Pacific Northwest Ballet’s “New/Old” Giselle

5 Jun

I feel very distraught over blogging about Pacific Northwest Ballet’s world premiere staging of Giselle, because it’s such a beloved ballet and this isn’t just a run-of-the-mill production unique to a particular company—a lot of scholarly work went into it to the point of warranting a presentation at the Guggenheim. Furthermore, it’s the star attraction for the Dance Critics Association Conference this year, which is focusing on the topic of reconstruction, which means there are a lot of people who will be here next weekend discussing things it in intelligent ways. In the face of tremendous pressure, I can only arm myself with the fortitude gained from half a dozen Snickers ice cream bars.

As far as the academic approach is concerned, I think PNB did an excellent job of providing educational materials for the audience. The program is chock full of information, including the libretto, program notes, a historical timeline of Giselle, a three page article with photos of the original Titus, Justapant, and Stepanov manuscripts, and a breakdown of the score and sources of choreography (which is a mish-mash of the above three with interpolations by Peter Boal). It was almost too much information, even for me, who has interest in such fine details. However, one of the cooler things was the ‘Mime Guide,’ which had illustrations of many of the gestures used throughout. Here is but a small close up (sorry for the awful picture, I don’t own a scanner so this will have to do):

The one for wings I don't think I've seen before.

For the mime lovers out there, this Giselle has the most miming I’ve ever seen in my entire life. There was even some miming before the show, as Peter Boal did a funny bit where he used miming to encourage the audience to donate money. As for mime in the performance itself, for better or worse it really slows the pace of the ballet (granted, I’m not always the most patient person). While I respect mime’s historical significance in ballet, it kind of drives me crazy…but I will say that the mime in this production makes a lot of sense musically. That doesn’t mean it’s necessarily a good thing artistically, which is where the production runs into some problems—the artistic and the logical just seemed to be at odds several times throughout. Clearly, the notations used are indicative of a Giselle that was more focused on telling what would have been viewed as a coherent story at that time, and the edited versions we see today have moved far more into the realm of fantasy. However, depending on what you want to get out of the ballet, you could also see this as a more integrated story with a more sensible plot. It’s kind of like how movies and television, even sci-fi or fantasy still reflect our society in recognizable ways. The modern Giselle to us is a romanticized anachronism but if ballet fulfilled the role of entertainment in the nineteenth century than perhaps it needed to have more instances of sequential action.

Aside from the copious amounts of pantomime, I found Act I to be familiar enough, probably the one major difference being the timing in the mad scene. Normally, there’s that chaotic flurry of notes where Giselle will burst through between Bathilde and Albrecht in melodramatic fashion, but that’s not what happened here. Instead, the mad scene is more of a gradual deterioration of Giselle’s sanity, and internalized for a time before she starts reliving her romance with Albrecht. Major differences did show up, however, in additional scenes in Act II. Some productions of Giselle still do the scene with the hunters in the woods before they are scared off by the Wilis but probably not to this extent, and there is a second scene where a handful of incorrigible youths engaging in tomfoolery are warned by an old man of the Wilis, who they barely manage to escape from when the latter appear. Also, Wilfride accompanies Albrecht when he arrives at Giselle’s grave and finally at the very end, Bathilde and few of the noblemen arrive, in a brief reconciliation where the fading ghost of Giselle indicates to Albrecht that he should return to Bathilde.  The closing tableau is of Albrecht lying on the ground and facing Giselle’s grave, but with one arm extended behind him to Bathilde, who rests her head on it.

In terms of fleshing out the plot my brain was telling me the Act II additions made sense, but in the end I found them problematic because they kind of marred the sanctity of the ballet blanc. They also simultaneously undermined and enhanced the threat of the Wilis, because there was some really neat choreography in the scene where the youths and old man encounter them, but the overall effect is almost a little goofy because those characters are indeed a bit comical. Given, some stagings can take the ballet blanc too far and make it much too moony, but what I like about keeping Act II as “pure” as possible is that it has such a poetic effect. I also find such an Act II much more fascinating because it can be seen as a metaphor for dealing with grief; Hilarion succumbs to it and Albrecht must live with his remorse. However, the most interesting way to look at it would be to see the Wilis as a manifestation of that grief, which raises the question of whether they’re even real or not. Perhaps Hilarion and Albrecht were so beside themselves with sorrow, they danced (or nearly danced) to their deaths, and the Wilis were mere figments of their imaginations. I find that to be a neat juxtaposition of literal insanity in Act I with Giselle’s mad scene, to a prolonged, psychological hallucination that would be Act II. This is of course impossible to do with this version of Giselle because the additional interactions make the Wilis very real.

The "ballet blanc" or "white ballet," with Maria Chapman as Myrtha. (the Wilis' veils were flown away on wires!) Photo ©Angela Sterling

Artistic controversies aside, I’ve been worried all along that as a company that trains in the method a la Balanchine that Romantic era ballet would expose some weaknesses and it did. Overall, I think the company was just way too ahead of the beat, arriving early in certain positions and not finding ways to “fill the music” with their arms (more evident in Act I than Act II). Also, of course the open hip arabesque made a few appearances, like in the beginning when Giselle and Albrecht first dance together (in what one of my teachers called “the most notorious 6/8 in all of ballet”), I was at first interested by how low they kept their legs in the ballottés because it drew attention to the action of the feet, but on the fourth one where the dancers do an arabesque in demi-plié—zoom!—there it was. What was kind of odd was that Kaori Nakamura showed that line in the penchés in her first solo where I think she looked just a little tentative, but she was much more square in Act II and I thought she looked sensational. She was one of the dancers that really stood out to me as having the patience in musicality. (Update: I found out that Kaori’s shoe broke right before her solo! Considering the circumstances, she handled it like a pro!)

Lucien Postlewaite and Kaori Nakamura in Giselle. Photo ©Angela Sterling

Lucien Postlewaite was superb as Albrecht, although due to my issues with Act II toning down (if not eliminating) the tragedy, I don’t know that the production did his sincerity justice. For some reason, he does remind me a bit of Alina Cojocaru…he has a bit of that doe-eyed youthful look, but with a significant splash of devilry—like if Alina had a mischievous brother. Lucien showed marvelous batterie in Act II, and I really liked Albrecht’s choreography here…it was kind of weird to see the cabriole series (which normally come after Giselle’s iconic soubresauts) in the variation in lieu of the diagonal with double tours, but it wasn’t a bad change and overall there were a lot of jumps that aren’t seen so often in male dancing anymore. Lucien did do the entrechat sixes, and I didn’t want to count them but I knew you people would want to know and the answer is sixteen. They were followed by tour jeté city and a manège for good measure, in a truly exhausting danse macabre. I have to say that Albrecht spends a lot of time on the ground for this one, falling to the floor a grand total of something like four times (looks like my black cat powers are getting stronger…I swear, every time I see him!).

Lucien’s Albrecht variation:

In other news, a gold star for Jerome Tisserand, who was flawless in the Peasant Pas de Deux. He has the upper body carriage that is well suited for Romantic ballet, and though he is a corps member he did perform as Franz in Coppélia last year and I was really hoping he would get to do Albrecht, but unfortunately not this time around. I hope he rises through the ranks and gets promoted so he can have that opportunity in the future. I also enjoyed Chalnessa Eames as Berthe because she really invests a lot into her acting, as did Jeff Stanton in the role of Hilarion (they’re both leaving at the end of the season and will definitely be missed!).

Well, that just about wraps it up, though I have some links of interest if you’re hungry for more, including an archived video of the Works and Process presentation at the Guggenheim, as well as Pacific Northwest Ballet’s YouTube channel, which has several great videos of rehearsal footage and dancer interviews about Giselle.

5 Responses to “Pacific Northwest Ballet’s “New/Old” Giselle”

  1. karenashg June 7, 2011 at 6:30 am #

    As always, it’s really great (and informative) to read your thoughts. But you know me–I’ve got to give you a little bit of a hard time for calling the restorations back towards the original libretto (like Albrecht and Bathilde reunited at the end) “additions” 🙂 I think that originally, Albrecht and Bathilde walk off together, arm in arm, so Boal’s ending would be a compromise–but I could be misremembering, and the book I could look it up in is packed to be moved. Anyway…

    Usually I’m “meh” about long mime sequences, but even though there was more mime than modern audiences are used to, I found myself much more engaged by it than I usually am. I think it was because it was musically coherent, instead of squeezed in randomly between dancing. Marian Smith’s book about Giselle talks in detail about how originally, the music and mime were coordinated such that the music mimicked or suggested the speech rhythms and sounds of the “dialogue.” Also, the motifs and instrumentation were originally very carefully worked out to go with different characters, and you could definitely see that restored in PNB’s performance.

    You really should read Smith’s book–it’s really informative about both Giselle and the wider dance and theater of the time. Just by reading about a different time and theatrical expectations, you can start to see better the things we take for granted as expectations today.

    • youdancefunny June 7, 2011 at 9:46 am #

      I know…I really wasn’t thinking about the meaning of “addition” too much. I will pick up Smith’s book (after this monster of Apollo’s Angels), and I actually saw her walking out of PNB one day…the questions!

      Which cast did you see? I heard Carla got a standing ovation (not surprised). I heard from Olivier that Kaori’s shoe broke right before her Act I variation! She didn’t think she’d even be able to do the hops.

      • karenashg June 7, 2011 at 1:04 pm #

        I saw opening night (I was Kristen’s date for the Seattle Dances review). Carla was amazing, Carrie Imler was terrifying and authoritative and took my breath away (but I’m biased because I’ve been in love with her for years. I’ve seen her a couple times in open class and been way too shy to say anything, but I think I may have to now if I see her again.) And I loved the tempos. From the overture I was thinking “oh, this should be good” when I heard the attack and verve with which they were playing.

        Hooray for Kaori for soldiering on! Of course, if she didn’t have such arched feet, the shoe breaking wouldn’t be such an issue (she said jealously)… You know, I’ve never broken a shoe wearing it–usually I’m breaking the shoe in order to wear it.

        At any rate, I was super impressed with the performance, especially since I don’t think of PNB as “Giselle” sort of company, and they really blew me away with how well they carried it off. It really speaks to the versatility and level of dancers and artistic direction that they have right now.

      • youdancefunny June 7, 2011 at 1:57 pm #

        Yes! I’m all about the Carrie love…she’s great in everything I’ve seen her in thus far, and I’m not surprised that she is a steely, magnificent Myrtha! I was still seeing just a little too much SAB, but I think you’re on to something regarding the versatility because they really do have some dancers that can run with the acting, and it’s interesting that starting last year with Coppelia, they’re adding one new production of a story ballet a year (this season is Giselle, next is Ratmansyk’s DonQ). That’s a fact I’m realizing I’ve been taking for granted since Coppelia and DonQ aren’t my favorites…but I’m willing to bet there aren’t many companies doing that right now.


  1. PNB Unveils a GiselleThat’s Mainly Something Old | The SunBreak - June 7, 2011

    […] Körbes displays, but no one but a balletomane, I think, will be mentally making the notes that You Dance Funny provides: Major differences did show up, however, in additional scenes in Act II. Some productions […]

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