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Flash Review 1, 7-21: A Ballerina REALLY Makes 'Giselle' Her Own
Guillem's New Version Worth a Look, but Don't Toss the Original Just Yet

By Alicia Mosier
Copyright 2001 Alicia Mosier

Although it is in no way a star vehicle, Sylvie Guillem's new production of "Giselle" is very much her own. Originally conceived as a film, the French ballerina's reworking of the Petipa/Coralli/Perrot classic premiered on the Finnish National Ballet, and then was entirely redesigned (with set and costumes by Paul Brown and lighting by Pascal Noel) for Italy's La Scala Ballet. It received its New York premiere last night at the New York State Theater as part of the Lincoln Center Festival. In a rare public interview at Lincoln Center on Thursday evening, Guillem said that her motivation for creating a new "Giselle" was her sense that the ballet -- in her view, full of artificial gestures and "silly things I can't really feel" -- was "dying slowly." She has hated dancing it. Here, then, she wanted to show "not just choreography, but a real story." Guillem, who is principal guest artist with the Royal Ballet and La Scala, among other companies, has dusted off many things in this cornerstone of Romantic ballet, revealing some bright spots that have always been there (though hidden) and some that are of her own invention. In some cases, she has dusted off so much that nothing is left underneath. Despite the production's many missteps and limitations, it is a useful thing for "Giselle" in the same way that Ethan Hawke's recent film of "Hamlet" was for that play: it seeks to revisit a classic not to revolutionize it, but to see what in it we might have been missing.

Guillem believes that the "real story" -- the dramatic sinew -- of "Giselle" has been obscured over the years, not only by convention and overfamiliarity but also by the traditional setting and, even more, the choreography itself. As such, she has replaced almost all the original choreography with steps of her own. (In a famous ad for Rolex, she once remarked, "I have a way of being able to walk around tradition if it gets in my way.") People who love the Peasant pas de deux and Giselle's several solos, among many other dances, will be sorely grieved by what Guillem has done to them. Snippets of the original appear here and there throughout her choreography, and last night the audience seemed relieved when they appeared.

The setting is more effectively re-envisioned than the choreography. The village in Act I, which seems to be somewhere in the Italian countryside, is a bustling, raucous place, complete with a town drunk, two old men, a band of musicians, and the requisite peasant boys and girls. The set is defined by a huge stucco wall that, in addition to limiting the stage space severely, revolves so often that it literally made me dizzy. But it really is a village: people kiss and get angry, kids dance with grown-ups, men lean against walls and drink wine straight out of the bottle. No formations with garlands, no happy lines of ladies. Just life. It's a wonderful picture.

Guillem appears, with a radiant expression, in a blue cotton dress that, one imagines, might be a little threadbare around the elbows. (She hasn't been seen on a New York stage for 10 years. The audience went wild.) The gray and brown peasant costumes are good for the atmosphere but not good for dancing; the brown pointe boots the women wear are downright ugly. No one wears makeup. We see a whole world, it's true -- but while it's a world that would be marvelous on film, it's far too busy and intimate for the ballet stage. I could see only bits of the acting, such as it was, between Guillem and Massimo Murru's Albrecht, and I was sitting in row G. I can't imagine how the Fourth Ring could even see the "he loves me, he loves me not" scene, it was so reduced in scale. A world of private moments may be good for the dancers' sense of their characters; it's not so good for the audience. The constant discussions between the dancers, even at climactic moments, were not so good for us either. I don't mind talking onstage, but sometimes this looked like a silent (or nearly silent) movie.

Other parts of Act I stood out more than they do in traditional productions. A prologue behind a scrim nicely contrasts Albrecht and Hilarion. The Peasant pas is a duet instead of a trio only because at the last minute Giselle is pulled away from her friends' dance by her mother, Berthe. Guillem highlights Berthe as a devout Catholic (she crosses herself before a small shrine to the Virgin) who's obsessed with the legend of the Wilis. Berthe has a famous mime sequence in which she tells the villagers about those ghostly maidens; here, as she tells it, the townspeople make fun of her superstitions behind her back, and one woman even dons a sheet and flies around like a ghost. While the mockery is disconcerting, it tells us about the legend in a vibrant new way. It also prepares us for Guillem's unusual understanding of the Wilis. They're not quite as scary as we thought, or at least not in the same way.

There's a lot going on in Act I, some of it dancing. Guillem has kept the Peasant pas de deux, danced with vigor and wide smiles by Deborah Gismondi and Antonino Sutera, but it's almost unrecognizable apart from the emboite turns at the end. I enjoyed the spunky rustic flavor of the new peasant waltzes. Parts of Giselle's solo -- the hops on pointe, for instance -- are there, though again revised, and the solo is danced to some Adolphe Adam music that doesn't appear in the traditional ballet. (Guillem and David Garforth "edited" the music, adding repeats and bits of other Adam for a soundtrack effect. Garforth conducted the New York City Opera Orchestra.) Bathilde and her retinue walk on wearing chic red and brown leather. The set expands into a warmly lit indoor space for the slightly drunken harvest celebration. Two laundresses dance on a table, and the musicians on stage play along with the orchestra.

When it comes to the mad scene, all of Guillem's careful, restless knitting together of music and steps falls to pieces. Albrecht and Hilarion stand facing each other with the sword forever, apparently waiting for the right music to come along so they can fight. (In the usual production, the music that here accompanies their prolonged standoff is used for Giselle's frantic run in a circle.) There's so much non-dancing going on that the "mad" music has to be repeated over and over until Guillem is ready for her close-up -- oops, I mean her death scene. It's all too arbitrary; there's just no flow. Fortunately, Guillem's long braid allows her to do away with the often awkward undoing-of-the-hair business. The climax of Act I receives a ho-hum interpretation. Guillem stands stock still while she goes mad from grief, then falls on the floor; she runs to the corner, then falls again. As she runs to Albrecht, she beams a megawatt smile at him, then falls again, dead.

That smile is crucial. For Guillem, Act II of "Giselle" has nothing to do with vengeance or forgiveness or even ghostly spirits. It's about women who, in life, loved to dance and loved to love, and in death remain the same. In her interview on Thursday, Guillem emphasized that the Wilis are not without minds, but without hearts. They're not brainless revenge machines, but women who've lost love. The Wilis are, Guillem suggested, like Bacchantes -- man-eating sirens who dance men to death because they like to dance and, if a man comes along to dance with, so much the better! So instead of diaphanous dresses we see long white wedding gowns, a different gown for each Wili. Guillem took the idea from the engravings for Heinrich Heine's original story of "Giselle." I enjoyed this effect at first, but as in Act I, the costumes obscured almost every step. Where once the women extended their arms in a long line of rejection toward Albrecht and Hilarion (danced with amazing dramatic power by Andrea Volpintesta), here they whisper to each other like high school girls at a prom. ("Who's the cute one with the long face?" "Oh, his girlfriend just split. Let's get him!") Myrtha -- the fine Emanuela Montanari, who also played Bathilde -- is the prom queen, devising the schemes of entrapment. Her big solo is shared with Lara Montanaro and Gismondi.

The trouble with this interpretation is that it drains much of the power out of Giselle's reunion with Albrecht. Here there is almost no distinction in drama between the life of Act I and the life of Act II, aside from the fact that the women in Act II are dead and the sunlit village has been replaced by a very, very dim midnight forest full of giant rocks and loudly hissing smoke machines. This is not a spirit world, and there is not the tension of repentance and forgiveness and danger and salvation that makes the traditional Act II so haunting. (Gone are the tomb and the lilies.) True, Guillem's version resolves some of the matters that trouble contemporary viewers. Giselle doesn't really forgive Albrecht (thus giving herself over to the power of a jerk); she just reunites with him in a shared knowledge of lost love. The women aren't treacherous phantoms. But the dance interpretation is muddled. Guillem gives the Wilis personalities, but keeps the arabesques voyagees. She retains most of the exquisite solo for Albrecht, but collapses Giselle's equally exquisite solos and the pas de deux into a few developpes and pirouettes and underarm lifts, destroying their momentum and their relation to the music. The conclusion is a cipher. I can understand Guillem's aim in revising Act I so heavily; her annoyance with rigid conventions there may be justified, and there's as much in the result to love as not to love. But in Act II, she does not give us proof enough that her changes are worth making. They simply aren't innovative enough to be refreshing.

A word here about last night's Albrecht, Murru. He's unassuming on stage, but nothing can hide the fact that he is a remarkable artist, refined and passionate at once. He longed for Giselle with his whole body throughout Act II, in high back-bending leaps and -- a new thing -- in sixteen entrechat sixes in a wide circle of Wilis.

We didn't get to see enough of Guillem dancing, somehow, and a rich character never developed. The dancing we did see was lovely, if a bit lacking in dynamic range.

In the end, this "Giselle" is a very personal creation. It comes from Guillem's own soul: It's about life (and, even in Act II, emphatically not about death), curiosity, voraciousness, ardor, and love. Part of this production's interest is the extended look it gives us into Guillem's mind, and how she thinks about a great ballet. The production also succeeds as a modest work of restoration, like what results from scraping dirt from a Leonardo painting. But there is a decided mistrust of choreography here. "Steps aren't enough," Guillem said on Thursday. One must "find the logic of life and put it on stage" if one is to reach those viewers who do not yet appreciate ballet. No argument there. But what about the logic of dance?

Before seeing it, I wondered if Guillem's production would convince me that the traditional "Giselle" is really moribund. I'm not convinced. When well-coached, well-understood, and well-danced, a traditional production can be just as much a living organism as this one is -- certainly, in dance terms, much more so. Still, Guillem and the exuberant dancers of La Scala have given us a real gift in this "Giselle." In her discontent with the status quo of this ballet, Guillem has indeed shown us something fresh about it, emphasizing characters, motivations, and connections in a way that -- even if one disagrees with them -- brings a new vitality to the situations. In Guillem's words, "It's what's lacking in the theater right now: passion." Those in charge of coaching Giselles and Albrechts and Wilis in this country should take her experiment seriously.

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