National Ballet of Canada
Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts
December 5, 2012
by Denise Sum
copyright 2012 by Denise Sum
The National Ballet of Canada has brought back "Giselle" for a short run (Dec. 5-9, 2012). The touchstone of Romantic ballet was last seen here in 2009 for Chan Hon Goh's farewell. While the company's 2012-2013 season is decidely modern (with the exception of "Giselle" and "Theme and Variations", there are no works made before 1997), the opening night performance of "Giselle" showed audiences that classical ballet is still alive and well at the NBoC.
Peter Wright's production of "Giselle" is clear in its narrative and the dancers looked completely at home in the choreography and Romantic style.There is a cohesiveness to this production, which the company has been performing since 1970. Beyond the contextual elements of Giselle and Albrecht's differing classes and social mores or the presence of the supernatural, the artists of the NBoC believe in the timeless, universal themes of "Giselle". Watching them perform, one has a sense that the dancers "get" it. "Giselle" is not a static museum piece. Stories about tragic love, betrayal, forgiveness, and redemption never get old if they come from a genuine place.
Desmond Heeley's set and costume designs are evocative and beautiful in their simplicity. He maximizes the contrast between the warm, folksy feel of Act 1's Rhineland valley and the chilling otherworldliness of the forest surrounding Giselle's grave in Act 2. The ballet revolves around Giselle's transformation from trusting peasant girl, through heartbreak and madness, to loving spirit. Heeley's constumes ensure that the eye focuses on her. In the first act, Giselle stands out in her blue dress amidst a sea of orange and reddish hues. In the second act, her pure white gown draws attention amidst the faded ones worn by the wilis.
Opening night belonged to Greta Hodgkinson, who was utterly heartbreaking as Giselle. She has danced this role countless times but never lets it settle into a routine. Instead, she creates a sense of spontaneity. Her bouyant jumps look completely natural and her port de bras (especially in the first act) is gentle and relaxed. She takes the audience with her as she discovers the excitement and wonderment of young love. While some might portray Giselle as naive, Hodgkinson's portrayal was that of a young woman who is aware of the darkness in the world yet who makes a choice to hope for the best. When Berthe warns her about the danger of dancing with a weak heart, Giselle is not in denial. She understands the risk of dancing -- and of falling in love. These things make her vulnerable but for her, there is no other way to live. Still, she never expected to be lied to by the one she loved. When Bathilde announces her engagement to Albrecht, Giselle literally crumbles. Hodgkinson's mad scene is gripping because she avoids the temptation to slide into melodrama. At the start, she stands in the centre of the stage, catatonic and motionless, her mind and body disconnected. She wears a vacant expression as she scans her memories to try and find out what went wrong. Albrecht grips her desperately, but she cannot see him. In this version, she ultimately stabs herself. She returns in Act 2, a serene presence, free of the bitterness that haunts the other wilis. Her dancing is weightless. She does not so much touch the ground as hover over it.
Hodgkinson's partner was Guillaume Côté, another technically gifted dancer. The pair had a believable connection on stage. In Act 1, he looked at her with such longing that it would be uncharitable to look at him as a cad. He knows their relationship cannot end well, but he cannot keep himself from her. The moment when Hilarion confronts him and he instinctively reaches for his sword is telling. When he is with Giselle, he forgets who he is and what is expected of him. He is not consciously trying to deceive her. When Giselle collapses in his arms, his grief and regret are intense. He returns in Act 2 a changed man. Côté has the noble bearing and impressive ballon necessary for the role. At times, he might push himself unnecessarily, as if to show what he is capable of. For instance, he might start his pirouette ahead of the music in order to fit in more turns. Aside from this, his turns are brilliant and his jumps are crisply executed.
Myrtha was danced by Heather Ogden. She gave a dignified performance as the merciless Queen of the Wilis. Her quick bourées had drive and momentum, while her grand jetés soared. Piotr Stanczyk was an earnest Hilarion whose guilt around Giselle's death was mixed with the sadness of unrequited love. Finally, the corps de ballet looked very well-rehearsed and uniform in the challenging second act. The iconic arabesque voyagées were dream-like. The corps moved and breathed as one. The NBoC may be somewhat lacking when it comes to danseur nobles for the role of Albrecht (aside from Côté, the other Albrecht's for this run include soloist Naoya Ebe making his debut, and two guest artists, Zdenek Konvalina and Evan McKie), but the corps de ballet demonstrated considerable depth.
As the NBoC continues to commission and acquire new works, the importance of performing "Giselle" remains. Few ballets are as rewarding and have such an enduring appeal for both audiences and dancers as "Giselle".
Greta Hodgkinson and Guillaume Côté in "Giselle". Photo by Aleksandar Antonijevic.
Artists of the Ballet in "Giselle". Photo by Aleksandar Antonijevic.