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Flash 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 end.

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 feasting?

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 feelings.

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 delightfully unpredictable.

Dramatically speaking, 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 a blanket.

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 click here)

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