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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
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,
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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