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Flash Review 1, 2-13: Phantoms of the (Paris) Opera
Lefevre Casts "Giselle" into Oblivion

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2004 The Dance Insider

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PARIS -- I'm beginning to think that when art happens on the ballet stage, it's in spite of and not because of artistic directors. New international sensation Alina Cojocaru, on loan from the Royal Ballet, and Manuel Legris -- perhaps our finest dramatic dancer -- did their best in Wednesday's Paris Opera Ballet performance of "Giselle" at the Garnier, and they did win our hearts, both with their attention to nuance and consistent interpretation. But the story -- fundamentally one of love and forgiveness -- was sabotaged by Yann Bridard's one-note Hilarion and Eleonora Abbagnato's immature portrayal of Myrtha, the queen of the Wilis. Presuming that she's ultimately responsible for the casting, one has to ask of POB director of dance Brigitte Lefevre: What were you thinking?

It's appropriate to go to the origins of this ballet, both to note that it premiered on this same company some 163 years ago and that it was born as literature, first in Heinrich Heine's poetry and then in Theophile Gautier's libretto, in which he enlisted the aid of Vernoy de Saint-Georges. "Within three days," notes George Balanchine in his "Complete Stories of the Great Ballets," edited by Francis Mason (Doubleday), "they had contrived a suitable story and the libretto had been accepted at the Paris Opera. Within a week the score (by Adolphe Adam) had been written and the ballet (choreographed by Jules Perrot and Jean Coralli) was in rehearsal. At its first performance, a few days later, 'Giselle ou les Wilis" was proclaimed the triumphant successor to 'La Sylphide' and the greatest ballet of its time." (The current POB version was adapted from Marius Petipa's "transmission" by Patrice Bart and Eugene Polyakov in 1991.)

But "Giselle" -- and this is crucial -- is not just a ballet of "its time." Like the romantic literature which provided its context, it gives us a story for all times -- again, revolving mainly around love and forgiveness. As in great literature, the plot relies for its advancement not just on the two heroes, the dewy and dreamy 15-year-old peasant girl and the duke, Albrecht, she first encounters as a peasant boy, but on all the other characters as well. The struggles of protagonists in a narrative exist not in a vacuum but are revealed by their contrast to others. The first act flirting of the already engaged Albrecht stands out as all the more careless -- and his reformation and redemption as all the more meaningful -- when contrasted to the more pure, and truly free devotion of Giselle's fellow peasant Hilarion. Though it provokes her death, Hilarion's motives in exposing Albrecht aren't entirely selfish -- because he truly loves Giselle, he doesn't just want to have her, he wants to protect her. Indeed, as Gautier recounted to Heine after the premiere (as told by Balanchine), Hilarion tells the duke, "But you are not free, you are betrothed to another."

None of this was apparent in Bridard's intepretation. While any dancer might be challenged to work with whatever remains of the pantomime in these old ballets, Bridard's half-hearted circling of his heart and pointing at Giselle's hut to indicate he loved the girl within rang patheticly hollow. It devolved from there; essentially he played Hilarion as a lug motivated by nothing besides his own petty jealousy and spite. Thus Giselle's death was stripped of half of its tragic consequence -- I mean that it should resonate tragically not just for her and Albrecht but for Hilarion, too, as his motives in exposing Albrecht are pure. We have little empathy for Bridard's hunter later, either, when he visits her grave and when he is danced to death by the Wili queen, Myrtha, and her charges.

As for her, in other interpretations I've seen (notably Muriel Maffre at San Francisco Ballet and Veronica Part), if Myrtha is ruthless, she is not malevolent. Rather, she is haunted -- washed by her own betrayal (like all the Wilis) into a sort of emotionless evil. If she faithfully and even willfully leads her coven into dancing to death any men who stray into their misty midst, she doesn't exult in their deaths. But Abbagnato played her as a spiteful 16-year-old pissed off because she didn't get her way at a party. There was no gravity in her interpretation, and no sense of the pain that brought her to this place. As with the light that a true Hilarion casts on Albrecht's evolution, it matters that we have sympathy with Myrtha; if we understand how she became like this, so unforgiving and merciless, Giselle's forgiveness in the face of similar circumstances is all the more generous.

The rub is that it didn't have to be like this. As my colleague Katharine Kanter more than intimates in her piece on the Paris Opera Ballet Concours -- which is theoretically used to help determine promotion at the company -- this troupe is rich in talent. The problem is that much of it is not promoted. Katharine points particularly to Emmanuel Thibault as "amongst several of the finest artists on our continent." But despite much trying, in previous years, he's unlikely to be promoted above his current level of 'sujet,' or soloist -- and rank is an issue here because it limits the dancer's casting. In Wednesday's performance, Thibault electrified the peasant pas de deux (notwithstanding his effortful partner Dorothee Gilbert). It's always an indication of unique talent when a dancer shows you something you've never seen before, even if, like me, you feel inadequate to describing it. I'll try: In his landings, each individual element of his leg -- feet, calf, thighs -- articulated. What I mean is, his precision wasn't limited to his feet but the expression of every fiber was given attention. And when I say electrified, I'm only being hyperbolic to the extent that we weren't actually all illuminated, but Thibault's animated eyes and face were. Oh, that we could have seen such animation put to use as Hilarion, instead of the laid-back Bridard.

I've spent a lot of time here on what might be called (although they're not, really, as I hope I've proved) the secondary principals, before I've even gotten to the 'stars.' (The corps was fine, but sabotaged by Yves Bernard's lighting, which added a yellow ribbon to the Wilis' ivory gowns.) I'll explain why in my conclusion but first let's give due thanks to Cojocaru and Legris.

Cojocaru, too, revealed aspects of this story I've never seen before, from the moment she enters dreamily and seems to be searching not for Albrecht, who had just knocked on her door and hidden, but for something more elusive, an arm reaching to the Heavens and her tilted head searching the very air around her; the image foreshadows her final passage as a living being, when she seems to be leaping into Albrecht's embrace, but really reaches beyond him before expiring in his arms. She also presages her mad collapse when she learns he's already betrothed; from the get, her aspect is like that person you encounter who, not quite looking directly at you when she speaks, seems not fully there and hints at a future insanity. Thus when she goes mad, if it's not so histrionic as other mad scenes I've seen, it's actually more believable, because she's laid the groundwork in her portrayal.

If this kind of subtlety in such a young actor-dancer -- Cojocaru was born in 1981 -- is a pleasant surprise, we've come to expect it in the more seasoned Legris. He doesn't just turn it on in the big moments, but breathes the character from the moment he enters -- thus making the big moments believable. His concern for Giselle starts even when he's still decieving her; during her first feint from her weak heart, I wasn't watching her but was alerted to it because of the look in Albrecht's eyes, which shifted from delight to sincere concern at her collapse. The quietness -- and thus realism -- of his interpretation continues until the final moment, which ends not in melodramatic contortions, but a somber, weighted walk downstage center, with his hands holding aloft a flower, whose truth regarding their love is finally unquestioned.

Ah yes, truth: The reason classical ballet doesn't attract more people -- in the general public and even in the community of modern dancers -- is that they just don't buy it. It seems dated. But whatever Stanton Welch might say, ballet doesn't need new combinations or new music to make it relevant, it just needs dancers who know how to see the relevance in the existing canon, and artistic directors who can see them.


As if to further illustrate this point, I've been postponing Flashing Mats Ek's "Fluke," given its premiere by the Lyon Opera Ballet last week at the Theatre de la Ville - Sarah Bernhardt. Ek is that rare choreographer who knows how to reinterpret classics, retaining their inherent relevance and adding new contexts to amplify that; the Paris Opera Ballet also performs his version of "Giselle," in which the heroine doesn't die but gets sent to a mental institution, and Albrecht attains a humility demonstrated when a forgiving Hilarion roles him naked across the stage at the end.

After seeing "Fluke," though, and another Ek ballet which doesn't rely on a proven libretto, "Appartement", I'm inclined to give even more credit for his "Giselle" to the original. A week after catching "Fluke," I find I remember little about the piece.... Nothing sticks. A semi-spooky figure (bald and dressed in black of course) recurred, trundling himself about on a mobile play-house and, earlier, playing dybbuck with a gibberish-spouting couple of, maybe, newlyweds. A woman with a number on her jersey performed a bubble-gum duet with another woman. It was all more or less musical, even if Flaskkvartetten's score was more or less all over the map. More gratifying, on the same program, was "O Sole Mio," a tour de force for longtime Ek dancer Ana Laguna, exuberant and lusty dancing to (and singing with) a recorded Luciano Pavarotti. "Solo for two," the clothes-switching male-female duet previously seen at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, didn't do much for me despite its energetic interpretation by Marketa Plzakova and Misha Kostrzewski, but it resonated with my companion as a portrayal of a longtime couple, often fighting when together but missing each other when separated, echoing each other's attitudes and expressions even as they reacted to them.

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