It’s not so often that ballet feels relevant. But “The Death and the Damsel,” a new piece by contemporary choreographer Paul Taylor, pulls it off by tackling a timely topic: sex trafficking.
The Senate is right now debating a bill that would strengthen federal laws against human trafficking– which is estimated as a $32 billion industry worldwide. Sexual assault has never been a bigger topic of conversation. According to a new report by the Public Religion Research Institute, 73 percent of millennials believe that sexual assault is somewhat or very common on college campuses–and for good reason: 15 percent of millennial women say they’ve been victims themselves.
Though “The Death and the Damsel” sometimes draws on cliches, it also introduces powerful images of sexual exploitation. The “damsel”–played by Jamie Rae Walker–wakes up in her apartment and bounds out of bed in a Barbie-doll pink dress, blonde hair in a bun. She breaks into a joyful dance, replete with cartwheels and exuberant fouette turns. But her innocence is short-lived: Before long, a sinister crew of (brunette) men and women in skimpy black leather slinks onto the stage, and the mood darkens; the lights dim. They slither, menacing, on the floor, and creep around the stage, hunched over, their hands twisted into the shape of claws. Our unfortunate damsel pulls the covers over her head and tries to hide under her pillow, but she’s dragged out of bed by one of the men (Michael Trusnovic).
The second scene finds our protagonist in a dance club, engaged in a violent pas de deux with Trusnovic. At first it seems consensual, but he becomes more and more aggressive–swinging her around, running his hands over her body–and when she tries to break away, he pulls her back in, forces her to the ground, pulls her legs apart, and holds them in a “V” while staring into her crotch. The other men at the club scramble over each other to take their turn. It’s a disturbing–and original–representation of rape, managing to be very clear while actually less explicit than the images of sexual violence we’re accustomed to seeing in other media–cinema, theater, even text. TV shows like “Downton Abbey,” “Scandal,” “Game of Thrones” and “House of Cards” have been criticized for using rape as a plot device. There’s no mistaking this scene for anything but the climax.
In the final scene, Walker dances with one of the female villains (Laura Halzack)–a dominatrix or a Madam, some have suggested–and here, the balance of power is more ambiguous: Walker fights back, and it’s not always clear who’s winning. Though the choreography suggests that she’s ultimately subsumed by the dancers in black, her face tells a different story. She’s not terrified anymore, but smiling; she may have accepted her fate, or maybe she’s dying, or letting herself be killed.
On opening night, the ending was different: The final scene saw Walker back in her bed, raising the possibility that the whole episode was a nightmare. It’s a good thing Taylor changed the ending, because though parts of this piece are subtle, a lot of it is overly explicit. Innocence resides in blonde hair and pink dresses, while evil lives in dimmed lights and sexy black costumes. We know the second scene takes place in a dance club, because the words “Dance Club” are written on the set.
It’s worth noting that Taylor is an 84-year-old man. We might not expect him to be particularly in tune with the national conversation on sexual assault, and “Death and the Damsel” doesn’t offer much evidence that he is; this isn’t a piece about the trauma of rape or the strength of survivors. But maybe it’s easier for someone removed from the topic to take it on a new way.