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.

I really love your recaps and analysis, esp the youtube clip dumping. The Baryshnikov clip made me cry, and most of the time I'm not too convinced by Albrecht to cry. I tend to think he doesn't feel bad enough. But Baryshnikov felt bad, very very bad. Sigh.
Aw thanks! Now I wish we could go back and see more Giselles together! Though, really, 3 in the space of a week was about as much heartbreak as I could take . . .
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