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Review 3, 6-11: Unsavage Love
Mats Ek's "Giselle": Still Tame After All these Years
By Erica Dankmeyer
Copyright 2004 Erica Dankmeyer
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PARIS -- When Mats Ek
chose to land his 1982 version of "Giselle" on a "tropical volcanic
island," he set the scene for a radical re-telling of the classic
1841 story ballet. This production, performed by the Paris Opera
Ballet at the Palais Garnier on May 21, opens with Giselle alone
on stage, attached by a rope to an unseen source offstage, struggling
to break free. This Giselle seems more willful and wild than her
historic sister. She does not seem destined to be the sacrificial
woman who, due to her marginal place in society, pays for the egoism
of socially accepted men. One imagines that this time, Giselle is
going to come out on top. Or, at least, she's going to fight to
The expressive, emotional
tones elucidated in Ek's striking movement vocabulary evoke a wonderful
array of human feelings. But the basics of the original story --
based on a tale by Heinrich Heine, and made into a ballet by Jules
Perrot and Jean Coralli, with writers Theophile Gautier and Jules-Henri
Vernoy de Saint Georges -- remain, and the promising new context
does not end up altering much about the characters or their fates.
What Ek seems most interested in is making visible, by stripping
away artifice and re-interpreting Adolphe Adam's musical score,
the emotional landscapes of his characters. Our view into Giselle's
psyche, in particular, is broadened. Though she is ultimately deemed
"crazy" by society, she seems to be merely dancing to the beat of
her own drummer.
The costumes and decor,
by Marie-Louise Ekman, are a peculiar mix of styles. The backdrop
in Act I depicts, in a Keith Haring-type cartoon style, the lush
vegetation of an island. Thick reeds make up the landscape, which
includes large green breasts for mountains and curves indicating
a reclining female nude. The wildness of this setting could explain
Giselle's unusual character; perhaps her non-conformity is merely
a reaction to her natural surroundings. The violence that sometimes
ensues in humid environments could also explain her suitor Albrecht's
duplicitous nature, not to mention her fiance Hilarion's misguided
attempts to keep, by force, the object of his love.
The costumes seem to
purposefully ignore the island setting. The peasants are in the
typical "peasant" garb -- drab aprons and head scarves -- while
Albrecht's fiancee, Bathilde, and her posse appear in almost Spanish-style
tiers of black lace over rich reds and greens, with the men in black
tuxedos with white cummerbunds. Giselle sports a contemporary look
of second-hand chic, with a vintage-style button up sweater, black
beret, and a tulle skirt over knee-length white tights, a potential
homage to the classic Wilis. Albrecht wears a Hemingway-meets-Havana
creamy suit while Hilarion wears simple, dark garb.
In Act II, the substitution
of female mental patients for the Wilis recalls the original theme
of wronged women who are not in control of their own destinies.
This is partly because the choreography seems not to depict true
insanity, but rather, disturbance, probably caused by confinement
and frustration. The backdrop depicts an asylum littered with parts
of a disassembled body: a nose, a breast, an ear, and so on. The
patients wear straightjacket dresses, and Giselle appears in a full
head wrap, presumably post-lobotomy. Within this over-the-top setting,
there is strong unison dancing, which, although enjoyable to watch,
does not evoke the torment of infirm minds. Solo sections danced
by these "esprits malades" depict these women's plights without
frenzy. With Ek's gift for expressive gesture, these women could
have been fiercer, or angrier, or more deranged, or perhaps, more
enlightened. At one point the lead dancer of the group of patients
lies prone on the floor, shaking, which comes across as cliched
in the context of such otherwise inventive choreography.
Ek's movement, while
sometimes purposefully awkward and jarring, nonetheless retains
a fluidity and grace, especially when danced by a company with such
exquisite classical training. The dancers' flawless technique perfects
the movement, sometimes to a fault. For example, when the peasants
are making love in the fields, the second position grands plies
of the couples could have been measured at an exact 90 degrees.
No real lustiness there! One wonders, given the setting, why they
were not frolicking by the seaside, pulling fruits from trees and
That said, the dancers
of the POB throw themselves into Ek's vocabulary with remarkable
energy. The company is a joy to watch. Perhaps in interpreting modern
movement, these dancers possess such refined grace that it is difficult
to achieve the magic that a certain edginess and weight can evoke.
One could liken it to trying to distress a silk gown, with the result
still being more beautiful than deeply expressive. The inventiveness
of Ek's choreography has tremendous dramatic potential, with the
right mix of technique and daring. The decisive, sustained gestures
that Ek uses to move the story along require a rooted, weighty quality
which is sometimes missing. Some recognizable Graham-like contractions
and back falls also appear, but the movements are executed as shapes,
approached from the outside rather than from breath and internal
For Giselle, Ek has
chosen a melange of simple, childlike gestures and long phrases
of nonstop, complex movement. The statuesque and lithely ferocious
Marie-Agnes Gillot, Giselle in the performance of May 21, interprets
this array of movement with alacrity. When Giselle is sad, disappointed,
or lonely, she simply hunches over, arms dangling, head hung, like
a dog being reprimanded. Her V-shaped sweeping arm gestures, extended
as if to smooth the air before her, are a repeated theme of longing.
Her joy and exuberance are expressed in a particularly striking
series of grand jetes around the space, in which Gillot flies into
the air with perfect abandon, only to land and fly again. Her jetes
starkly contrast those executed in unison by Bathilde's group, who
leap in the proper, aristocratic lines befitting their characters.
Despite her tremendous
grace and angelic beauty, Gillot manages to create an almost goofy,
childlike quality though Ek's vocabulary. Her physical size actually
accentuates this quality, as she towers over others, yet cowers
before them, like an overgrown child. Gillot carves and scoops the
space, extending her long limbs in arcs that embrace the entire
stage space. She articulates quick, quirky arm gestures and sudden
foot flexions that seem particularly fitting for her character.
When she folds her arms in unexpected patterns around her body,
letting just her legs gesture across the space, she seems to be
trying to physically hold her self back. But some part of her gangly
self always manage to break free, and express her desire and longing.
Gillot inhabits this newly hatched Giselle admirably, making her
Nicolas Le Riche's Albrecht is all playboy and opportunist in Act
I. He toys with Giselle and clearly lacks the sensitivity needed
to fully appreciate her quirky loveliness. His face does not light
up in her presence, and their central duet has a rag-doll floppiness.
She passively lets him manipulate her, enjoying it as a game but
not really understanding the intimacy of it. As a woman who is discovering
sex in a non-socialized way, Giselle is never aware of her sensuality.
In Act II, Albrecht visibly suffers, finally seeing the consequences
of his folly. In an interesting twist, Albrecht is literally stripped
naked in the end; the layers of artifice are the pieces of his suit,
removed by the "esprits malades." He finds himself prone, fetal-style,
until finally, searching alone in the reeds, he is brought back
to earth by Hilarion, who, in a gesture of kindness, wraps him in
Jose Martinez is whippet-thin,
refined and sleek, and as Hilarion, his frustration and heartbreak
are palpable. His jumps, containing lashing legs at all kinds of
angles, are executed with scissor-like precision. Although in Act
I he jealously tries to hold onto Giselle, his actual care and love
for her come through, and by the time he and Giselle dance their
final duet in Act II, he has softened and matured. He leads Giselle
in a lovely, gentle duet in the asylum, curving over her with his
arms and entire body in a gesture of gentle protectiveness.
For dramatic intent,
bravo to the wonderful Stephanie Romberg, who does double duty as
Bathilde in Act I, and Myrtha (the asylum nurse) in Act II. Romberg
has the ability to convey conflicting emotions with the mere turn
of her head. As Bathilde discovers Albrecht's betrayal of her, her
regality gives way to shock, self-doubt, and finally stout indignation.
As the nurse, her stern poise makes the choreography -- mostly traversing
the asylum in a long, solemn dress -- chilling.
This Giselle remains,
in the classical sense, Albrecht's story, since he is the one who
gets to undergo the most noticeable transformation. He matures and
learns the meaning of regret, while Giselle remains her good-natured
self, choosing to remain locked away in the end, while the long-suffering
Hilarion begins to accept his situation with more grace. Though
not a radical re-telling of the story, Ek's Giselle succeeds in
breathing new life into an old tale.
Erica Dankmeyer is a
dancer, choreographer, and teacher. She has been a member of the Martha
Graham Dance Company since 1996, and produced the first full season
of her choreography at St. Mark's Church in New York City in 2002,
as part of Danspace Project's Dance Access. She studied on scholarship
at the Martha Graham School of Contemporary Dance, where she is now
a faculty member, and holds a B.A. in Art History from Williams College
in Massachusetts, to which she returns frequently as a guest artist.
(To read a review of a different cast of Mats Ek's "Giselle," please
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