Emily Stein Channels Wilis, and Nymphs, and Sylphs, Oh My!

Emily Stein’s latest installment of her Secret Experiments in Ballet, running for three performances last weekend at Dovetail Studios, integrates her depth of knowledge about classical ballet with post-modern choreographic sensibilities. As with her other “experiments,” Stein, a master ballet teacher and former Associate Artistic Director of Zephyr Dance, has made a long-term commitment to peeling back layers of the ballet onion in order to uncover new movement possibilities from within the form. The fourth of its kind, Secret Experiments in Ballet: Phantom Dance’s primary focus is not so much a mining of ballet vocabulary as it is an investigation into the plight of the wili; six women dance with, for, and sometimes against one another in what comes across as a satirical view of the corps de ballet.

Phantom Dance is slow to start, with six ladies dressed in billowy tulle perched on simple stools, eyes closed. When they open their eyes, it’s at varying intervals to issue us a villainous gaze, a cheeky white-toothed grin, or a forlorn ogling, before promptly returning to their seats with eyes closed again. Over the course of several minutes these facial expressions become physicalized, first in seated gestures, and then in standing poses balletomanes will recognize from the white ballets like Giselle and Les Sylphides – even a nod to Nijinsky’s Faun.

Being in the corps is hard. It’s your job to blend in, to be unnoticed. Yet, each dancer is subtly (or not) plotting to get attention so she might someday move up the ranks. All of that is clear here; adding insult (in a good way) is the overt celebrity behind Stein’s gorgeous solo. She enters as Giselle, hands crossed at the waist, shoos away the others and is soon after gone. All of the glory for a fraction of the work. I’m kidding, of course, but the long-winded passages of sometimes difficult dancing by the dance’s six other members, the glares toward each other when nobody’s looking, the pushes and shoves of dancerly competition… the metaphors within this dance speak loudly to those of us who spent most of our time in long tutus, posing upstage.

Her process might be post-modern, but Phantom Dance reads as ballet performed by ballet dancers. That part is important, because it’s not unusual for ballet-trained movers to struggle with grounded movements, but these particular dancers have varied training and should have been able to transition to a lower center of gravity more easily. Maybe the goal was to embody the ballerina in her most awkward state; the moments in and out of the floor, the moments echoing something like contact improv, and the jazzy dance party at the end certainly felt that way. 

Phantom Dance might benefit from taking one step further in either direction – really "going there" to be pure balletic satire or a purely weird manipulation of classical vocabulary. If it is to be satire, I’m not convinced a makeshift theater at Dovetail Studios is the best setting for this work, which would do nicely with a slightly bad follow spot operator, dramatic side light, a fogger, perhaps flower petals raining from the rafters. I wanted this to be teeming with opulence – It would only embellish the tongue-in-cheek bravura Stein seems to be going for.