged ballet remains a mystery. Nevertheless, the audience is thankful for the respite from cliched and silly dialogue that this 20 minutes provides.

Cliches, in fact, fly faster in this film than a room full of leaping ballerinas. Nadine, for example, expresses her hatred of men by exclaiming ever-so-subtly, "I don't trust any man," and reminding her infant child, "All men are sluts, you remember that." Patrick, Tony's mentor and best friend, tells him, "You have no passion. You seem empty." And feminists be forewarned--when Lisa comes back with her tattoo she absolves Tony of any sexual guilt or responsibility by explaining to him, "It was great. You made me feel very special."

It's an open question as to whether it is this bastardization of human dialogue or the ridiculous manner in which the characters speak their lines which makes watching Dancers more painful than twirling in a pair of toe shoes. Suffice it to say, ballet dancers are taught to speak with their bodies rather than their mouths for good reason.

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