Pacific Northwest Ballet
Works & Process
Peter B. Lewis Theater
Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum
New York NY
January 9, 2011
by David Vaughan
copyright 2011 by David Vaughan
At the end of her important book about performance practice in the era of the Romantic ballet, “Ballet and Opera in the Age of Giselle” (2000), Marian Smith asks, “What would happen if an attempt were made to mount a ‘Giselle’ that conforms as nearly as possible to the version described in the libretto…?” Peter Boal, artistic director of the Pacific Northwest Ballet, is doing just that, for a production that his company will present in Seattle in June this year, and he has had the good sense to invite Marian Smith as a historical adviser, together with Doug Fullington, the company’s director of education. Fulllingon reads Stepanov Notation, in which many works from the late 19th century repertory in Russia are recorded, including Marius Petipa’s last staging of “Giselle,” at the turn of the century. It is Petipa’s version (which presumably retained some choreography from 1841 with which he would have been familiar) that is the basis of most productions we see today, as staged for various companies, from the Diaghilev Ballets Russes into the 1930s, by Nicholas Sergeyev, Petipa’s régisseur, who brought the Stepanov notations with him when he left Russia. These are now in the Harvard Library.
Of course, many changes have been made to the traditional choreography by subsequent stagers. Peter Wright, in his production for the Royal Ballet, and Kevin McKenzie, for American Ballet Theatre, are among those who have, so to speak, shuffled the various incidents in the first act and dealt them out in an order different from that in the original scenario. Thus, the “peasant” pas de deux, an interpolation in the original 1841 production (it always used to be called the “inset” pas de deux), is sometimes performed as an entertainment for the ducal hunting party, sometimes after they have left, and sometimes multiplied into a pas de quatre or pas de six. The hunting party, which always used to retire into Giselle’s cottage to rest and freshen up, sometimes now goes back into the woods. Hilarion’s first entrance, and his leaving gifts (a pair of pheasants, a rabbit, a bunch of flowers?) at Giselle’s cottage, is often done to the wrong music. And the order and content of his investigations into Albrecht’s true identity undergo various changes. And so on.
A particularly ridiculous production was that by London Festival Ballet some years ago, which seemed to conflate ‘Giselle” with the old operetta “White Horse Inn”: Giselle and her mother were employees in a hotel in an Alpine resort, at which Albrecht arrived in a Rolls Royce. (I’m not making this up.)
Other productions have made some attempt to restore elements of the original. At the Vic-Wells Ballet, around 1940, Ninette de Valois brought Bathilde on at the end of the second act to take Albrecht back home. George Balanchine, for Ballet Theatre in 1946, had Albrecht lay Giselle to rest, not in her grave, but in a bed of flowers on the other side of the stage. (This production, beautifully designed by Eugene Berman, with the Wilis in black tutus, remained in repertory for at least five years.) Another London Festival Ballet staging, by Mary Skeaping, who had danced in Anna Pavlova’s production, restored certain musical cuts, including the Wilis’ fugue. That and several other productions have brought back Giselle’s mother’s mime recitative in which she warns her daughter against the dangers of dancing too much. This was carefully explained by Smith and Fullington, though there seem to be some details missing in their version, such as the description of a traveller who is set upon by the Wilis and made to dance until he dies.
I have to say also that I am not entirely convinced that Giselle and Albrecht count the petals on the flower she asks “he loves me, he loves me not.” This seems to me a more recent addition: what used to happen surely was that they pulled off the petals, finally arriving at the right answer.
But as Marian Smith pointed out, in 1841 there would have been almost as much mime as dancing in the two hours’ duration of the ballet, which was then described as a “Ballet-Pantomime.” It would obviously be difficult to ask a contemporary audience to sit through that, but Boal and his collaborators realize that there are certain points in the story that are not made clear enough in most contemporary productions. (At the Kirov, of course, mime is reduced to an absolute minimum.)
One question to which Smith has given much attention is that of the exact nature of Giselle’s death: does she stab herself with Albrecht’s sword, or is she prevented from doing so by her mother, or Albrecht, or even Hilarion? It is often said that the reason Giselle’s tomb is in the forest rather than in a proper cemetery is that she is in fact a suicide and therefore cannot be buried in hallowed ground. The panel did not deal with this question, so we will have to wait until the ballet is performed in June for their answer.
Smith was especially informative on the nature of Adolphe Adam’s score, which does not merely accompany the action, but often expresses the characters’ feelings. There is a passage in the mad scene that was originally meant to describe Giselle giggling, but nowadays what she does is look up into the trees as if she hears a bird singing—and everyone else on stage looks up to see what she’s looking at, which has never made sense to me.
All the scholarship in the world, of course, would not mean much once the ballet reaches the stage unless there are inspired interpreters of the leading roles. The dancers from PNB who performed excerpts to illustrate these and other points showed that they are already developing vivid characterizations: Carla Körbes (Giselle), Seth Orza (Albrecht), Carrie Imler (Berthe, Peasant pas de deux, Myrtha), and James Moore (Hilarion, Peasant pas de deux). As Fullington explained, at the time of the original production ballet technique was especially involved with petit allegro, terre à terre steps such as brisés voles, small cabrioles, and other petite batterie. The PNB dancers showed real mastery of this vocabulary. Seattle audiences will be fortunate to see this production next June.