Miss Havisham, as Charles Dickens conceived her for his novel Great Expectations, bears no first name, only a title to indicate single status and that family stamp with its last syllable — like a last breath — a synonym for fraud. Addressed as such, she reveals, in full Gothic guise, the horror of her presence and the cruelty of her acts.
Having been jilted at the altar, the odd and odious character goes on wearing her wedding dress and embarks upon revenge, weaponizing her adopted daughter Estella against first-person narrator Pip.
Now, 160-plus years after the novel's publication, Hannah Baumgarten, artistic codirector of Dance Now! Miami (DNM), has revived this antagonist as the central interest in Havisham! blessing her with a backstory to redeem a life where sacred rite has been corrupted into sin.
For this full-evening, site-specific premiere, the South Beach Chamber Ensemble will play a mix of popular and classical selections live, amplifying the characters' desires and despair at North Miami Beach's Ancient Spanish Monastery on Wednesday, February 7, and Thursday, February 8. Audiences will progress from the courtyard to the cloister to the chapel before ending up at the mausoleum corridor, following a guide (Natalia Uribe) who announces phases of the plot in English and Spanish.
Baumgarten discloses the basis of the presentation, saying, "I've always loved to take well-known stories and retell them through the female lens. My feminism comes out through my choreography."
This began with her first work, pre-DNM, 24 years ago. (At present, she sometimes collaborates with company codirector Diego Salterini, himself an individual contributor to the repertory.) That duet, Achilles and Penthesilea, features the clash between the epic Greek hero and the queen of the Amazons. But in this dance, the courage of the latter as a warrior does not take second place.
Other woman-centered works continued to strengthen Baumgarten's output, including portraits of Jocasta, mother and wife of Oedipus, and the Biblical Hannah, whose sanity even her son Samuel questioned.
"There are always underlying stories that are extremely interesting," says the choreographer. "And shifting the lens toward women gives us a new perspective on narrative themes."
With its connection to her family, Havisham! is a project of the heart for Baumgarten. Her college-professor father, Murray, a Dickens scholar, made literature integral to their household. "The first book I ever read," reveals the choreographer, "was Great Expectations." Her mother, Sheila, became executive director of Shakespeare Santa Cruz, giving Hannah access to the layers that hold up drama as she assisted in managing productions. "It bred into my brain there's lots of action behind conflict and resolution," she says.
That fascination with narrative — and the untold stories behind each surface — carried into Baumgarten's choreography. She says, "In Dickens, Miss Havisham is an archetype of malice. But I tried to understand why she became that horrible person."
The question led her to invent an episode of youthful love for the spidery spinster before betrayal soured the nectar of passion into poison. Havisham! will thus feature two dancers portraying the lead character at different periods, tapping into psychoanalytic notions about the enduring effects of trauma.
For dancer Amanda Davis, a New World School of the Arts graduate who's been with DNM for three years, portraying the older Havisham has brought both the discovery of an impacting tale and the challenge of inhabiting that dark place.
"I wasn't familiar with this story," she admits, "and only after Hannah explained it did I watch a version of Great Expectations recently streaming. I found myself paying close attention when Miss Havisham came on scene. I'm a very visual person, so that helped me get into character."
Through her discussions with Baumgarten, she began to delve into the complexities of a woman, once victim then victimizer, who uses others as tools. "She reminds me of a strict mother who becomes demonizing," says Davis. "Embodying that has all to do with the directives in the choreography."
The dancer explains that in the opening section, referred to in rehearsals as "the ugly solo," she sits at a table in monster mode until she sees Estella (played by Rae Wilcoxson) and eagerly takes her into her arms. But soon, Havisham manipulates the girl like a puppet master. "Hannah puts her into positions like a doll," says Davis — so that ensuing social instruction for Pip (Austin Duclos) turns into punishment, drilling humiliation into the boy. "It's as if she's telling Estella, 'I care for you, but this is what you're going to do for me, whatever the cost.'"
To give this more authenticity, she's been paying close attention to the details of characterization required of Julia Faris, who plays young Havisham, since significant gestures echo between them.
Starting with a flashback, a duet with a captivating suitor (Jean Louis Da Silva), Faris revels in the thrill of first love. "For that, I can pull from emotions I felt as a college student," reveals the 26-year-old Faris. "It was a complete infatuation, pretty much giving my all to the person in front of me because that's all I knew how to do."
In her fifth year with the company, Faris feels at ease with Baumgarten's way with movement. And, dancing with Da Silva, she's enjoyed — from their suggestive gaze to the friskiness of their limbs — a smooth connection.
But that seems like a distant Eden when Faris finds herself alone at the altar, waiting in vain for the groom to appear. This is especially powerful as the audience sits in the pews of the monastery chapel, which actually serves as a wedding venue, and Father Gregory, the sanctuary's resident priest, presides.
The pivotal breakdown Faris acts out — reaching up as if to curse heaven, then plummeting as if pulled down into hell — concludes as the young Havisham — her pristine wedding dress, like her life, bound for ruin — crawls off behind the apparition of old Miss Havisham, her gown already a bilious yellow.
Both dancers portraying the age-separated Havishams praise the visual force of those garments — designed and constructed by sisters Haydée and Maria Morales — and emphasize the importance of conscientiously spinning and lunging within their folds and length. Also of great consequence is the location.
"Site-specific work," says Davis, "embraces the movement and helps me get into character. It can seem more real with people being so close, looking at me."
As if sending out an invitation for us to come as participants in the show, she adds, "Seeing how audiences feel, I can reflect off that. And that interaction is something you really can't get from a stage."
– Guillermo Perez, ArtburstMiami.com
Dance Now! Miami's Havisham! 6:30 and 8 p.m. Wednesday, February 7, and Thursday, February 8, at the Ancient Spanish Monastery, 16711 W. Dixie Hwy., North Miami Beach; 305-975-8489; dancenowmiami.org. Tickets cost $15 to $25.