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NEW YORK — Absurd, incoherent, misogynistic, hopelessly outdated: thus do many dance lovers of today describe the story of “Giselle,” written by Vernoy de Saint-Georges, Theophile Gautier, and Jean Coralli, and choreographed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.