Maya Taylor is a classically trained dancer. But to choreograph dance hall scenes in the Marigny Opera Ballet's new work, Giselle Deslondes, she watched videos of Josephine Baker and dancing at New York's Cotton Club.
"For the Charleston scene, I watched a lot of Josephine Baker, and I watched videos for this amazing dance called the Black Bottom, which was popular before the Charleston," Taylor says. "Seeing videos like that — wow! — people used to really get down. I liked having that incorporated into the movement."
Giselle is a French ballet that debuted in Paris in the early 1840s and became a classic. In the story, a wealthy man proposes to a peasant girl he has seduced, but he is already engaged. Marigny Opera House founder Dave Hurlbert thought the story was ripe for an adaptation featuring contemporary dance, a New Orleans setting and new score. The modern ballet opens Marigny Opera Ballet's season Friday at the Marigny Opera House.
Giselle Deslondes, which adds a local name, is set in New Orleans in the 1930s. It is reconfigured for eight dancers, and it has an original score by Tucker Fuller, which will be performed live by the 14-piece New Resonance Orchestra, which includes brass instruments, a saxophone, a banjo, strings and piano. The new work also features dramatic storytelling and props, some of which are used in the rowdy New Orleans dance hall.
"When Dave told me we were going to have breakaway bottles, my eyes lit up," Taylor says. "I was so excited. We practiced it to see where the shards of glass would go. I can't wait for that moment in the ballet."
The original Giselle is set in Germany's Rhineland during a festival. Hurlbert adapted its first half to a 9th Ward dance hall during Carnival. Archer, who lives in the Garden District, and a friend enter in Carnival finery, hoping to find Giselle, who arrives later with her friend, Baptiste. The action is boisterous as the revelers dance and drink. When Archer's fiancee also arrives, the scene erupts.
"We're doing a ballet, but you're seeing all this Charleston, foxtrot and polka and seeing all of this movement," Taylor says. "What I wanted to do — because it is so real at times in the first act with the deception and heartbreak and what happens — was to take it to an honest place and make sure the dancers show us that they're falling in love, and Kellis (Oldenburg, who plays Giselle) does a beautiful job showing us that she's going mad."
The second half takes place in a cemetery.
"It has a bit of a voodoo element to the movement," Taylor says. "It is not ballet in the second act. There is a lot of influence from modern dance, hip-hop, jazz and African dance."
"I wanted to give them chal-lenging movement but continue the story so they're not just doing this (dance) coda," Taylor adds. "I want the dancers to become their characters on stage."
The Marigny Opera Ballet debuted its first original ballet, Orfeo, last season. It will reprise an updated version in April. In February, it presents The Art of Jazz, a program of new short works created and performed in conjunction with local jazz musicians.