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Jack Anderson

A New Old "Giselle" in Seattle


Pacific Northwest Ballet
McCaw Hall, Seattle
June 3-12, 2011

Dance Critics Association 2011 Conference
Pacific Northwest Ballet's Phelps Center, Seattle
June 9-12, 2011
Commentary by Jack Anderson, June 25, 2011

Pacific Northwest Ballet principal dancers Lucien Postlewaite as Albrecht, and Kaori Nakamura as Giselle. Photo by Angela Sterling.

Balletgoers love "Giselle": it's a good story, this tale of an innocent peasant lass who doesn't realize that the young man she loves and who appears to love her, is really Duke Albrecht, a nobleman in disguise already betrothed to a woman of high rank. It's a drama of duplicity and betrayal in which, after dying, Giselle becomes a Wili, a spirit who must drive men to their own deaths. Nevertheless, her love proves strong and pure enough to reach beyond the grave to save Albrecht from his fate and, perhaps, herself, as well.

Based on a libretto by Jules Henry Vernoy de Saint-Georges and Théophile Gautier and choreographed by Jean Coralli and Jules Perrot to a score by Adolphe Adam, "Giselle" received its world premiere at the Paris Opéra on June 28, 1841. Soon, it was staged throughout Europe, and today many productions exist, most of them effective and, remarkably enough, similar choreographically.

"Giselle" has been largely spared the insensitive tinkering that has virtually ruined some stagings of such other 19th-century classics as "Swan Lake" and "Sleeping Beauty." And now Pacific Northwest Ballet of Seattle has given us a "Giselle" to which scores of curious ballet lovers flocked, including members of the Dance Critics Association whose annual conference coincided with the final performances in the ballet's run. Several conference sessions were devoted to "Giselle" in general and the Seattle version in particular. What we saw and cheered was a production that remained faithful to 19th-century concepts of choreography and dramatic action, yet seemed not a relic, but very much alive. There is no other "Giselle" quite like it.

This "Giselle" could not have come existed without notation, a fact that must have delighted the conference's keynote speaker, Ann Hutchinson Guest, surely the world's foremost authority on dance notation (she says she has studied 25 of the 85 known systems) and a tireless advocate for dance preservation. Manuscripts in three notation forms helped make this "Giselle" possible.

The oldest, a rehearsal score now housed in the Theater Museum in St. Petersburg and believed to date from 1842, was brought to that city by the Parisian ballet master Antoine Titus to aid him in staging "Giselle" there. The fact that it apparently was prepared not long after the ballet's premiere makes it of unusual interest. But, like the other notation manuscripts, it is incomplete: it records few actual dances. What makes it invaluable is the way it links copious verbal descriptions of the mime scenes to specific moments in Adam's music, as set down in an arrangement for violin and cello. As a result, it is possible to see how every musical note, phrase, and shift in key and tempo is related to the dramatic action, and it increases one's admiration for Adam as a theatrical composer.

Pacific Northwest Ballet principal dancer Maria Chapman as Myrtha, Queen of the Wilis. Photo by Angela Sterling.

The second document is a staging manual from the 1860's by another ballet master, Henri Justamant (whose surname was sometimes spelled Justament ). Long unknown, the manuscript suddenly turned up in 2002 in a flea market in Regensburg, Germany, and is currently in the Deutsche Tanzarchiv in Cologne. This text includes descriptions in French of both mime and dance sequences with hundreds of illustrative stick-figure drawings. But despite such detail, it, too, is incomplete.

The third resource, now housed at Harvard, is a collection of "Giselle" manuscripts dating from 1899 to 1903 in Stepanov notation, the most common 19th-century notation system in Russia. These are of enormous value, for they record various staging ideas of Marius Petipa, the great French choreographer who settled in St. Petersburg and became the czar of Russian ballet. All current "Giselle" productions derive from his ideas. Theoretically, his notations should be priceless, and to a great extent they are. Yet they are not a complete godsend , for they include mostly lower-body movements with few indications for torso, head, and arms, and the mime notation is rudimentary.

So here we have three scores, or as Peter Boal, Pacific Northwest Ballet's artistic director, put it, "three smorgasbords" from three points in the 19th-century, all invaluable, yet all inadequate. Although inept attempts to correlate them might result in a total mess, the Seattle "Giselle" is both intelligent and eloquent, thanks to the three people who guided it. Boal, a former principal dancer of the New York City Ballet where he impressed audiences with his concern for the proper style of each work he performed, supervised the overall staging, while the tasks of and picking and choosing among the notations and interpreting the period choreography fell to two specialists in balletic Romanticism: Doug Fullington, assistant to artistic director Boal and an authority on Stepanov notation, and Marian Smith, a musicologist and dance historian from the University of Oregon. They surely worked harmoniously together and inspired the Seattle dancers, for what they came up with is theatrically exciting.

They said in panel discussions that everything in their production has some sort of source in the notations. That's not quite true. The second act includes the high overhead lifts in the pas de deux for Giselle and Albrecht that Soviet companies introduced into the ballet. Although the lifts are spectacular, they are yet stylistically out of place and can make this duet involving a supposedly immaterial spirit seem a demonstration of weightlifting. Boal conceded this, yet confessed that he liked those lifts, and so he retained them.

Veteran "Giselle" watchers may wonder, and with more than a little trepidation, "Well, how does this ‘Giselle' differ from the one we've always known?" They will be relieved to learn that the answer is, "It's not all that different. There are no weird surprises." At the same time, there are significant differences. But it is fascinating to ponder the fact that a ballet of 1841 has survived with so few major changes. That it has is a tribute to the dedication of those old ballet masters who for decades taught fresh generations of dancers choreography they knew and liked.

Pacific Northwest Ballet principal dancer Maria Chapman as Myrtha, queen of the Wilis. Photo by Angela Sterling.

As for the differences, several are worth discussing: for instance, tempos. Correlating the notations and the musical scores, the reconstructors discovered that the 19th-century "Giselle" is, much of the time, a speedy one. It certainly does not permit ballerinas to drag out phrases with agonizingly soulful slowness, as some stars of today do. Much of the choreography emphasizes the small quick steps with many jumps and beats that ballet teachers term petit allegro. These days, such steps are often associated with the brilliant 19th-century Danish choreographer August Bournonville. But this "Giselle" makes it clear that he was not the only choreographer of the time to use them well: for Bournonville and the creators of "Giselle," petit allegro was a standard part of their technical vocabulary. The abundance of such steps also refutes the notion, sometimes advanced by smug dancers and pedagogues, that dancers of our time can dance faster than dancers of yesteryear: not so, this "Giselle" proclaims.

Some scenes in this production are longer and more elaborate than their contemporary equivalents. Take the sequence in which the Wilis drive Hilarion to his death. Both then and now it includes a long ominous diagonal line of threatening Wilis. But in the notation, as reproduced in Seattle, groups of white-clothed Wilis also hound Hilarion by forming little circles around him, sending him back and forth as if he were being attacked by swarms of malicious white bees.

The Seattle "Giselle" is filled with mime, much more mime than most productions now retain. Mime has acquired a bad reputation, largely because many people have come to regard it as a poor substitute for dancing. But such a movement hierarchy did not exist in the past when mime and dance were considered equally valid forms of expressive movement and audiences were expected to comprehend mimetic gestures, just as devotees of Kabuki or classical Indian dance understand the movements traditionally associated with those genres. Today, dancers and audiences alike tend to be mimetically illiterate. Yet many mime gestures are quite comprehensible; to assist audiences, the Seattle program obligingly included an illustrated guide to mime, and even when the precise meaning of a mimed passage is unclear to us, its urgency may suggest its general emotional import. The Seattle dancers, although not always expert in mime, still moved as if they believed in it and relished its challenges.

Pacific Northwest Ballet principal dancer Kaori Nakamura as Giselle, with PNB company dancers. Photo by Angela Sterling.

The production is rich in detail and permits a range of interpretations, as I found by seeing two of the company's four sets of principals. On June 9, Lesley Rausch stressed Giselle's lyricism, while Batkhurel Bold was a sturdy Albrecht. The next night, Kaori Nakamura was a vivacious Giselle, and Lucien Postlewaite's Albrecht believably progressed from playboy to penitent. As to whether Giselle is a suicide or dies of a heart attack (long a matter of dispute), their readings of the historical documents led the stagers to opt for a heart attack. This Giselle may have a weak heart, but she also has a strong will.

Two characterizations are of special interest. Today , Hilarion, the gamekeeper who also loves Giselle, is often portrayed as either a rough villainous older man or, following the lead of Soviet productions that possibly could not countenance an unsympathetic working-class character, as a rather sweet, even sentimental, young fellow. As both Jeffrey Stanton (June 9) and Jerome Tisserand (June 10) made clear, the Seattle Hilarion does indeed love Giselle, but his basic roughness makes him unacceptable to her. So, too, there is a nuanced conception of Bathilde, Albrecht's official fiancée, a character often portrayed as only a snooty aristocrat. But Laura Gilbreath (June 9) and Stacy Lowenberg (June 10) made her likeable and warm-hearted in interpretations that did much to affect one's reaction to the ballet's conclusion. But more about that a bit later.

The first act bustles with mimetic conversation, including some believable crowd reactions to Giselle's mad scene. As a result, the cool beauty of the second act, with its spectral Wilis, serves as an effective contrast to such liveliness. Ensemble groupings are especially lovely, among them poses that seem to prefigure some that Michel Fokine devised for "Les Sylphides," his masterful tribute to Romanticism, which achieved its definitive form in 1909. Although at least some of this "Giselle" choreography turns up in the Stepanov manuscripts, it is unclear whether and when it went in and out of "Giselle" in St. Petersburg or whether Fokine ever saw it on stage. Smith thinks it theoretically conceivable that he did. He might also have seen prints depicting the poses.

Pacific Northwest Ballet company dancers as the ghostly Wilis. Photo by Angela Sterling.

Most second acts today begin in a realistic way, although the specific action can vary from staging to staging. In some, Hilarion fashions a cross to place on Giselle's grave. Seattle's shows huntsmen drinking in the moonlit forest until Hilarion shoos them off by warning them that the place is haunted. Other details in that act which might sound strange if only described, as perhaps they do in this description, proved remarkably convincing when seen on stage. For instance, after the ghostly drama is well underway its mood is interrupted by peasants stumbling through the forest in a slightly comic manner, only to be frightened away by the Wilis. This odd intrusion, far from being merely bumptious, ultimately heightens the drama, for it indicates that "Giselle" takes place in a world in which many types of reality intermingle: the earthy and the airy, the material and the spiritual, a world inhabited by rich and poor, princes and peasants. Moreover, choreographic monotony never sets in, simply because so many types of different things happen.

"Giselle" becomes a more complex drama than the one we are accustomed to, a drama of almost Shakespearean dimensions. Many years ago, I saw a production of "Othello" in which, after leaning over the slain Desdemona, Othello cried, "I kiss'd thee ere I killed thee; no way but this,/ Killing myself to die upon a kiss," whereupon the curtain suddenly descended. But that's not quite Shakespeare's ending. Lodovico is left to send Iago to prison and to order Gratiano to claim Othello's fortunes.

Pacific Northwest Ballet principal dancers Kaori Nakamura as Giselle and Lucien Postlewaite as Albrecht. Photo by Angela Sterling.

Despite the mayhem, order is restored. So it happens in other Shakespearean tragedies. Although Hamlet says, "The rest is silence" as he dies, things stay far from silent on stage. Horatio and Fortinbras remain, again to proclaim order and to honor Hamlet with "The soldiers' music and the rites of war." And in "Romeo and Juliet," amid the carnage, Lord Montague and Lord Capulet join hands in reconciliation and the Prince announces, "A glooming peace this morning with it brings," glooming, yes, but peace nonetheless.

Current stagings of "Giselle" end with Albrecht, either standing in melancholic contemplation or stretched upon the ground in a paroxysm of grief. Either way can be heart-wrenching to behold, but both are equivalents of that old "Othello": they fail to tell us that, as the work was originally conceived, there was more to come. People who investigated the history of "Giselle" long ago discovered that more did come: the courtiers and Bathilde entered the forest and she and Albrecht were reconciled. The one time prior to the Seattle production when I saw a company attempt this original ending was in the early 1960's when the Royal Ballet offered it in San Francisco: it seemed so anticlimactic and hastily tacked on that it prompted the audience to titters. The Royal soon reverted to what had become the familiar ending.

But Pacific Northwest Ballet included that final reconciliation and it looked poignant, thanks to sympathetic coaching of the action as described in the notation manuscripts, which had already established Bathilde as a sympathetic figure. In Seattle, Bathilde consoled Albrecht. And Giselle, before sinking back into her grave, indicated with a noble mimetic gesture of renunciation that she was willing to let Bathilde claim him. A form of Shakespearean order was thereby established.

With a staging that is both historically informed and theatrically compelling, Boal, Fullington, and Smith have created a "Giselle" of exceptional interest, one that enhances this beloved classic by revealing new facets of dramatic meaning while at the same time enriching our ideas regarding the interplay of dance and mime. Pacific Northwest Ballet has made "Giselle" live anew.

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