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'Swan Lake?' How About 'Duck Pond?'

You've never seen ballet like this. Susan Foster's solo concert pokes fun at all that perfection and has a message at its core.

June 16, 1996|Diane Haithman | Diane Haithman is a Times staff writer

'Ballet is woman," the late choreographer George Balanchine once said.

But then, who asked him?

Certainly not Susan Foster, dancer, choreographer, writer and chair of the dance department at the University of California at Riverside. In her new full-length solo concert Thursday and Friday at Santa Monica's Highways arts complex--"Swan Queens, Psycho Chickens and Other Dancing Monsters"--Foster offers an opposing theory: that the classical ballerina, in all her shining, upright, pointe-shod perfection, is actually a phallic symbol.

"A whole lot of the different aspects of the ballerina's character have to do with the phallus," Foster said in a recent interview on the UC Riverside campus in a dance studio housed in a former Ramada Inn that has been converted into an academic building. Her tone somehow manages to suggest at once pure scholarly earnestness and an imminent knock-knock joke.

Foster said she is not the first dance scholar to entertain these ideas. "[Ballerinas] are on pointe, they are hard but pliable, they are deflating but always reinflating," continued Foster, whose own exquisite posture and long swan's neck suggest a more than platonic relationship with the ballet. "And they have an internalized geometry, a kind of masculine, patriarchal form that is coded in a more feminine, ethereal graceful presence that is always vanishing."

The male ballet dancer, whose role often seems no more than to catch the woman when she leaps through the air or to keep her from falling off pointe in an arabesque or pirouette, still maintains a powerful position of "manipulation and control," Foster said.

Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, but a ballerina is never just a woman in a tutu, Foster suggests. And because the female dancer is so busy representing the male organ in the full-length classical ballets such as "Swan Lake," "Giselle" and "Romeo and Juliet," the character she portrays never really develops a well-rounded personality and often winds up dead. "At the moment when they are about to assert an identity, the plot wipes them out," Foster said.

Foster's concert, part of Highways' dance series "SWEAT: New Dance From L.A," will feature three dances, all of which humorously question the female's role in ballet. And for Foster, who long ago moved away from ballet traditions into more modern dance forms, everyone is not necessarily beautiful at the ballet.

Along with "The Ballerina's Phallic Pointe," Foster also will perform "Lac des Signes," which imagines Odette, the ballet's Swan Queen character, charged with re-choreographing the ballet. "She keeps having these dreams where she kills the prince and turns into Psycho Chicken," Foster explains.

And, in a new work, Foster reconsiders "Giselle" from the point of view of Myrtha, Queen of the Wilis--a group that Foster fondly describes as "a women's collective dedicated to dancing men to death."

In case you don't remember, here's a brief summary of "Giselle," first performed at the Paris Opera in 1841 with Carlotta Grisi as Giselle: In a medieval Rhineland village, Duke Albrecht, disguised as peasant, meets and courts the lovely peasant girl Giselle--not telling her he is already engaged to Princess Bathilde. Hilarion, Giselle's jealous suitor, seeks revenge by unmasking the Duke--who immediately scuttles back to his princess.

Giselle, driven mad with heartbreak, begins a wild dance that ends with her plunging the Duke's sword through her heart. The dead Giselle then enters the world of the Wilis, female phantoms who died after dancing on their wedding nights. Led by their Queen, Myrtha, these virginal ghosts now amuse themselves by luring in young men and dancing them to death. When Albrecht returns to the village, Myrtha condemns him to the same fate, but Giselle's desperate love sustains Albrecht until dawn disbands the ghosts.

Foster is not happy with this ending. "I'm interested in the fact that here is this prince with all this money, and a fiancee, and he goes slumming and seduces this poor peasant girl. She finds out the truth, and he could at that time offer to marry her, but nooo. He just stands there and watches her disintegrate."

In Foster's version, Myrtha decides to re-choreograph the ballet allowing for some feminist retribution for Giselle.

Foster gave up ballet years ago precisely because of such feminist concerns. "I'm interested in a less rigid movement vocabulary; I am interested in more choreographic possibilities than ballet can provide," Foster said--then grinned. "But [classical ballet] does sort of offer you those great stories you can go after."

But attacking ballet as an art form, Foster noted, is really not the point. "I wouldn't be doing this work if I weren't capable of being seduced by the ballet, if I didn't love it in some way, if I didn't have a very enduring, profound relationship to it." Her work, she said, is "not meant to really annoy people. But it is supposed to get people thinking about these issues."

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