Sunday, June 05, 2011


Four Giselles

That's right, four. That's how many Giselles I've seen this year--three at ABT and one at the Royal. It is not as many as a die-hard balletomane would go and see, but it's still quite a lot. By the time I was going to my fourth Giselle, my husband looked at me incredulously: "You really like that ballet." "It's the casts. The production," I said. "That's why I keep going."

Giselle is a classic. Each time I see it, I learn something new, even if the dancing is not top notch. The themes and the choreography are really that deep. Giselle is an example of that thing they always tell you about storytelling and art--if you go deep, people will see things and find things that you yourself the creator didn't even realize you were putting in the work.

Giselle is about dancing and love and betrayal and ghosts and death. The girl, Giselle, loves this guy Loys, only, Loys is really Albrecht. He's a prince and he's engaged to a girl named Bathilde. At one point, Giselle and Bathilde even meet and despite their difference in class, get all girly with each other and talk about their boyfriends. The hunter, Hilarion, has a massive crush on Giselle and is suspicious of Loys. As it turns out, Hilarion figures out that Loys is really a prince and tells Giselle, who dies of a broken heart. Later, Loys/Albrecht and Hilarion separately go to Giselle's grave because they are sad. Of course, they conveniently go at night, the very best time to visit a graveyard. Giselle shows up as a ghost, but because of the way she died (dancing, before her wedding night), must join band of pissed off ghost sisters called the Willi who force any men they meet to dance till they die. Hilarion dies first. Albrecht looks like a goner, except that Giselle's love saves him and he makes it until dawn when the Willi all disappear.

There's plenty of modern day Twighlight and Gossip Girl sensibility mixed in with a Wuthering Heights type vibe and anything else romantic and tortured in this story. Much depends on the interpreter. For example: is Albrecht just a player? Is he in love with Giselle? Or, is his seduction some kind of game? Here's an interpretation with Natalia Osipova and Ivan Vasiliev of the Bolshoi.

Albrecht is kind of like: yeah, I don't want to deal with your crazy when the royals are around.

Now look at this version, fast forwarding to around 1:47. This version stars Natalia Makarova and Baryshnikov.

Here, Albrecht looks like he feels pretty bad. And this is what they say about Baryshnikov--that he changed the way that Albrecht is played. In Baryshnikov's version of Giselle, we the audience are watching a true love story from the beginning. There's another great version on Youtube which I can't embed, but which is from 1956 and stars Galina Ulanova. In that version, Albrecht is actually annoyed by Giselle when she goes mad. Even today, Albrecht is played differently.

Ditto for Giselle, and ditto for someone supporting like Hilarion. The standard ABT version is to have Hilarion and his plodding theme song make him seem like a stalker.

One of the pleasures of the Royal Ballet version which I wrote about here, is that Hilarion comes through as a very human person who just really cared about Giselle. At ABT, most Hilarions behaved creepily--except for Jared Matthews, whose nuanced and sensitive portrayal made me sit up and pay attention. Because he seems like a decent guy, you feel pretty bad in Act Two when he dies.

And then there were the ABT Giselles themselves: Hee Seo, Alina Cojocaru and Diana Vishneva. There are many ways to be a Giselle. Is she, for example, already unhealthy and is that why she goes mad and dies in Act One? Certainly the way that Vishneva played Giselle made our heroine seem unearthly from the start. Or is she an earthly, girlish girl who just loves to dance and feels things a bit too much, like Cojocaru?

Is she healthy? In fact, is she so healthy, she seems a little bit nuts and *that's* why she goes crazy later?

There are countless ways to think about Giselle and to interpret her dancing. And the the choices made in the first act impact the second. Here's Vishneva (I don't have a clip of her from act one) after she is made part of the undead. She's beyond ethereal.

Now Cojocaru.

Differences? For me, Alina is like something out of the spirit world. She's so febrile (I've never actually used that word before because it's never fit anything or anyone until now). At times, watching her dance live, I thought she'd escaped her body. In one very small moment, she dropped a bunch of flowers on her Albrecht, played by David Hallberg and then bourreed off the stage. The movement was the kind of thing I've always read about, but never seen. She skimmed the stage. She practically took off. Toe shoes were invented for that kind of gravity-defying behavior. You always read about how thrilled audiences in the 18th century were to see women skim the ground on their toes. It's rarely thrilling now. Except, when Cojocaru exited the stage, I and everyone else in the audience gasped. It was astonishing.

Vishneva's Giselle is also ethereal, but silky. She is moving through water. She's a beautiful thing from a dream. And this is why Albrecht can't stay away from her and why she goes mad and then appears as a Wili. She's a beautiful and unearthly creature from the start. Vishneva--more than any other dancer I know--is able to be beautiful from the word "Go." She knows how to cast a spell. That's also her downfall, because she can rely on her ability to project beauty and it can hamper her performance (I'm thinking of the time I saw her in Sylvia, where she wasn't able to rely on the whole beauty thing, and her dancing felt flat and false). But she is absolutely, breathtakingly gorgeous from start to finish.

Cojocaru's journey in a way is harder, because she starts out very much alive, and then transforms into a spirit. Her artistic choice for me is all about transformation. As such, it's absolutely awesome to behold such a physical change. Her performance was also--to me at least--more uneven. There were moments where she didn't dance, but appeared to just be natural. There were moments when she and Hallberg didn't connect the way that Gomes and Vishneva consistently did. There were moments where I wasn't sure what was happening. But the final transformation was something to behold. And I didn't notice or mind her feet at all--I was focused on her and her dancing.

All the Giselles I saw at ABT were good--and technically stronger than the one at the Royal earlier this year. The Vishneva/Gomes partnership probably had the strongest impact on me--and that is in part because of Marcelo Gomes' strong acting and dancing. In act two, when Albrecht is dancing for his life, Gomes made it really look like he was dancing and was exhausted (but still beautiful). He threw his head back during his cabrioles. He looked at Myrtha, queen of the Wilis, and pleaded with her to let him stop. It was all highly effective. And because Gomes is so confident, so clearly a man who has been in love and understands and can play with sexual attraction, his courting of Giselle and act one was electric. By the time she'd died, I felt and believed in their love. And, because of this, and because of the dancing and acting choices made, I really felt in act two that Albrecht required Giselle's protection. This provided for a drama in the second act that I rarely get to see.

This kind of intimacy is harder for Hallberg to establish in Giselle, mostly because I think he's probably not a cad. It would probably not occur to him to be a cad to someone. His Albrecht comes off more like a Siegfried from Swan Lake--a thoughtful, romantic man in search of something greater and more interesting than what he can find at the palace. Sleeping Beauty, Swan Lake and even Romeo and Juliet are set up to accommodate princes like this--Albrecht is a bit different. So it was much harder for me to believe that Hee Seo and Hallberg, and Cojocaru and Hallberg were in love.

On the other hand, because Cojocaru has this uncanny ability to really transform from a living, sensitive, alive girl to a dead one who can float, I was able for the first time to really understand that Albrecht cannot see Giselle at first when they meet at her grave. Some choreography:

And suddenly--after seeing so many Giselles (and believe me having seen many more in years past), the story and the choreography seemed novel and genius yet again. I realized you simply can't take in everything that the story has to offer with one go around.

Hee Seo, who is one of my favorite young dancers, gave a strong debut. I didn't love her Giselle as much as her Juliet, which arrived on stage fully formed. The critics have not been so nice about Seo's Giselle and this upsets me, because her Juliet is truly, truly astonishing. Because I know she has such a strong performer instinct, I don't doubt the Giselle will come with time. Watching Seo dance Giselle, I thought to myself what a complex role it really is, how every moment requires not only dancing, but dramatic choices. And watching someone do it for the first time, after watching veterans, I was reminded of just how complex a piece of artistry Giselle actually is.

Finally, a few more thoughts. Here is the way Giselle rises from her grave in the Royal Ballet production:

The ABT version: (you have to ff to 9:30).

And this for me highlights one of the many differences between the styles of the two companies--there was so much care in the storytelling that the Royal puts on. Note the location of the two graves and the eeriness of Giselle's appearance in the first clip--and how it really fits the music.

Other notes: Yuriko Kajiya turned her solo as a Wili in a gorgeously crafted piece of dance. I remember Gabrielle Brown years ago--still in the corps--did the same little solo and we all applauded. She was promoted. I admire everything Kajiya has done this year. Such care. Stella Abrera so impressed me as Myrtha. I know her fans wish she could have a turn as Giselle. Well, so do I. The orchestra might want to slow down a bit in places--Cojocaru is great at playing with tempii and phrasing. It's not a bad thing to think about. I don't like Cojo's hair down in Act 1. It's stringy. I don't mind stringy hair during the mad scene, but wish she had pinned her hair up and brought it down later. Thank God for Simkin's peasant pas de deux. Wonderful jumps. Would like to see him do something more substantial.


American Ballet Theater: Mixed Reperatory

Yes, I've been very busy writing about Japan, but I am honoring all my ballet tickets and making it through the very heavy ballet season. I'd meant to write a post about what you should see--if you have kids, if you hate tragedy, if you like to experiment, if you want to see "stars," etc, but simply ran out of time. Maybe next year.

I started out the season by going watch Alina Cojocaru and Jose Carreno in Don Quixote, a ballet I've actually never managed to sit through in the past. But I made myself stay for Cojo and Carreno--this will probably be the last time I'll ever see him dance, which makes me extremely sad as he is a wonderful dancer, partner and performer. All the same, the ballet--even with Cojo's dedication and showmanship--didn't win me over. I felt like I'd been to the circus. Sascha Radetsky was replaced (due to injury) by Gennadi Savaliev, who appeared to be marking the steps. Maria Riccetto is a gorgeous woman in person, but somehow always appears pinched on stage. Why does life do this? It's not fair. Some people who are really good looking in person simply fade on the stage. Others who are odd looking in person come alive under the lights. Cojo was charming and earnest and you could not help but love her good-naturedness. But I needed something more, and this video of Osipova which I've watched repeatedly didn't help make me feel that an opportunity had somehow not been missed.

At any rate--I did enjoy seeing Simone Messmer and Joseph Phillips as Gypsies. I'd been curious about both dancers and was happy to have a glimpse of the "edginess" that Messmer is known for. I'd like to see more of her. And Phillips has grown on stage--much more presence than the last time I saw him.

Shallow points--Cojo's feet really bothered me. Much as been said and written about her bunions and how this is not her fault and how she has to wear extra wide shoes as a result. But must she cut the fabric off the bottom of her shoes so a raggedy edge is waving around as she dances and is visible all the way in the Dress Circle where I was sitting? I get that dancers don't have time any more to darn their points, but the raggedy edge was distracting.

With that complaining out of the way, I'll move on to the joy that was the Mixed Program. What is a mixed program? Well, it's a program in which non-related, shorter dances are performed by different casts. It's the way most of New York City Ballet performs. Think of it as a kind of "set list," like if you went to a jazz gig and heard different songs performed by the same band with different players sitting in at different points. It's like that.

First, a piece by Alexei Ratmansky, who's just accepted a 10 year contract with ABT. And just in time too, because the company needs some fresh blood who can choreograph new pieces and show that ballet is a living, relevant art form. And I say this as someone who loves and believes in ballet. Dumbarton, an ensemble work set to music by Stravinksy, featured a mixture of corps, soloist and principal dancers, including a personal favorite, Michele Wiles, who lately seems underappreciated and underutilized to me. Wiles is a virtuoso, but also a performer. She also has a scary and unpredictable quality that Ratmansky brought out in the pas de deux he created for her. This makes me hopeful that he'll continue to bring out what is best in her and that she'll continue to have the chance to dance better and newer pieces. Her Odile/Odette (Swan Lake) is one of the best out there and, again, underappreciated. Go if you can.

Dumbarton, though, is a piece that one needs to see more than once. Like everything Ratmansky does, it's thoroughly musical and while logical--nothing feels like the work of an automaton--it's not predictable. Like the best novel--you feel the story unfolding in an organic fashion but can't predict where it is going--Dumbarton is a little revelation. Most of all, I was just happy to see such great and strong dancing from all levels of the company. It's a sign of what could be and what Ratmansky could bring not just to ABT but to New York. After some trips to see dancing across the street where the men are not so universally strong, I was happy to see such bold and confident movement.

Dumbarton was followed by Troika, a work by Benjamin Millepied. Google him if you need to know who he is and why he has been in the news lately. I was so relieved to see Sascha Radetsky dancing here after missing him in Don Q, and grateful that between the two dances he chose Troika instead. Troika also feature Daniil Simkin, whose dancing and intelligence I've admired in the past and Alexander Hammoudi, a corps member whose athletic but inward quality make him unusually magnetic--like a dark haired Hallberg. I wasn't much of a fan of the choreography. It felt--to use a writing term--verbose. You know how you read a book by a contemporary writer who is getting lots of buzz and that writer talks and talks and talks and after a while you think: Oh, right, you are jabbering away because there is no there there? Well, that's how I felt about Troika. It was there--why? We had to fill the stage with all the movement . . . because? I understand that abstract pieces don't require a plot. And after seasoning my eye a bit with City Ballet, I no longer need a story from dance. But there has to be some kind of structure, or response to music that is still cathartic. While I loved the dancers in Troika, the emotional reason for the piece eluded me. It felt empty. It also felt like pieces I'd seen before.

I don't know anyone who liked the revival of Tudor's "Shadowplay," the third piece. Except for me--I liked it. But I'd just read a biography of Buddha, including the temptation by Mara that Buddha undergoes before his enlightenment. So, for me, the plot of Shadowplay was easy to follow. Also, I've read a lot of Jung to get the very 60s ethos that the piece intended to convey, and I really appreciated Tudor's ambition to try to do so much on stage and through dance--a fable, a psychological stage, an inner life. While I think Craig Salstein is such a wonderful actor--his Puck radiates in Midsummer Night's Dream--he didn't have enough gravitas or virtuosity for this particular piece. I wish I could have gone to see Simkin the following night, but don't have the cash for that.

Most people loved the final work by Christopher Wheeldon at the end of the evening. I loved it too though curiously, I don't remember much any more (the Ratmansky is lingering longer in my head) other than the fact that Isabella Boylston and Marcelo Gomes had a wonderful pas de deux in which they seemed to be asking each other to please, please "see me." It was moving. The lights and costumes were also very good. But beyond that, I now can't remember what I saw, which makes me wonder if the piece had some great moments but relied more on effect. I found myself wishing that Ratmansky had more help with costuming and lighting and learned a thing or two from Wheeldon.

And this is the funny thing about Wheeldon and Ratmansky: I find myself always complaining about Ratmansky's costumes. In Dumbarton, for instance, everyone seemed to wear these odd, post-Communist, drab, shirt dresses that really didn't do anything for anyone. I've complained in the past about his use of celadon green that doesn't pop on stage and the cut of the cap sleeves on his dresses. And here again I hated the costumes. But the dancing, the steps, the musicality were sublime. Of everything--Dumbarton is what I would most want to see again. And if I think back--it's the piece where the dancers looked the happiest.


Salon Dot Com

My piece on Japan and the nuclear disaster appeared in Salon May 14th, 2011. You can read it here.

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