Pacific Northwest Ballet
June 3, 2011
June 4, 2011 matinee and evening
by Leigh Witchel
copyright © 2011 by Leigh Witchel
How much does it matter whether a ballet is historically correct? Less in some ways than is obvious, more in others than we realize. Pacific Northwest Ballet’s historically informed “Giselle” was a labor of love for company director Peter Boal and two dance researchers, Doug Fullington and Marian Smith, who sifted through historical material and created a performing edition for the stage.
The sources consulted spread out over six decades of the 19th century. The earliest are two detailed manuscripts produced by ballet masters as aids to their own staging. Antoine Titus’ notes, translated by Smith, date from 1842, only a year after the ballet’s premiere. The notes of Henri Justamant date from the 1860s, but were found at a flea market in Germany less than a decade ago.
These two manuscripts mostly provided information about patterns, groupings and especially mime. The notes of Nikolai Sergeyev, in Stepanov notation and now at Harvard University, detail Petipa’s version of the choreography as it stood around the turn of the century. As for several other major revivals, they provide the most complete record of steps. The team also looked to Adam’s original score, now preserved in France’s National Library. Lovingly detailed notes of the material and process were included in the program, including charts of the mime.
Assumedly because of the cost, the team punted on the visuals. The production was rented from Houston Ballet in a serviceable version designed by Peter Farmer with the familiar elements: Giselle’s home on one side, Hilarion’s hut on the other. No harm done; but no revelations either. PNB is a smaller company, so the stage was populated cautiously; only a few token peasants among the nobles in their scenes. The hunting party, with its crossbows, looked as if it had wandered in from “Swan Lake” two theaters down.
The aim was not historical accuracy at all costs; the team was prepared to jettison what did not work for a modern audience. But the years have done less to “Giselle” than “Sleeping Beauty” or particularly “Swan Lake.” The ballet has been pared down rather than shuffled. The effect of the edits over time was to create a swift, tragic attack in the first act and a second act with the unified effect of a danced poem.
Because the Stepanov notation is the source of most western Giselle productions, much of Seattle’s version doesn’t look all that different. Important moments do. Boal also filled in less pivotal moments, occasionally anachronistically as in the opening scene, where peasant lads do double air turns. This version also sounds different; the autograph score with original orchestration has a different feel.
Later inventions have been removed: Albrecht does not mistakenly reach for his sword in his angry confrontation with Hilarion, and Giselle’s response to Bathilde’s query about what she does is not “I sew,” but “I harvest grapes.”
In Act 1, Giselle’s mother Berthe isn’t in the opening scene. We see her first when the music plays her bustling entry and she is more of a stock comic character. When she catches Giselle dancing, her first response isn’t concern, but anger that she’s not picking grapes.
Giselle’s variation in the first act ends with a diagonal instead of a manège. The Peasant Pas de Deux was interpolated early, added the same year as the premiere. Its notation is incomplete, but it’s remained with some dickering by Boal, particularly in the second male variation.
The mad scene has significant differences. Hilarion’s production of the sword and the revealing of Albrecht’s deception feels simpler and more direct. The tense back and forth music is repeated several times: to show the sword, and then to force Albrecht to wield it, and more. Giselle has longer to react to the situation, and to try and deny it, giving impetus to the mad scene. She doesn’t just toss the necklace, crash to the ground, pull out her hairpins and come up nuts.
Wilfrid (here Wilfride) and Bathilde are more involved; Bathilde even tries to comfort and reason with Giselle. The scene is less naturalistic than in modern productions – but her loss of reason is also seen more as a passing attack than a complete crackup. At the end of the scene, Giselle recovers and recognizes both her mother and Albrecht, but also that she is about to die, and she collapses lifeless.
Act 2 restored two deleted comic scenes. The act opens with Hilarion admonishing the village men to be more respectful near Giselle’s grave. A vestige of this scene is still in Alicia Alonso’s production for the Ballet Nacional de Cuba, but it’s not played for laughs. The second scene involves an old man and some village youths encountering the wilis before Hilarion and Albrecht do, which demonstrates both the spirits' enchanting beauty and potential deadliness. Both sections stick out like sore thumbs on first viewing but fall into the scheme of the action the more often one sees them.
In the wilis’ dances, Myrtha’s opening is blocked differently. Many things are the same as in contemporary settings, such as her variation where she takes the myrtle branches, but the climax of her solo has a brilliant, skimming circle of low coupé jétés en tournant instead of a diagonal. The current version uses the same steps, but done for height instead of speed.
Myrtha is also far more physical, manhandling her victims: She pushes both Hilarion and Albrecht to the floor. Hilarion’s role is loaded with mime speeches; but his death is a dance scene. He is thrown about and barely dances at first, but by the end does air turns. Albrecht and Giselle’s dances from Act 2 are largely as we know them, but the groupings of the wilis are different; the lines broken up in favor of Vs and semi-circles.
Perhaps the greatest surprise to modern viewers, the original ending had Giselle effect a reconciliation between Albrecht and Bathilde. That’s been restored, along with the 19th century mechanics of Giselle sinking back to the earth behind her tombstone. Instead of being unpleasant as she often is today, Bathilde is a kind noblewoman genuinely charmed by Giselle. Given the ending, it’s the only reading possible; Bathilde has to be likable to Giselle and us.
Unsurprisingly, the original ending undercuts the drama, but it makes more sense than one would think. Act 2 over the years has become such a complete communion for Albrecht and Giselle that if it’s really done well, one wonders why Albrecht would have any reason to go on living without her.
Throughout the production, the biggest difference of all is the mime. There is far more, and it’s a blessing and a problem.
It’s a blessing when it illuminates the character. Giselle is no wilting cipher in Act 1. Her current mime to Bathilde about sewing or embroidery was probably substituted because it read better and was more obvious to a non-agrarian audience than the cutting motions used to indicate grape harvesting. Still, the change in occupation made Giselle a frail creature set apart from the peasants but she’s really one of them. When she first encounters the other girls, she mimes mischievously, “I don’t want to harvest grapes. Let’s dance instead!” Then she kicks over her basket and dances. During the mad scene, Giselle confronts Albrecht about his deception; another cut speech that would have strengthened her character.
The mime is a problem when some of the dancers (Karel Cruz, the opening night Albrecht in particular) could not mime and act at the same time. No matter how clearly you mime, without acting, it looks as ridiculous as someone saying “I feel incredibly sad” with no expression on his face.
The present-day “Giselle” is moving as is, because it follows a simple rule: the more convincing the leads, the more affecting the ballet. They don’t need a radical or revisionist interpretation, they just need to commit to the story with all their heart, with all their soul, and with all their might. Canadian ballerina Chan Hon Goh, an experienced Giselle, was brought in to coach, and three principal couples led off the first weekend of the run. All were given leeway to take slight variations in mime.
Anyone who had seen Carla Körbes dance in New York knew she had the otherworldly quality to be a great Giselle. But on opening night, Act 1 raced by at a relentless pace and she didn’t have time to find the drama. It wasn’t until Act 2 that we saw the potential in her entry and wild spinning variation, or in her unseeing eyes as she comforted Albrecht. Körbes also has far more of a jump than you’d think. But she wasn’t able to make the mime before her death work, and it wound up recalling Henry Fielding’s parody “Shamela,” where the heroine gets ravished as she’s writing a letter explaining that she is being ravished.
There is no way to triumph as Giselle in a vacuum, and Cruz was offering Körbes little to work with. Cruz couldn’t act and mime at the same time; he declaimed everything and though it was legible, it was also flat and unemotional.
The matinee cast proved the most rewarding. Rachel Foster was the most believable Giselle in Act 1. You accepted her not just as a peasant girl among the other villagers, but someone Albrecht could love. She was strong and robust, but also attractive and trusting. Her solo went well, with strong hops on pointe, but she also figured out the pacing in the mad scene and death mime that stymied Körbes, acting the crossed-wrists gesture for death so that it was not disconnected.
Seth Orza has broad shoulders, a Dick Tracy chin and the looks to be a leading man – but not a callow one. His mature air best suits playing Albrecht as a cad, and he trod a reliable, very familiar path. His Albrecht wooed Giselle as a game, but when noble party returned from hunting to see him in disguise as a peasant, he was trapped – and the realization of what he did set in.
Though it was well-danced and handsomely conceived by both Foster and Orza, their second act was most memorable for how hard both of them fought for it – not just as characters, but as dancers. Foster fought for a sustained line in the adagios that she didn’t naturally have. Orza, an à terre dancer by nature and build, fought for the air. Both used their commitment to the roles as a battering ram to slam against their own limits – and break past them. It was as moving as the story.
Saturday evening’s pairing of Kaori Nakamura and Lucien Postlewaite was more problematic. Nakamura, wearing little makeup and an unflattering hairstyle, allowed herself to be a plain peasant girl, but she didn’t become attractive until her hair was unbound for the mad scene. It was as if Albrecht selected her as an easy mark for the flattering attentions of a good-looking stranger.
Postlewaite pushed that characterization as far as he could to the point of being unlikable. His Albrecht was spoiled, willful and overconfident – at the “loves me, loves me not” flower scene, he pulled a petal from the daisy, and then counted to be sure he’d gotten it right. Even as the noble party returned, Postlewaite acted as if he could still get away with his ruse. Nor did it sink in what had happened to Giselle as she lost her reason. There never seemed to be a point where he recognized what he’d done.
Nakamura was shaky in her first act solo, but got the pacing of the act’s finale, particularly of indicating heart failure to make her death plausible. In Act 2 her element was the air, particularly in the jumping diagonal of her entry. Postlewaite posed prettily at first, as if Giselle’s death were all about him, but became more human in their confrontation with Myrtha and pas d’action. He danced as if his heart were actually giving out.
The couple’s most interesting moment together was their final one, when Giselle sent Albrecht back to Bathilde. Nakamura pointed to his ring finger before she gently pushed his arm away from her grave, and back towards the world. Bathilde appeared at the back of the stage and Postlewaite mimed that he would not marry, but his look said that he would. His extreme characterization made sense with the restored ending. It was Giselle’s final gift – a lesson on recognizing his obligations, growing up and finally being a man.
In supporting roles, Jerome Tisserand, the Saturday matinee Hilarion, was a talented, clear mime who brought life to his speeches and acted his death scene vividly. By the time he entered he seemed winded enough by an offstage pursuit to be half-dead and did some nice double assemblés traveling to his doom.
On opening night, Carrie Imler gave a great performance as Myrtha – again, the right combination of technique and the ability to mime naturally. She flew through her skimming circle of coupé jétés and her last warning to Albrecht as she left – though it was nothing more than pointing at him – was chilling. It was also an interesting echo of the same warning that Albrecht gave to Hilarion when rebuffing him after their first confrontation.
Jonathan Porretta and Chalnessa Eames danced the Peasant Pas de Deux opening night and the following matinee. He’s a bit too short for her, but the matinee went better than the first outing. On Saturday night, Margaret Mullin and Tisserand went into the duet, which showed him to less advantage than Hilarion. Mullin was a strong dancer, but a belt that refused to stay put on her costume may have damaged their composure.
On opening night, Eames doubled as one of the Wili demi-soloists along with Sarah Ricard Orza, and both made a lovely effort to accommodate the Romantic style of softer, lower arms. We didn’t see much of Ricard Orza during the weekend, just that and a sympathetic Bathilde on Saturday night, but of the dancers who left New York City Ballet, she’s consistently engaged in a way she never was at her old job – and seems the one who has changed and benefited the most from the move.
The Seattle audience responded warmly to the new production, though some of the historical style completely miscued it. They thought Giselle and Albrecht’s first love scene with the daisy was a parody and the 19th century stage mechanics of the veils whisking away on strings struck them as funny.
Even so, PNB’s honest efforts to create an historical Giselle viable on a modern stage paid off in one of the most valuable productions of the year. In its own way, this production is as important as the Mariinsky’s “new/old” revival of “The Sleeping Beauty.” And like that production, it will probably not supplant newer versions. Many of the changes over time have taken too firm a root and have their own validity. But both revivals illuminate and add perspective to the masterpieces that would be missing without them.
An unanswerable question: How much would someone from 1842, 1862 or 1899 recognize this “Giselle” if they saw it? If the bodies, manners, training, morals, even mindsets of the dancers have changed enough in the succeeding generations, does it matter if the steps are the same? There’s no way to know. We’re looking at a panorama through the wrong end of the telescope, but it’s the only view we have.
copyright © 2011 by Leigh Witchel
Photos by Angela Sterling of “Giselle”
First: Karel Cruz and Carla Körbes
Second: Kaori Nakamura
Third: Kaori Nakamura and Lucien Postlewaite
Fourth: Chalnessa Eames in the Peasant Pas de Deux