Arts Review

A Newly Old Giselle

Story ballets have a stranglehold on the audience right now. It’s hard to tell why these nineteenth-century relics and their progeny are so popular. Unlike the equally retro standard opera repertory, they aren’t intact works of art. Their reputation as masterpieces rests on a few iconic scenes, like the Rose Adagio (Sleeping Beauty), the Kingdom of the Shades (La Bayadère), the second act of Giselle, and a few classic showpieces that crop up out of context whenever ballet holds a gala performance, like the pas de deux from Don Quixote and Le Corsaire. These high-art images embody the great assets of classical dancing, its purity and its virtuosity, its capacity to depict an idealized human body in action. To savor these exemplary tropes in their native environment though, the audience commits to hours of spectacle, mime, stage business, and ensemble numbers of more questionable provenance, draped around a threadbare story line. If you see enough productions of, say, Sleeping Beauty, you begin to recognize danced bits that are consistent—scenes, phrases of movement, motifs that always occur on the same measures of music—but the rest is approximate.

History tells us that in certain periods—often when the society is going through hard economic times—the public likes diverting entertainments with easily digested plots. Today’s culture is obsessed with simplistic, flashy action performed by stars, in sports, reality shows, pop music. Despite the widespread popularity of contemporary plotless ballets full of glamorous gut-grabbing qualities, the average balletgoer still gets nervous about what it all means. Maybe embedding thrill in a harmless fairy tale can take away some latent puritan guilt. The summer’s story ballet bonanza started when seven of American Ballet Theatre’s eight weeks at the Metropolitan Opera House were devoted to the long form. The Royal Danish Ballet’s visit to the States featured updated versions of two Bournonville classics. Later on, Lincoln Center Festival brought the Mariinsky (Kirov) from St. Petersburg with two remakes of Soviet story ballets. Pacific Northwest Ballet’s “new-old” Giselle was a rarity among received patchworks and deliberate modernizations: an old ballet drawn from serious archival research.

No ballet survives its youth unchanged. A nineteenth-century classic like Swan Lake or Sleeping Beauty is based on a score and a story, neither one of which stands exactly as its first audiences experienced it, and a libretto of scenes and step sequences. These elements will have been adapted and arranged by successive generations. Things get lost and sometimes reconstituted. Design and staging are altered when a large production gets transferred from one company or one generation to another. And then, the dancers’ sense of how to dance the standard vocabulary changes invisibly, inexorably. There’s no use trying to determine whether an old ballet is authentic in any strict sense. To preserve a tradition, the most we can ask is a plausible account of the original text and style. The term “update,” when applied to classical ballets, can mean anything from modern fabrics to science fictionalizing.

Pacific Northwest Ballet’s Giselle promised to be something besides a spruced-up restaging. Company artistic director Peter Boal gave great support to his two principal reconstructor-archivists, Doug Fullington and Marian Smith, as they exhumed long-lost aspects of the ballet over a year’s time. With equal daring, the company backed up the recovery project with substantial documentation and informational outreach to lead the audience into a deeper appreciation of a ballet we thought we already knew too well. The annual conference of the Dance Critics Association took place in Seattle during the production’s premiere performances in June, and several sessions of the conference were devoted to an examination of the reconstruction process.

With Boal as overall director, the production drew on three historic texts. University of Oregon musicologist and dance historian Marian Smith translated two French documents: an annotated musical score indicating mime and action that ballet master Antoine Titus used to set the original choreography (by Jules Perrot and Jean Coralli) in St. Petersburg, only a year after its 1841 Paris premiere; and a 236-page descriptive manual with stick-figure illustrations, created twenty years later by ballet master Henri Justamant. Doug Fullington, a dance historian who serves as PNB’s Director of Education Programs, worked from a dance score in Stepanov notation made around 1900 by notator and regisseur Nicholas Sergeyev. This documentation was based on the 1884 version directed by the great ballet master of the Russian Imperial Theaters, Marius Petipa. It’s Petipa’s version, danced after 1903 by Anna Pavlova, that made its way back to Europe and into the repertory via Sergeyev’s score, now housed in the Harvard Theater Collection.

Each document contained primary information about the components of the ballet at three points in its evolution. The reconstructors applied all that information to a master score, a piano reduction of composer Adolphe Adam’s manuscript. They now had a roadmap charting the way the story progressed in musical time, from the two earlier texts, and the step sequences and choreographic designs, as given in the Stepanov notation. Added to this was the dramatic and technical framework that dictates contemporary productions of Giselle. What resulted at PNB was a composite product. Fullington and Smith wrote: “Our goal is not to reconstruct any one version of Giselle, but to create a version informed by early sources in order to refresh and rediscover this still great and beloved ballet.”

With all the information consolidated, the collaborators had a synthesis representing Giselle as a period ballet that could reasonably be taken on by contemporary dancers. You might think that all they had to do then was teach the dancers the ballet from their master score. Accounts of reconstructing ballets often pass over this crucial part of the process, but it demands more than simply teaching steps. The documents spanned half a century of ballet history and two aesthetic peri- ods, the romantic and the classical. The nineteenth-century ballets we see today have subsumed these two styles into one all-purpose and still-evolving classical style, comprising the intense virtuosity, extroverted acting and expansive effects that were imprinted on classicism from Petipa onward.

Unlike the troubled aristocrats and the sophisticated scheming that marks later ballets, Giselle hinges on country folk and their belief in nature spirits. Giselle, an innkeeper’s daughter, falls in love with Albrecht, an aristocrat disguised as a peasant. When his deception is revealed, she dies, either of a weak heart—her mother Birthe has warned her to avoid dancing—or of a mad seizure at the shock. Or she may succumb to a dance-induced suicide. She joins the shades of jilted girls, the vengeful Wilis, who pursue any male who enters their midnight realm and drive him to his death. As a Wili with some human compassion left, Giselle saves Albrecht and returns to the grave after giving him permission to marry his noble fiancée.

The first act is a village tale, laying out the plot with descriptive action, bubbly solos for Giselle and Albrecht, and folk-like group dances. A purely virtuosic interlude, the Peasant Pas de Deux, interpolated with music by Friedrich Burgmuller into Adolphe Adam’s score, is performed by dancers with no other part in the story. Finally, there’s Giselle’s famous, fatal mad scene, which every ballerina interprets in her own way. The second act, traditionally all dancing, pits a remorseful Albrecht and his ghostly defender Giselle against the massed power of the Wilis and their implacable queen, Myrtha.

Quite a bit of textual scholarship has grown up around Giselle. The plot presents certain inconsistencies and loose ends. If she dies of a “broken heart,” and not suicide, why isn’t she buried in the village churchyard? Her grave in the forest is symbolically consecrated—in some productions by a homemade cross, in PNB’s synopsis by an engraved “marble stone.” This Christian emblem is powerful enough to disable the magic scepter wielded by Myrtha, when Giselle leads Albrecht to temporary shelter beside it. Scholars have argued that Giselle isn’t a virgin when she dies, and this would disqualify her for a Christian burial. I can’t think of a single plot summary that actually says the Wilis are deflowered girls (jilted is the strongest word used to describe them), but their having sustained a sexual betrayal as well as a romantic one would explain their hatred of all men. As dance historian John Mueller pointed out long ago, they’d never have been able to marry; they’d be semi-outcasts in the village culture of the time.

Théophile Gautier, the original scenarist of Giselle, spoke of the Wilis as “voluptuously sinister.” He was inspired partly by a poem of Victor Hugo about a girl dancing herself to death, which suggests something beyond disappointed romance or bad health. A doom-eager Giselle personifies romanticism’s hypnotic attraction to the supernatural and makes a connection between eroticism and death. She has been eulogized by feminists and deconstructed by Freudians. The ballet itself has been rewritten to take place in a madhouse, in antebellum Louisiana, in travesty, on ice, and in 3D.

Pacific Northwest Ballet’s project is the first time in North America that I’m aware of when in-depth research into the ballet’s meaning and evolution has actually been translated into a stage production. Most of the stylistic information about how the early ballets were danced comes to us from fanciful lithographs and the luxuriant metaphors employed by writers of the time. We can infer from these and other sources that romantic ballet gained its legendary lightness from a big repertory of jumps, intricate step combinations, and effortless or nonexistent transitions between steps. The poses were relaxed and rounded, not tight and precise as in today’s ballet. Dancers have ingrained habits and their own standards of performance, and Giselle’s directors often spent time undoing or suppressing contemporary ideas of virtuosity and style, but Boal and his cohorts acceded sometimes to the dancers’ high extensions, their fondness for drawn-out tempi, their tactics for beguiling the audience.

In an extraordinary presentation of the work in progress last January at the GuggenheimMuseum’s Works and Process series, Boal, Smith, Fullington, and four dancers from the company revealed the intensive process through which they were developing the production. The Guggenheim presentation (available online at channel/worksandprocess) was a beautifully orchestrated account of how the collaborators discovered, translated and set the archival material on the dancers. Fullington and Smith showed slides from the three main scores, explaining what each document contained in the way of information. Boal spoke about the ballet’s history, its evolution through the years, and the way it’s left its traces on the repertory, even the work of George Balanchine.

With the dancers, Boal demonstrated the difficulties of translating the documentation literally. Step combinations recorded by Sergeyev—enchâinements of an intricacy and speed that have lapsed from common usage—might feel awkward or stressful to contemporary dancers. When they showed the original phrases against the simplified ones at the Guggenheim, a non-technical viewer couldn’t really tell the difference, but the feeling was different. Watching the presentation online, I experienced the unsettling, altered heartbeat of an off-rhythm, the catch of the breath when many changes were compressed into a single phrase. In performance, these things go by too fast to be noticed, and some were sacrificed. But in spite of certain compromises, the directors tried to preserve an overall stylistic lightness, speed, and elevation.

Marian Smith explained how clearly the Titus and Justamant texts conveyed the story, the characters, and the action. She had worked in the studio with dancer Lisa Arkin, her University of Oregon colleague, to see how the written information could transfer onto moving bodies. With Allan Dameron at the piano, she read texts of the mime scenes that were found in the musical score, then had one of the dancers perform the scene with and without the music. In this way, the audience could learn not only how Adam crafted emotions, sound effects, and even conversations into his score, but how dancers employ the vocabulary of dance-mime against a musical accompaniment. In the program book for the June performances in Seattle, the company provided a two-page guide to some of the most frequently employed mime gestures, and Peter Boal charmingly concluded his introductory curtain speech with a welcome in dance-mime.

Besides the scenes executed in choreographed mime, there are opportunities for naturalistic acting. There’s more to Giselle than a simple story of love betrayed. Both Giselle and Albrecht are potentially complex characters. Even in their seemingly artless first-act duets, they may be pretending. Albrecht may be infatuated, but he’s slumming, after all, and this is a momentary dalliance for him. Smart, spunky girl that she is, Giselle probably suspects it. Only after the game reaches its deadly culmination does he acknowledge and regret his deception. Even the secondary characters, Hilarion, Birthe, Bathilde, and the imperious Myrtha, can be reconceived against their stereotypes. The PNB directors encouraged the dancers to bring out these arcane dimensions in their characters.

I saw the production twice, and the company did seem to achieve a lighter, less knowing style. This Giselle is admittedly a hybrid, but unlike most ballet remakes, it aims to restore past glories. It doesn’t assume whatever is left to us is hopelessly passé. For reasons of economy, the fussy sets and costumes were borrowed from Houston Ballet (designed by Peter Farmer). But there were effective supernatural effects in the second act—the veils literally fly off the Wilis’ heads when Myrtha commands them to begin dancing. I thought the cast headed by Kaori Nakamura and Lucien Postlewaite was especially good at establishing a more innocent ballet universe.

The main differences between this and the standard Giselle lay in the greater importance of miming and the interpolation of two dramatic interludes in the second act. According to Marian Smith, the early scores recorded an almost equal proportion of dancing to miming, a balance that soon began to shift, until the dancing and storytelling became virtually compartmentalized in Petipa’s time. After that, the mime scenes were gradually eliminated or whittled down, with some dramatic content woven into the dancing. The usual mime scenes in PNB’s restaging seemed more detailed, but besides the set narrative passages and the dancers’ interpretive acting, there seemed to be a greater gestural element to the dancing itself, so the characters’ feelings in a pas de deux, for instance, weren’t left to be conveyed by the steps alone. The step sequences looked more intricate too, almost ornamental at times. Recovered dramatic scenes in the second act brought in groups of local characters, seemingly lost in the woods, to provide a Shakespearean hardiness in contrast to the ephemeral Wilis and underscore their dreaded reputation for evil magic.

Seeing the process and then the end result of PNB’s big restoration project was a great ballet experience. We don’t know much about the early nineteenth century as a performed idea. Big ballet companies seem to dismiss the far reaches of their heritage as something too exotic for the audience to understand. The most concentrated reference we’ve had to the Romantic period was the Bournonville ballets as done by the Royal Danish Ballet at the end of the twentieth century. In Copenhagen they’d been preserved in the ballet school and offered in repertory with a stylistic understanding that made them look different from Swan Lake. That company’s artistic director, Nikolaj Hübbe, has now made what sound like drastic updates to two of its treasures, Napoli and A Folk Tale. I feel like a Luddite, but I’m glad I didn’t see them when the company brought them to Washington and New York last summer.

The only part of the PNB equation that seemed missing was a long-term commitment. Giselle, in traditional or revised form, is not on the schedule for the 2011–2012 season, so the expensive effort now falls into eclipse. Neither the dancers nor the audience will be able to build on this new connection to the work until it cycles back into the company’s repertory in a few years. I’m wondering whether other com- panies will incorporate any of PNB’s findings into standard renditions of the ballet.

American Ballet Theatre’s Giselle, which I saw just before going to Seattle, is fairly standard in the Russian style, as staged by company artistic director Kevin McKenzie. It has all the lavish trappings—gawking elders and rowdy children, two Russian wolfhounds and a dead boar, repeats in the music (in John Lanchbery’s arrangement) to allow for more dancing, lots of realistic acting by background crowds and minor characters. Of all the American ballet companies now, ABT commands the most impressive cadre of star dancers, and the Giselle I saw on May 27th delivered a rare experience. With a cast headed by Diana Vishneva, Marcelo Gomes, and Veronika Part, the familiar elements were all there, but some combination of craft and chemistry made it a transcendent event, the thrilling thing, beyond technical feats, that this kind of ballet is supposed to deliver and rarely does.

I’d never seen Vishneva before. I’d scheduled trips to New York to coincide with her appearances, only to be disappointed when she cancelled. In this performance, she was so much more than I’d expected. Her dancing was unsurpassed, her acting imaginative and appar- ently spontaneous. She seemed to turn pale when the party of aristocrats returned to the village, as if she foresaw the disastrous revelations about Albrecht that were to come. In fact, from the beginning, she danced slightly ahead of the music, as if she had a built-in clairvoyance. When Susan Jones, as her mother, Birthe, warned of the fateful consequences of too much dancing, she looked as if she’d never heard the tale before, but she believed it.

Giselle is full of thematic references—predictions, echoes, portents—built into the choreography and the music. Giselle, going mad, and later as a Wili, dances recollected steps from her happiest moments with Albrecht. The village girls unknowingly anticipate the hopping arabesques of the Wilis. Giselle rises from the grave at Myrtha’s command and spins in a trance of these arabesques. Just before his final reprieve, Albrecht lifts Giselle in the same pose, as if simultaneously exalting her and preventing her from flying into the other world.

The second act can be exquisite, exciting, a showcase for one or the other of the principal dancers. Technically, Vishneva, Gomes, and Part as Myrtha were ideally matched, and Vishneva was strong enough to restore prominence to the ballerina in what’s become a male-dominated second act. I don’t like the excessively slow tempo at which the first duet is taken in ABT’s production—installed perhaps by Natalia Makarova to show off that dancer’s spectacular skill at adagio in the 1970s. But Vishneva and Gomes did it without exaggeration, and then built up speed in the later variations of batterie and jumping. They seemed to feed off each other under the Wilis’ spell, getting more and more extreme with each variation. Toward the end, he did twice as many beaten jumps as normal, all perfectly placed. After her solo she exited with a diagonal of leaps, each one higher than the one before. Finally, they had both levitated to the point of dematerialization. He released her like a bird he’d caught, and she seemed to evaporate.