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Flash Flashback, 6-16: In the Nut House with Giselle
How Mats Ek Solved the "Giselle" Problem

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2001, 2006 The Dance Insider

(The Dance Insider has been revisiting its Flash Archive. This Flash originally appeared on November 2, 2001.)

PARIS -- What I want to know is, why aren't American companies presenting the work of Mats Ek, whose 19-year-old "Giselle," which modernizes the setting while retaining the most timeless moral cornerstones of this 160-year-old classic, I saw last night at the Palais Garnier on the Paris Opera Ballet?

First choreographed by Jules Perrot and Jean Coralli, to a book by Vernoy de Saint-Georges, Theophile Gautier, and Coralli, the classic "Giselle" to the buoyant Adolphe Adam score justifies its existence today mostly as a ballet museum piece and as a proving ground for the ballerina, the corps, and to a lesser degree, the danseur who is almost danced to death as Albrecht. But it also presents a challenge to contemporary sensibilities that can stretch credibility, especially with young audiences: Count Albrecht declares his love to the peasant girl Giselle only to abandon her when his fiance shows up, driving her mad and ultimately to her death. In a word, he's a cad. Yet, when he seeks out her grave in the second act, in the grotto haunted by the Wilis -- ghosts of maidens who died before their wedding days -- her spirit and love save him from being danced to death by the Wilis and their mirthless queen, Myrtha.

What Mats Ek has achieved, with pinpoint accuracy, is to extract and elevate the elements of the ballet which still resonate today. His pared down "Giselle" is a story of forgiveness, undying love, and ultimately redemption.

Ek achieves this, I would almost say, DESPITE jettisoning the ancient setting and retaining only the thinnest shell of the plot, and re-contextualizing the ballet in a way that, before you see it unfold, appears hackneyed.

(If you already know the libretto of Ek's "Giselle," feel free to skip the next two paragraphs while I describe it for the uninitiated.)

The Giselle of Mats Ek is no longer the peasant girl looked up to by her community, but the village idiot protected by them. Literally tethered to the hearth by her fiance Hilarion, she is liberated by Albrecht, a local playboy from the big city. They dance and embrace as much as children as lovers. Bathilde shows up, and Albrecht still deserts Giselle, and she still goes crazy; but she doesn't die, instead being hustled off to a Daliesque psychiatric ward, presided over by one Nurse Myrtha. As conceived by Marie-Louise Ekman, disjointed body parts floating around an ascending backdrop suggest a bolted room, dwarfing the seven straight-jacketed inmates -- Ek's Wilis. Giselle, meanwhile, appears with a bandage wrapped around her head which bears an eerie resemblance to the tierra of a swan queen, and which might suggest that she has been lobotomized to forget that which will only torture her.

Hilarion stops by to visit, but isn't too bright about the item he's brought along to jog Giselle's memory: The large blue carnation which was given her not by Albrecht, but Bathilde. He is not danced to death, but instead thwarted by the Wilis who persist in their mad ramble -- a dance which borrows its flight from ballet, and its hunched torsoes and arched arms from Graham -- and ignore him until he leaves in frustration. Albrecht shows up with a similar mission, but it's he who ends up renewed and given new life. By the time he leaves, he has been stripped of all pretensions and indeed, totally stripped. Unable to retrieve Giselle from the world of the insane, to which she is inexorably drawn as sure as if she were dead, he rolls back (literally upstage) to the country, which we know because that backdrop of rolling breast-like hills has now replaced the psychiatric ward. He carreses the canvas and the country, as if discovering it anew -- or perhaps as if searching its landscape futilely for Giselle -- until Hilarion discovers him. After first raising his pitchfork, poised to strike, Hilarion, too, is suddenly redeemed, and races offstage, returning with a cloak which he tenderly drapes over his rival's shoulders, closing the ballet with an almost jubilant, skipping dance of spring, as both the men responsible for Giselle's fate are renewed and redeemed.

Of course, the dancers can also put the bold type on the lessons of a story and even introduce new ones, and in last night's cast at the Garnier, Ek was blessed with interpreters who both clearly enunciated the themes of forgiveness, undying love, and redemption, while also telling us something about the thin line between play and madness, both stemming from different kinds of innocence.

Aurelie Dupont's Giselle was so nuanced, that if I hadn't read the plot summary beforehand, I might not have guessed her to be "the village idiot." Dupont presented her character not as a stereotype, but with empathy. After all, a mentally handicapped person doesn't walk around doing obviously stupid things. It's more that they are just not so sophisticated as the rest of us. Their outlook and reactions are simple and undisguised by fear or calculation. Thus every time, it seems, that Dupont's Giselle encounters Albrecht (last night, the incisive Manuel Legris), she marvels at him as one might at a bright new toy. There is nothing demure about her response, as she rolls her chin over his chest, and unabashedly throws her arms around him. And when she is rejected, or has the feeling she has done something wrong, she doesn't just simply cower, but drops her torso and hangs her arms and head. Sure, the choreography is provided by Ek, and the beret by the costumer, but it's Dupont who gives Giselle more than anything the aspect of a child, with all the equal susceptibility to sudden joy and rapid disappointment to which this makes her liable. Giselle also leaps about in joy, but what's uncanny is despite her inherent ballerina polish, she comes off as awkward -- in a good way. Rough and clunky -- nothing fine about her. Her presentational bounds -- for Ek doesn't totally abandon the ballet language for Grahamian contractions -- across the stage are all the more endearing for it.

In other words, she is responding as a child, and it is this innocence, in turn, which charms Albrecht, as he too loses all reservation and plays with her.

Legris, too, does not present as a facile playboy just out for a good time. Finding her tether (a rope stretching off-stage), he grimaces in indignation as if to say she won't remain captive if he can do anything about it. When she gives him her security pillow -- a goofy red object with yellow tassles and a silly face painted on it -- he clutches it as if she has given him her heart. There is nothing condescending about the way he receives the gift; he is not just humoring her. Even tho he will return at first to Bathilde, his open manner here makes it easier to believe his later repentance -- his attraction to Giselle has something of genuine love in it from the get, even if it's not initially strong enough to urge a renunciation of his rakish ways.

Bathilde, in Ek's conception and especially as interpreted last night by that ballet chameleon known as Marie-Agnes Gillot, is painted more fully than in the original. In fact, it's she, on discovering that the peasant who at first charms her has actually usurped her man, who seems to be going mad. It starts when Hilarion shows up to entertain Bathilde's party (after the other peasants have rolled out several large eggs for them to sit on), wearing Albrecht's tuxedo jacket. Giselle at first seems to have warmed to Hilarion, but we soon realize that it's the jacket -- and the scent of its owner -- that she's actually responding to. When all this dawns on Bathilde, she does a slow burn and then collapses backwards on the eggs, writhing and palpitating on them.

At last night's performance, there was an interesting casting change at curtain which gave a further twist to Bathilde's circumstances and her end. The program listed Agnes Letestu as portraying both Bathilde and Myrtha, with Gillot scheduled to play the lead Wili, but Gillot was substituted for Letestu as Bathilde. Thus when this first -- andmost demonstrably far-gone -- Wili makes her appearance, and it's the same dancer we just saw as Bathilde, it seems as though maybe both of Albrecht's women have been driven mad by his duplicity.

Until the poignant conclusion, really more an epilogue, this second act was harder to believe as a modernization with fealty to the original. This was not so much a problem with the choreography, which was rich for the eight wilis and luscious yet original, utilizing all levels, for the main couple. Rather, at certain points in the score, one just expects certain events. And when what we're seeing from Ek is so far from what occurs in the original, the connection between the two becomes tenuous; if neither Hilarion nor Albrecht are being danced to death, how much "Giselle," really, is left in this "Giselle"? The death-driving solos for Albrecht have become almost as much a yardstick for a danseur's ability to transcend the normal limits on any body's durability, as has the whole act become a test for a ballerina's ability to appear to be defyiing gravity and floating apart from it. Here, though, in Ek's conception, when the musical rise that we're used to thinking of as accompanying Albrecht's dancing to death comes, it's the Wilis, not him, who are tearing about. (And committed wilis they are, played realistically and believably, not over-acted, by, in addition to Dupont and Gillot, Geraldine Wiert, Beatrice Martel, Stephanie Romberg, Mirentchu Battut, Nolwenn Daniel, and Laure Muret.) When he rips his jacket off for a touring searing solo, it is of his own volition, to impress Giselle and demonstrate his new-found faith to her. If she is meant to be lobotomized and thus to have forgotten him, neither this memory loss nor a recovery were clear in their relationship. She wants to strike him, first, suggesting she knows well who he is and is not so made after all. They perform a romantic duet, him lifting her on his naked back, suggesting their love is remembered. But when her fellow inmates enter, she wants to go with them when they exit; he tries to hold her back, but is ultimately unsuccessful. Then just as suddenly -- I'm not sure how it happens -- he is rolled on the stage naked, surrounded by the women, and rolled to the backdrop when they exit. Their relationship still seems unresolved, to me anyway, but not the ballet, with its Prodigal Son-like conclusion suggesting redemption for both the men.

I'm not saying the choreography isn't original. Indeed, what saves Ek's "Giselle" from appearing just a facile modernization is that he doesn't expect us to be content with just a modernized libretto. He develops a vocabulary and choreography, incorporating Graham and ballet, which, if not as coherent as the original's, is complex and doesn't settle for the obvious. There's a chilling frieze where Gillot's character in the second act tilts on her side, lying down, and becomes consumed with the shakes, until Giselle glides her hand over her.There is a repeated motif of the women yawning their mouths open and putting their hands to them, as if to say, 'We're hungry!" as they beseech Myrtha. Myrtha, unfortunately, doesn't have much to do, besides picking up her charge's shrouds and picking the women up and taking them to bed once they've tired themselves out. And Letestu is almost too beautiful for the role -- the image of beatific serenity, not cold domination -- at least without more meat to the choreography she is given.

As Hilarion, in which his choreography is more a series of tableaux than a fluid way of moving, Wilfried Romoli, following his grotesque Hunchback in the also-stylized vocabulary for Roland Petit's "Notre-Dame de Paris," seems almost of another world. Like Gillot, if he weren't a dancer he could probably be just as accomplished an actor, seeming as he does to be so inhabited by his characters.


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