Paris Opera Ballet
David H. Koch Theater
New York, NY
July 18, 2012
by Leigh Witchel
copyright © 2012 by Leigh Witchel
Paris Opera Ballet featured one of the company’s youngest and most capable stars, Dorothée Gilbert, as Giselle in partnership with one of its newest étoiles, Josua Hoffalt. Yet the production didn’t come to life until after she died.
Gilbert is a technical all-rounder, who can jump, turn and balance. A hallmark of the company’s dancers is their impeccable placement; in her Act 1 solo, Gilbert rolled down from her attitude turns with determined strength to a flat foot and then straight into serene piqué arabesques.
But what distinguished her was her footwork.
Gilbert’s Giselle was not a wilting leaf. She rejected Hilarion firmly with no remorse, and after dancing, her first “heart attack” shocked her, implying that she was unused to them. It passed quickly, barely remarked by her. But the entire first act is meticulously shown, rather than lived.
She did a canonical mad scene with all the trimmings – sightless looks and disheveled hair – but it was a leap from the healthy and strong-minded girl she was before, and that gap remained unbridged. This setting, from 1991 by Patrice Bart and Eygene Polyakov, adds one repeat of the tense musical phrase used when Hilarion produces Albrecht’s sword. It gives Giselle extra time as she embraces Albrecht to realize – with a woman’s intuition – that something is wrong and he’s lying to her. It helped set up what was to come, but not enough. You had to accept Gilbert’s mad scene as almost being from a different ballet.
Even with a collection of the world’s most aristocratic peasants, this “Giselle” is suffused with a class consciousness that goes straight to the bone. When Gilbert bumped into Bathilde during the mad scene, she still bowed. Hallucinations or no, she knew her place.
When Americans play nobility, including Albrecht, we play them as People’s Princes. Albrecht blends into the village, with his mannerisms only setting him apart at a plot point. Not the French. Albrecht’s clothes may fit in and he might hide his sword, but he can’t hide how he holds himself – and his expectations.
Named an étoile in March, Josua Hoffalt, portrayed Albrecht as entitled. He was attracted to Giselle, but no more in love with her than anything else he can’t have – yet. When Gilbert sensed the “loves me not” augury of the daisy, she was horrified. Hoffalt regarded it with the mild annoyance one has for a fly.
You noticed rank even more in the smaller roles. With his weight pitched forward, Wilfried was a functionary who scurried ahead for reconnaissance. Most fascinating was the Prince of Courlande (he has risen in rank in France – we usually think of him as a duke.) Vincent Cordier took a cardboard-cutout role – the arm that escorts Bathilde – and gave it life and context. Before retiring into the cottage he looked at Giselle, and gave her a light stroke on the chin, assessing her beauty and his opportunities for having her. That’s droit du seigneur.
When Albrecht was exposed and Bathilde confronted him, the prince took his gray-gloved hand and separated the two. Once again, a look defined a character. He held Bathilde, but faced Albrecht, more with complicity and understanding than anything else. Rule One: Don’t Get Caught.
Until Hilarion throws his accusation back into his face, Albrecht doesn’t comprehend his part in Giselle’s death. When he entreats the crowd after, he’s looking for someone who will believe this wasn’t his fault. His shock sets in motion the drama and moral triumph of the modern “Giselle” – the redemption of Albrecht.
Hoffalt’s callowness worked for him in Act 2; he was a young man slowly waking up. (Perhaps literally as well – this production, as with a few others, has a moment right after Giselle leaves when Albrecht, lying by her grave, jerks his head with a start as if wondering if this were all a dream.)
If Hoffalt was not a polished actor, he was a very good partner. In their pas d’action, he quickly but gently lifted Gilbert first one way in her flight before switching directions to give her the illusion of raising into the air like a curl of white smoke.
In Act 2, he used the exhaustion built into the dancing to create the character. Compelled by Laura Hecquet as Myrtha, his entrechats were done with frozen arms and raised slowly as if that took all the force of will he had. Myrtha is more integrated into the action than in other productions. As Giselle leaves after her solo, Albrecht enters and tries to follow her off. Myrtha blocks him and commands him to dance his variation.
Hecquet entered into the company the same year as Hoffalt, 2002; both were featured by the school when it visited New York that year. She’s tall, elegant and long-faced. Like her, all the company women seem to work their feet fully from ankle to toe. Except for Gilbert, none of them seem to be jumpers.
Axel Ibot and Heloïse Bourdon danced a strong peasant pas de deux, augmented felicitously with a meticulously groomed female pas de huit. Ibot had the spring and confidence to cope with an added manège of double tours in passé. Even when things threatened to go awry in a final double tour to the knee he was able to pull himself back to placement.
Bathilde in this production is kind; Marie-Solène Boulet appeared genuinely interested in Giselle, this pretty creature who lived on her father’s grounds. Both women playing Giselle’s mother during the run were too young and trim to be convincing, but that may have been a necessity when touring (both also danced in the corps in Act 2.) Yann Saïz, a long-legged slender greyhound, seemed a bit elegant for Hilarion.
The corps is the company’s calling card, and in “Giselle” the glory was the dance of the Wilis, done like no other. The only disappointment was the arabesque voyagées; instead of a silent glide, it was a galumphing hop. Amazingly, there were even a few drooping legs. But the dancers’ port de bras in unison and the elegant, pure placement of hands, wrists and elbows weren’t mere synchronized movement; but unity of purpose and aesthetic harmony – the music of the spheres.
If “Giselle” started out more technically stunning than moving, Gilbert and Hoffalt got there by the end. As the clock struck and the day broke, Gilbert’s palpable relief and her tenderness as she cradled Hoffalt was not just beautiful. It felt real. Like them, the ballet ascended to its own redemption.
copyright © 2012 by Leigh Witchel
Photos by Michel Lidvac of Dorothée Gilbert in “Giselle.”