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Women aren’t just victims, III: How do you solve a problem like “Giselle”?

By Alicia Mosier Chesser
Copyright 2001, 2017 Alicia Mosier Chesser

(First published on the DI on May 22, 2001, today’s re-publication of this aesthetic tour-de-force — next time someone tells you ballet’s too old-fashioned, throw this one in their face — is sponsored by Nutmeg Conservatory Ballet,  Freespace Dance and and Slippery Rock Dance .)

NEW YORK — Absurd, incoherent, misogynistic, hopelessly outdated: thus do many dance lovers of today describe the story of “Giselle,” written by Vernoy de Saint-Georges, Theophile Gautier, and Jean Coralli, and choreographed in 1841 by Coralli and Jules Perrot. You know how it goes. Act I: Young girl with a love of dancing and a weak heart (or, in the opinion of some dance historians, a bun in the oven) falls for a count disguised as a peasant, who falls for her too but turns out to be engaged to a high-falutin’ prince’s daughter, which revelation sends girl to a frenzied demise. Act II: slightly creepy “ballet blanc” idealization of ghostly virgins, who dance their former fiancees to death in revenge for the fact that they (the virgins) have died before their wedding day. (Or something.) And here’s the worst of it: the girl actually spends the whole second act defending the guy who deceived her and ends up saving him from death-by-exhaustion. Almost every newcomer to dance whom I’ve taken to see “Giselle” has no patience for Act I — all that pantomime! — but the chilling purity of Act II (in which, in today’s productions, there’s very little story left) always leaves them breathless. Is it possible for viewers today — especially, perhaps, for feminist young women — to appreciate “Giselle” as a whole?

That’s really a question about how we look at art. We generally expect art to reflect our political and ethical values, or at least to express the artist’s individual, uncompromising point of view. This approach makes an artifact like “Giselle” very hard to swallow (although, ironically, this approach is just as much a part of our inheritance from the Romantic movement as this ballet is). It may seem an obvious and somewhat banal suggestion, but I’d propose that “Giselle” be taken as the artifact it is — that is, as the embodiment of Romantic values in a fully integrated dance-drama. Taken that way, the ballet can still have two different effects on an audience. It can excite only the most antiquarian sentiments, as American Ballet Theatre’s Ashley Tuttle and Angel Corella showed in their performance last Tuesday at the Metropolitan Opera House. Or, as Julie Kent and Jose Manuel Carreno showed on Thursday, it can shoot us deep into the enduring mysteries of drama, dance, and life on earth.

Tuttle’s “Giselle” was a confused girl-child from the start, a little thing whose lack of personality made it easy to see how she could be so taken in by Albrecht. In the Mad Scene at the end of Act I she became an overwrought 12-year-old with quivering arms, grabbing her head and shuddering on the floor. (Much of “Giselle,” it’s true, is ridiculous. Arlene Croce once described the Mad Scene as “an extended absurdity that an incurably cultish sentimentality has elevated to the status of a touchstone.”) For all the meltingly sweet balances and brisk hops on point Tuttle executed in the famous Act I solo, I couldn’t see that this Giselle had anything in her — any fire — that would make her go crazy from betrayal. She projected a sort of mild blankness and nodded her head in the same dumb way every time someone asked her a question. Albrecht would really have been a lout to take in a child like her — except if, as in the case of Corella, he was just as much a kid. When Corella came on at the beginning of Act II with a cape two sizes too big, stepping around “aristocratically” with toes so pointed he could hardly get one foot in front of the other, it was the perfect image of his undercooked interpretation.

With Kent’s Giselle, Albrecht faced a more complex situation. Act I can only make sense if Giselle is a fully fleshed out woman. From the beginning Kent had a mind of her own, a distinctive private life. We saw her imaginary world (centered on the hunter’s cottage, out of which she daydreamed a handsome gentleman emerging); her self-regard and smart self-protectiveness at the advances of the manly, magnetic Carreno; and most of all her sense that love was almost too beautiful for her to bear. In this performance it was Giselle’s love, and her loving nature, that defined her. She took love so seriously that it could literally kill her. In Kent’s lush Act I solo, it was as if love was coming out through her toes. (Love and dancing — and the love of dancing — are magically knotted together in this ballet; it’s a 19th-century instance of meta-narrative.)

Carreno wanted to come into this Giselle’s light; here the high and low of castle and village was transformed. When Kent invited him to join in a little peasant dance, it took him a moment to learn the dance (he’s used to doing the allemande, at court), but he picked it up quickly and thus entered into the heart of Giselle’s world. Kent’s Mad Scene continued the modern sensibility that marked her whole performance. She began to yank the petals from her invisible flower as if bitterly remembering Albrecht’s first deception, when he secretly pulled off the petal that would have said “he loves me not.” You could almost hear her clenching her teeth and saying, damn him, damn him, I love him and he dares to play games with love! Her death is his indictment.

Giselle’s defense of Albrecht in Act II, then, is two things at once: mercy for the sinner (with a little heaping of ashes on his head), and justice for the true love who was true of heart too late. Kent does not interpret Giselle simply. In Act I she is both wily and easily moved, generous and covetous, trusting and proud. Her entrance in Act II is terrifying. Whereas Tuttle appeared to be spun around by the wind in that whirling opening dance, and only took off around the time of her traveling entrechat quatres (making up for her limitations in the meantime with bizarrely elongated phrasing), Kent was wild and wraithlike, spinning out a continued perplexity that might never be resolved.

A big part of that perplexity is caused by the presence of Myrtha, Queen of the Wilis, danced by Michele Wiles on Tuesday and Gillian Murphy on Thursday. Wiles’s Myrtha was chillier (those wide, bone-white shoulders, that forthright presentation, those tall arabesques), Murphy’s more authoritative and more exciting. Murphy brought to the part the dramatic power that is crucial for a coherent Act II. When Kent covered the deeply pensive Carreno at the grave, we saw Murphy trumped for a moment; she bowed slightly as she turned away to come up with another plan to get Albrecht out in the open. Murphy’s Wilis had absolutely no love left (behind her, they had personalities, whereas Wiles’s crew were mere shades). In front of them, Kent’s Giselle stood out all the more. There were a few shaky moments in her deft-as-a-spiderweb solos, but I didn’t care. I was listening, with Carreno, to her otherwordly, very present voice.

A few words about the ballet’s supporting characters. The role of Berthe, Giselle’s mother, centers on one bit of pantomime in which she tells about the Wilis: they get awful little wings, she says, and spend eternity tormenting men who get lost in the woods. Erica Fischbach did her duty by this moment on Thursday, but Karin Ellis-Wentz made my skin crawl Tuesday night as she sank into her terrible reverie, made more terrible by the knowledge that it could happen to her own daughter. As Hilarion, John Gardner was good and bitter, Ethan Brown more sturdy and more mocking in his scenes with Albrecht. I liked Xiomara Reyes better on Tuesday as Moyna, Myrtha’s first deputy, than in the Peasant Pas de Deux she performed with Joaquin de Luz on Thursday. Although her natural love of risk worked splendidly in the pas de deux (a big difference from the floating, serenely classical interpretation of Ekaterina Shelkanova and Gennadi Saveliev), her love of rubato brought a surprising richness to the part of Moyna. Carmen Corella, with her perfectly straight pointes and thoughtful port de bras, did the same for Zulma (Deputy Wili No. 2) on Thursday.

For sheer high excitement, almost nothing in classical ballet can match the dance of the Wilis at the beginning of Act II. The audience always applauds the long sequence of traveling chugs in arabesque, partly because it’s famous, but mostly because of the way it builds and builds as more Wilis take the stage and the music’s tension rises. I always wish there were about eight more dancers in the pack, and that it would go on about two minutes longer than it does. It’s a dance of death — as all of “Giselle” is, in a way — which Giselle turns into a dance of life-sustaining love. Giselle and Albrecht dance all night; they dance *through* death; and the love that remains in the morning of this ballet is as charged and haunted as any you or I have ever known.

Style-Busting Daddy: Seamless Swimming with Munisteri & Crew

By Alicia Mosier Chesser
Copyright 2001, 2017 Alicia Mosier Chesser

NEW YORK — Ben Munisteri brought his lean, mean, gorgeous company uptown last night for the first of five performances at the Duke on 42nd Street, as part of the seventh annual 92nd Street Y Harkness Dance Project. With a tight-knit program of three pieces, Munisteri presented a concert so bold and satisfying that, frankly, if somebody told me his group was performing in some guy’s living room in Jersey on a Tuesday afternoon, I would drop everything and get on the train. But this is not an ensemble that will be performing in anyone’s living room anytime soon. They are masterful, and it was excellent to see them in their debut with Harkness.

To receive the complete article, first published on March 8, 2001, subscribers please contact publisher Paul Ben-Itzak at paulbenitzak@gmail.com. Not a subscriber? Subscribe to the DI for just $29.95/year ($99 for institutions gets full access for all your teachers, students, dance company members, etc.) by designating your PayPal payment in that amount to paulbenitzak@gmail.com, or write us at that address to learn how to pay by check. Subscribers receive full access to the DI Archive of 2,000 exclusive reviews by 150 leading dance critics of performances on five continents from 1998 through 2015. You can also purchase a complete copy of the Archives for just $49 (individuals) or $109 (institutions) Contact Paul at paulbenitzak@gmail.com.

Stratospheric Dance

Tulsa re-post finalSoo Youn Cho and Alfonso Martin in Tulsa Ballet’s production of William Forsythe’s “In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated.” Photo copyright Rosalie O’Connor.

Copyright 2010, 2017 Alicia Chesser

TULSA — For the past 15 years, Tulsa Ballet artistic director Marcello Angelini has been leading his company to this moment, when it could not only obtain the rights to perform works like William Forsythe’s “In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated” and Jiri Kylian’s “Sechs Tanze,” but actually perform them with the skill, stamina, and artistic maturity they require.

It feels like a turning point.

To receive the rest of the article, first published on December 18, 2010, including more photos + a bonus story by Tulsa Ballet artistic director Marcello Angelini written exclusively for the Dance Insider,  subscribers please contact publisher Paul Ben-Itzak at paulbenitzak@gmail.com. Not a subscriber? Subscribe to the Dance Insider for just $29.95/year and receive full access to our Dance Insider Archive of 2,000 exclusive reviews by 150 leading dance critics of performances on five continents from 1998 through 2015. Just designate your PayPal payment to paulbenitzak@gmail.com, or write us at that address to find out about payment by check or in Euros. Just want this story? Donate $5 through PayPal to paulbenitzak@gmail.com then send an e-mail to that address with “Tulsa” in the subject line.

A Tale of Two Shrews

tulsa-shrew

Soo Youn Cho & Alfonso Martin in Tulsa Ballet’s production of John Cranko’s   “Taming of the Shrew.”  Photo copyright Julie Shelton and courtesy Tulsa Ballet.

Review Copyright 2011, 2017 Alicia Chesser

New introduction by and copyright Paul Ben-Itzak

(Editor’s Note ((not necessarily reflecting the opinions of the author, Ms. Chesser)):

A word needs to be said here about the cultivating of taste and the caretaking – in the active sense of that word – of a heritage, and the critical role an artistic director plays in these complementary missions.

Reviewing a 2010 Royal Albert Hall English National Ballet performance of Derek Deane’s production of “Swan Lake” in these pages ((see elsewhere in these DI Archives)) which successfully appealed to what she dubbed “middle-brow” tastes, Victoria Watts commented, “I see the merits for the company in presenting an unpretentious evening of dance with high production values and an astute awareness of what its audience might want.” When he took over the artistic direction of Tulsa Ballet in 1995, Marcello Angelini could certainly have settled with this standard. This is not to be snobbish about middle-American tastes; when it comes to story ballets, even New York ((or Paris)) sophisticates can be fooled by opulent trappings. And, having toured with Nureyev for years and been weaned on ballet in the birthplace of Taglioni, Angelini certainly had the chops to dazzle. Furthermore, as his “Nutcracker” proved ((see elsewhere in these Archives)), he can also whip out an original libretto when the occasion calls for it. Financially, it certainly would have been an easier path to tread than to convince his board to front the expensive costs not only of rights, but of international shipping of sets and costumes for a European production like John Cranko’s “Taming of the Shrew.” But Angelini – and here I have to guess that Nureyev’s influence n’etait pas pour rien – realizes something that not only more ballet company but more fine arts museum directors would do well to remember: When you are directing a ballet company – or, for that matter, even a modern company with a rich patrimoine – you are not just there to divert your audience, you are also there to share your rich heritage with them. You’re like a bookseller or librarian whose purpose should not just be to promote new titles but to introduce his readers to the classics, including 20th century classics. You also don’t pretend that everything started with you. And you are not there to serve your ego. ((Or pocket-book; large ballet company directors are often paid extra for their choreography.))

I also can’t help but think of New York City Ballet chief Peter Martins, who, with the doubly richest repertoire in American if not world ballet, from not just one but two giants, Balanchine and Robbins, continues, year after year, to infest the company’s repertory and waste his audience’s time with his unimaginative ((at best)) choreographies. For every Martins ballet that perturbs a program, I can’t help but think “Another 20 minutes of my life waisted, when he could have shown me more Balanchine or Robbins.” ((There is *one* argument that can be made for a ballet company’s director creating new work, even if the choreography is middling; to push and develop his dancers. This is why I don’t quite put another Balanchine disciple, San Francisco Ballet director Helgi Tomasson, in the same category as Martins; in his early work for the company, at least, even if it was compositionally not much more interesting than Martins’s, one of his laudable aims was to elevate the company’s technical level, which he found lacking when he arrived in 1985. Other Tomasson creations, notably “Nana’s Lied” for star Elizabeth Loscavio, allowed certain personalities to flower. I suspect that Angelini, who carefully chooses his choreographic outings, had similar motivations to this last for revising “Nutcracker”: the company’s production was tired, and a new setting couldn’t help but enhance the dancers’ emotional investment and enagement.))

Angelini, by contrast, is kind of the reverse of the gold-miner who descends on a country to mine its riches. ((This is not to ignore his cultivating of local talent and new work, for which he successfully pushed for the construction of a separate theater devoted to this task.)) He’s like the immigrant who arrives *with* a treasure trove of riches to share with his adaptive country. In a time when a new American president is making Lady Liberty blanche with shame by not opening *but closing* our borders to “the tired and the poor,” Angelini’s case ((I also note that both the stars featured in the above photo have “foreign-sounding” names)) also serves as a larger reminder that immigrants are not here to take and to diminish the cut of the pie available to natives but to give, and to expand the horizons of us all. – Paul Ben-Itzak)

TULSA — Classic tutu ballets like “Swan Lake” and “The Sleeping Beauty” are often thought of as the ultimate yardstick for measuring the maturity of a company. But other kinds of ballets can measure qualities every bit as important as the technical prowess the classics put to the test. John Cranko’s 1969 “The Taming of the Shrew,” which Tulsa Ballet performed last month at the Tulsa Performing Arts Center, is one of those other kinds, a work that tests skills such as theatrical range, character acting, and the ability to sustain narrative continuity. ‘Shrew’ has more in common with the Ballets Russes classics TB performed regularly in its early decades than with the ‘white’ ballets in the classical canon. In a ballet like Ronald Hynd’s “The Merry Widow” (which, incidentally, TB is bringing back next season), it certainly matters whether steps are done correctly, but it matters more that the dancers make the audience able to see the story and get behind the characters. ‘Shrew,’ based on Shakespeare’s play, is like that, which made it refreshingly different after the high-toned technical seriousness of TB’s last two programs, which included “Swan Lake,” a fine rendition of George Balanchine’s “Theme and Variations,” and a mesmerizing performance of James Kudelka’s haunting “There, Below.”

To receive the rest of the article, including more photos, subscribers can contact publisher Paul Ben-Itzak at paulbenitzak@gmail.com. Not a subscriber? Subscribe to the Dance Insider for just $29.95/year ($99 for institutions gets full access for all your teachers, students, dance company members, etc.) and receive full access to our Dance Insider Archive of 2,000 exclusive reviews by 150 leading dance critics of performances on five continents from 1998 through 2016. Just designate your PayPal payment to paulbenitzak@gmail.com, or write us at that address to find out about payment by check or in Euros. You can also purchase a complete copy of the Archives for just $49 (individuals) or $129 (institutions) Purchase by January 31, 2017 and receive a second, free copy for the recipient of your choice. Contact Paul at paulbenitzak@gmail.com .