Back to Giselle home



Maya Deren in Meshes of an Afternoon

The Dancer Danced: Maya Deren

Dancer, choreographer, film-maker and anthropologist, Maya Deren would deserve a place in this project solely on the basis of her writing and her films.

What is so distinctive about her approach is not that she collaborated with dancers and choreographers, or that she herself was a dancer-filmmaker at a time when no such thing existed, but rather, as scholar Harmony Bench comments:

She choreographed space as well as the bodies and objects in it. She pushed the aesthetic and ontological elasticity of both dance and cinema, encouraging if not forcing their recreation, redefinition, and reevaluation.

Harmony Bench, Maya Deren: A Prologue, online)

You could say that she developed an idea of of filmmaking as a form of choreographic thinking.

But there is also another way in which Maya Deren's work connects with Giselle which is more specific. It concerns the experience of the dancer being danced.

The idea of dancing despite yourself, compulsively and beyond your mental power to control, occurs three times in Giselle. In Act One, Giselle goes mad and dances herself to death. In Act Two, the Wilis make Hilarion, and then Albrecht, dance compulsively, to the point of exhaustion and beyond.

Hilarion being danced by the Wilis

Maya Deren provides direct insight into an experience which is as close as we may get to what is depicted in Giselle.

Now There is Only Terror

In the period 1947 to 1951, Maya Deren made a series of expeditions to document and record the rituals of Haitian Voodoo. Over the course of these encounters she became more and more involved until, eventually, she herself became a participant.

The results are recorded in film, sound recordings and a wonderful book, 'Divine Horsemen: The Voodoo Gods of Haiti'. In the final chapter of the book she describes a voodoo ceremony and her experience of dancing while possessed:

'As sometimes in dreams, so here I can observe myself, can note with pleasure how the full hem of my white skirt plays with the rhythms, can watch, as if in a mirror, how the smile begins with a softening of the lips, spreads imperceptibly into a radiance which, surely, is lovelier than any I have ever seen. It is when I turn, as if to my neighbour, to say, "Look! See how lovely that is!" and see that the others are removed to a distance, withdrawn to a circle which is already watching, that I realize, like a shaft of terror struck through me, that it is no longer myself whom I watch. Yet is is myself, for as that terror strikes, we two are made one again, joined by and upon the point of the left leg which is as if rooted to the earth....

Now there is only terror. "This is it!"...

I must keep moving! must keep moving!—and pick up the dancing rhythm of the drums as something to grasp at, something to keep my feet from resting upon the dangerous earth....

The white darkness starts to shoot up; I wrench my foot free but the effort catapults me across what seems a vast, vast distance, and I come to rest upon a firmness of arms and bodies which would hold me up.'

Maya Deren, Divine Horsemen: The Voodoo Gods of Haiti

The footage below from Maya Deren's film shows a girl undergoing an experience very similar to what is described here.

The film 'Divine Horsemen' was made after her death using documentary footage shot by Maya Deren.

From Haiti to the Rhineland and Back Again

Although a different experience, dancing while possessed in Maya Deren's account has notable similarities with what happens in Giselle:

White clothes - both the Wilis and female voodoo devotees wear all-white costumes. Their skirts billow out as they dance.

Rhythmic music drives the dancers - in voodoo we have the drums, in Giselle we have Adam's waltz.

Circles - in Giselle, as in the voodoo ceremony, the dancer being danced is surrounded by a circle of spectator/participants.

Meshes of the Afternoon

If you haven't seen it you can watch Maya Deren's most famous film, Meshes of the Afternoon, here.

Meshes of the Afternoon, 1943

Further Reading

Much has been written on Deren. We recommend her own writing, particularly Divine Horsemen and also Vol 3 of The International Journal of Screendance which considers Deren in relation to screendance.

1 Deren, Maya (1953) Divine Horsemen: Voodoo Gods of Haiti

Card image: Maya Deren in Meshes of an Afternoon | Maya Deren