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Flash Review, 7-17: "Giselle" 2003
Paris Opera Ballet: The Real Thing

By Nicole Pope
Copyright 2003 Nicole Pope

PARIS -- Before I explain anything about what I saw during the Paris Opera Ballet's Friday evening performance of "Giselle," let me explain myself. Before this fated night, I was one of those unfortunates who has seen very little ballet; the reason being that the little ballet I have seen did not inspire me to return to the theater any time soon. I didn't understand ... I went to performances by San Francisco Ballet, American Ballet Theatre, and New York City Ballet; I saw the choreography of Balanchine and Jerome Robbins among others. This was supposed to be the "good stuff," and the "good stuff" often looked like a bunch of blank faces and stiff bodies, performing as if a mirror had been placed down the center of the stage, so that the right side performed the right side of the phrase and the left side performed the left. The performances I saw seemed to be one dimensional, as did the performers themselves, particularly the corps, because of their lack of commitment to any given piece. Instead, I often received a sense of ego from the performers which did not let me enter whatever world they were supposed to be portraying, whether it was narrative or not, and ultimately sacrificed the choreography and my experience of it. Going to Lincoln Center was like going to the Louvre only to find all its amazing artifacts and treasures covered in dusty sheets of plastic.

At some point, I thought maybe I had to begin re-examining my expectations when viewing a ballet, or even lowering them.

So, as I took my seat Friday night inside the Palais Garnier, with its velvet covered seats, marble balconies, and gold guilding, I wondered how I would ever be able to keep my eyes on the stage when there was a giant mural painted by Chagall just above my head. While some may have approached the performance of Jean Coralli and Jules Perrot's "Giselle" with some reservations about the plot of the ballet, I approached it with some reservations about ballet.

Luckily, due to the research I have been doing as of late about Marie Taglioni, I was prepared for an evening of Romantic ideals inspired by Heinrich Heine's story of the Wilis, later adapted by Theophile Gautier and Jules-Henri Vernoy de Saint-Georges. I knew that this work reflected the sentiments of a certain era and that to hold it up to my girl-power standards would be less than fair, especially upon my first time seeing it. But, as the musical composition of Adolphe Adam began to whisk me away to another land, the curtain rose to reveal the woodsy set design of Alexandre Benois, and a cast of animated dancers frolicked into the lights, all of the heady compromises I had been making with myself in order to enjoy the ballet dissolved away and I was, for the first time while watching a piece of dance, moved to tears, because I was finally experiencing the real thing, and what a wonderful relief it was to discover that a little ex-bunhead like myself could still love ballet.

Besides the dancing of the principals, which I spent half the time watching with my jaw dropped, what made this the real thing was that everyone on stage believed in what they were doing, including the corps. Even when the focus was on the peasant duet, the corps was entirely engrossed in the couple's dancing, nodding to each other in accord over how beautifully they danced. This ability to believe, to be fully a part of and fully invested in telling a story does not take mind-boggling extensions, fancy footwork, or dozens of pirouettes (of course, it helped that the entire cast was technically the best I have ever seen); all one needs is the talent of a good imagination, and I suppose this specific capability lies not only within the hands of the dancers, but also within the hands of visionary stagers like Patrice Bart and Eugene Polyakov.

I don't know if the aforementioned companies are lacking these factors, but if I may humbly say so myself, as someone who wants to enjoy ballet, they are doing this classical form a great disservice. Until seeing the Paris Opera Ballet, I hadn't realized that a ballet's success depends so heavily on the interpreters rather than the work -- that one must decide whether to see a work based who is performing it rather than what's being performed. This is not to say that the Paris Opera Ballet rendition did not have its shortcomings. Yann Bridard's portrayal of Hilarion lacked the dedication I speak of above; his revenge on Albrecht seemed to be motivated by macho competition rather than love. His miming gestures were half-hearted, and his face only showed the expression of anger. So, as a first-time viewer, I figured that if I were Giselle and I had to choose between these two, there would be no competition. As far as I was concerned, there was no love triangle.

When Albrecht, performed by the dashing Jean-Guillaume Bart, rushed onto stage in anticipation of seeing the woman he loves, boy did I believe it. The intensity of his eyes and the dedication of his gestures revealed that he would be much happier in these woods with this woman than he could ever be up in that castle that we see far off in the scenery. In Act II, when he is forced to dance nearly to his death, it is the first time that his ecstatic leaps seem to take any effort.

Agnes Letestu danced Giselle and for every ounce of expression that ran through the rest of her body, her eyes were doing the same. They emoted the love, excitement, naivete, grace, and betrayal of Act I, and the maturity and forgiveness of Act II. I think Letestu was born for this role, just in terms of her physicality. Whether sitting on a bench in Act I, flirting with Albrecht, or crossing the stage in a series of bourrees, her neck, as long as the necks of Modigliani's women, softly curves over to one side or the other, humbled by the moment and oblivious to what is to come. In Act II, her love of dance is still evident as she crosses the stage in whimsical glissades and grand jetes, but my heart dropped when she ended the spectadular sequence with the Wilis' signature arabesque -- wrist limp, fingers and eyes pointed down.

Of course I have saved the best for last: the royal role of Myrtha as performed by Marie-Agnes Gillot. The stage of the Palais Garnier is the largest I've ever seen, but as a single body on that stage, traveling a straight line of barely visible bourrees down the center of the stage with arms crossed in front of her torso, Gillot's presence demands the complete attention of the audience. She holds the space in eerie suspense, as she takes us under her spell. She leaps as though she has a partner thrusting her into the air or suspending her. And oh! I could write ten pages about the articulation she was able to squeeze out of her feet alone, while her arms had the breadth and the extension of birds' wings. Glorious!

Now that I have been spoiled with what I know now is a rare treat, I have to think about how this will affect my experiences of seeing ballet in the future, particularly in the U.S. But for now, I am just glad that hope has been restored.

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