The primary tension in Giselle is the question of acceptance: will Albrecht accept Giselle? will she accept him?
The night before the shoot, Denaise Seals asked me some probing questions about Medusa. Having performed the piece several times, I thought I knew it well, but I didn’t have ready answers to everything. The question that puzzled me most was, “Why does Medusa seem so calm after she loses her body?”
My ultimate answer is denial. When her head gets cut off, she does not agonize about her suffering. Instead, Medusa talks about the positive side of being only a head, how she won’t have to shave her legs anymore, and how she can learn lots of languages. I think that, were I in her shoes, I would not be able to look at my suffering squarely, but would try to shield myself in denial. Of course, I don’t really know.
It was wonderful to have Denaise there, questioning everything. “Why do you and Alex fight afterward? After all, Perseus did what Athena told him to do.” It was a metaphor for how puny Perseus was in this game of immortals. Medusa was just a punching bag for Athena; Perseus, her glove. When the deed was done, Perseus went off to die. He had adventures first, married Andromeda, got rich, but there was no immortality for Perseus. Medusa, on the other hand, lived on—and what a life! A head hung on Athena’s shield, a toy with which to petrify Athena’s enemies. Perseus was cast off, but ultimately he was luckier.
We left the house at 4:45 in the morning on June 12, 2013 to get to Cape Henlopen State Park, DE. It was a strikingly beautiful day, the sun rising over the water. We started with the final image: footprints in the sand that disappear before reaching the water, to show that Athena and Medusa have flown away. I tried three times before backtracking on my own footprints cleanly enough to make the shot. From there, we shot the environment: the stones, the water, the sun…we got a feel for the site.
We shot the opening sequence: Medusa sleeps while Athena and Perseus crash land behind her. Alexander Short throws me around until I give up; then, he carts me over to Heather for our trio. “Why is Athena played by a man?” Denaise asked. First, I needed someone who could throw me around, someone visibly bigger and stronger than myself, more godlike. From a practical perspective, Alex was the only company member who fit that requirement. More broadly, however, it represented the sexist way in which myths usually represent violence. Violence is rampant in mythology, but men are typically glorified by it, women victimized. In Greek mythology, for instance, as in many other cultures, women are raped with abandon. Medusa, of course, is another instance: her crime is to have been raped in Athena’s temple by Poseidon. What Athena does to Medusa afterward, transforming her into a monster and isolating her from all human contact, sending Perseus out to chop off her head, carrying the head around forever like some hunting trophy, compares to rape as well. Violence against women in myths is usually performed by men, however, which made it logical to cast Alex in the role.
Denaise Seals has a wonderful feel for dance, being a dancer herself. She roved around us, in the duet and then the trio, capturing our bodies up close, from below or above, dancing in the sand with us. Her perspective, or that of her camera, was that of one deeply concerned with our characters, a lover, a mother, one compelled to get nearer, but unable to take part.
We dance slowly in an evolving chain during the trio. “Why don’t you three fight after Medusa wakes up?” When Medusa wakes up, the three characters become one, inhabiting a snake’s long body and undulating on the sand. The three of us are integral to each other: so closely tied by hate that we become one creature.
We learned not to sit cross-legged when buried in sand up to your neck. Heather Doyle’s legs fell asleep partway through the shoot on the first day. The second day, she extended her legs in front of her, on an upward angle, much more comfortably. The first day, I aimed a battery-powered fan toward her to keep the flies away; the second, the wind took care of that. I was absorbed by Heather’s neck during the section in which she raises her chin high: the neck seemed to grow out of the sand in a way that I never anticipated.
Another aspect to Medusa’s reaction to her trauma is the presence of hope. In the myth, Pegasus is born from Medusa’s neck after Perseus beheads her. Pegasus symbolizes freedom and hope, which I believe Medusa still had, despite all that had happened to her. She was, or is, the ultimate survivor.
It was exhausting to film Medusa! We ran sections over and over, sometimes in waves that knocked us over or blinded us. Alex’s back hurt more and more, and he was unable to flip me over his shoulder toward the end of the first day of shooting. It was also wildly fun to perform it again, feeling the audience’s eyes at different angles, looking at the whole dance anew.
Photos by Denaise Seals.