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Why we need the classics
American Ballet Theatre revitalizes Giselle

Whenever a ballet company programs one of the half-dozen classics in the repertory, a chorus of blasé groans arises from the dance community. I admit I was underwhelmed when FleetBoston Celebrity Series and the Wang Center informed us that all five performances by American Ballet Theatre would consist of a single story ballet, Le Corsaire. The prospect improved significantly when logistical problems necessitated a switch to Giselle, but the threat of encroaching Disneyfication remains. Do local dancegoers always have to be coaxed to buy their tickets with promises of the most palatable, tried-and-true, escapist dance fare?

Ballet can’t survive on its past alone, but good rescensions of the classics are something we need to have around, as touchstones, models, and a source of purest dance pleasure. Giselle is perhaps the most admirable of these historic survivors. It can hold psychological, theatrical, and choreographic challenges for contemporary interpreters with its finely wrought score by Adolphe Adam and a plot no less plausible than a James Bond movie.

ABT’s lost world of peasants and nobles who make fatal mistakes and are punished by supernatural forces achieved a tricky balance: it looked authentic but not generic or dated. Authentic is a loaded word, since Giselle — like every other 19th-century ballet and many more recent ones — is a pastiche of things handed down and newly reproduced, things remembered and gaps repaired, adaptations to modern theater practice and dancers and audiences. None of us was there in 1841 to verify what the original Giselle looked like, and no documentation would have been foolproof enough to ensure that every step, every gesture, every floor pattern would stay the same for 160 years. A modern Giselle is always a supposition, a best guess.

ABT’s version incorporates choreography by half a dozen ballet masters besides its successive ÒoriginalÓ creator-adapters, Jean Coralli, Jules Perrot, and Marius Petipa, but its current staging is credited to artistic director Kevin McKenzie. The dŽcor (by Gianni Quaranta) and costumes (Anna Anni) are holdovers from the 1985 movie Dancers, and the score has been orchestrated by John Lanchbery. All these hands have artfully retrofitted the ballet for modern eyes and ears. What I liked so much about it was its clarity and its attention to the many interwoven themes in the story.

Giselle takes place in two contrasting but mutually accommodating spheres, the real and the supernatural. The country winemakers live an orderly, predictable life under their royal patrons, but at night, spirits inhabit the forest, with their own social codes and magic. The inclusion of peasants, princes, and Wilis obviously makes for a spectrum of dance opportunities, but in narrative terms, I’ve never been so aware of three distinct social strata as in this production.

The villagers wear pale green and gray against an autumnal landscape. When the Prince of Courland’s hunting party stops by for a rest at the inn of Giselle’s mother, the peasants gather excitedly to watch the royal visit. As the entourage sweeps in, with its Russian wolfhounds and spear carriers and courtiers dressed in silk and velvet in shades of maroon and black, the pastoral space suddenly becomes more vivid, perhaps even harsh. Later, in the haunted forest, a luminous sky can be seen beyond the trees, but the woods are really dark except when something flashes by in the distance, lightning perhaps, or a passing Wili. These things happen much the same way in all versions of Giselle, but Jennifer Tipton’s masterful lighting transforms the scene and intensifies all the effects.

The story of the ballet is based on class differences anyway, but Tipton and the other creators of this production have emphasized the social context in which a fate like Giselle’s is possible. Seduced by a nobleman, she risks her whole future by giving herself to him. Her mother knows the secret of the Wilis, that jilted girls will die and return to take revenge on their deceivers. It’s a certainty that Albrecht will betray Giselle, and her mother foresees the consequences, though she issues a more practical warning: Giselle has a weak heart and overexertion is dangerous. But Giselle invites her girl friends to dance with her, foreshadowing the feminine community of the Wilis she’s doomed to join. They crown her queen of the harvest, but she’ll trade this earthly existence under the royal patrons for a restless afterlife ruled by a spirit queen, Myrtha.

The whole ballet is filled with echoes and portents. Giselle teaches Albrecht a little country dance. After discovering he’s engaged to the princess Bathilde, she stumbles through the same steps, as if trying to cling to her reason. Feverish from shock and too much dancing, she dies. In act two a deeply repentent Albrecht visits her grave in the forest, and she sets out to save him from being danced to death by the Wilis. When she first appears to him, they recall their first companionable, side-by-side courting with a parallel dance, only now they face in different directions on crisscrossing paths; they can’t inhabit the same world any more. Another example: the Wilis and Myrtha cross their arms over their breasts in the mime gesture for death, and when Albrecht tries to capture the ghost of Giselle, his empty embrace closes into the same corpselike pose.

Despite the melodrama and spectacle — or maybe because of it — the heart of Giselle is its dancing. Unlike the later high classics (Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty), in which dance is a separate action that interrupts the story, the romantic ballets weave dancing into the story, through style, steps, and staging. The peasants in Giselle’s act one do folklike dances. Special friends and Giselle’s village suitor, Hilarion, can behave with more classical refinements, and when Giselle asks two friends to dance for the nobility, the Peasant Pas de Deux expands into a more virtuosic entertainment. Opening night this was performed by Herman Cornejo, who jumps without any seeming effort at all, and Xiomara Reyes, who stressed the frilly soubrette qualities of the role.

Albrecht and Giselle get most of the bravura dancing — in the first act it sprouts directly out of their courtship, and in the second it’s an extended adagio that begins in sorrow and broadens into urgent lifts and leaps as the couple try to thwart Myrtha and the Wilis. The unison dancing of the Wilis has become a test of classical fidelity for a corps de ballet. They don’t just pose and shift their line-ups in obedience to Myrtha’s commands. They surge forward like arrows in pursuit of Hilarion and Albrecht. They travel in hopping arabesque, as creatures eternally bound to both the earth and the air.

The first of ABT’s four casts offered authoritative dancing and thoughtful characterizations by all the principals. Paloma Herrera’s Giselle, a beaming, happy girl at first, began the famous Òmad sceneÓ with an interesting denial. When the jealous Hilarion exposes Albrecht as a nobleman in disguise, Herrera closes her eyes. She’s not refusing to believe this deception; she’s probably known it all along and can accept it if Albrecht loves her. What really unhinges her is the subsequent discovery that he has a noble fiancŽe already. She descends into hysteria and runs frantically back and forth among the assembled villagers. A moment of recognition in her mother’s arms, and then she rushes toward some invisible command and dies as Albrecht tries to catch her.

Herrera’s Albrecht, Marcelo Gomes, was big and beautiful. He focused on her totally, instead of trying to get her to look at him. You could almost believe that he was going to keep his promises to Giselle. Ethan Stiefel the next night clearly was infatuated by Xiomara Reyes, but his admiration was tempered by a playboy’s self-assurance, the knowledge that he’d leave as soon as he tired of her.

Former Boston Ballet corps member Karin Ellis-Wentz as Giselle’s mother opening night was thin and wary, almost puritanical. The next night Susan Jones in the role was ample and warm. Both of them performed the prophetic mime scene in a spacious way, showing everyone the place beyond the village where the mysterious spirits lurked, the untimely death that lay in store if Giselle wasn’t careful, and the way she’d rise from the grave as a Wili to fly through the trees.

Two characters who usually get portrayed in stereotyped ways gained vital new identities. Princess Bathilde, Albrecht fiancŽe, is usually a haughty woman who’s probably picked him as a suitably aristocratic marriage partner. It was odd to see Monique Meunier, who joined ABT last year after some promising years in New York City Ballet, playing a mime role, but she did it wonderfully. She was not only grand but a snob, and the rest of the aristocrats followed suit, treating the peasants like servants and discreetly holding their costumes clear of the dust.

The Myrtha on opening night, Gillian Murphy, can only be called sublime. Murphy is tall and red-haired, pale and implacable. She materialized with a series of pas de bourrŽe — tiny, rapid sidesteps across the stage, so light and smooth she might really be a shadow. She circled regally in arabesque, invoking whatever evil magic Wilis use to possess a space, and then, with the most chilling gestures, commanded her subjects to rise from the ground for their nightly ritual. You knew Giselle was up against a terrific power, and when she defeated Myrtha by keeping Albrecht alive until dawn, you realized a remarkable act of love had taken place.

Issue Date: November 21 - 28, 2002
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