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Robert Abrams
Performance Reviews
Special Focus
McCaw Hall
Pacific Northwest Ballet
United States
Seattle, WA
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Pacific Northwest Ballet - Giselle

by Robert Abrams
June 10, 2011
McCaw Hall
301 Mercer Street
Seattle, WA 98109

Featured Dance Company:

Pacific Northwest Ballet
Pacific Northwest Ballet (office)
The Phelps Center
301 Mercer Street
Seattle, WA 98109

Pacific Northwest Ballet's Giselle is a new production constructed based on several old scores (both music and dance notation scores). As such, the production is fairly close to what the ballet would have looked like when first premiered in 1841, with a few intentional deviations from the original to accommodate modern expectations. Also as such, the production is different in many ways from other productions of Giselle. Since this is the first production of Giselle I have seen, I can't comment on these differences from personal experience.

In this production, the libretto is by Jules-Henri Vernoy de Saint-Georges and Théophile Gautier.
Music by Adolphe Adam with additional music by Friedrich Burgmüller and Ludwig Minkus (attributed).
Choreography by Jean Coralli, Jules Perrot, and Marius Petipa.
Staging by Peter Boal.
Choreography reconstruction by Doug Fullington.
Historical adviser: Marian Smith.
Scenic and costume design by Peter Farmer.
Lighting design by Randall G. Chiarelli.
Conductor: Emil de Cou.
Full cast information is listed below.

The basic plot, for those who do not know the story is this: Duke Albrecht, who is betrothed to Bathilde, a noblewoman, falls in love with Giselle, a peasant girl. Albrecht disguises himself as a peasant and woos Giselle. Eventually Albrecht's deception is revealed, which causes Giselle to go mad and die. Then, in Act II, Albrecht visits Giselle's grave in the forest. Albrecht is attacked by Wilis, ghosts of brides who died before they were married and who force any men they find to dance all night until they either escape or die of exhaustion. As was typical of Romantic ballets of the period, Giselle incorporates much specifically symbolic pantomime that communicates a good deal of the plot. And of course, this being a ballet, there is much dancing.

One of the jobs of a dance review is to describe the movement. To describe all of the movement in an evening length ballet, from one viewing, is nearly impossible. This Giselle provides further proof: the production team already had a fairly complete description of the movement that they worked with over many months, so should a critic be expected to recreate that in one night, even in some idealized superhuman conceptions of the job?

The works of dance I like best are those that make me think. This Giselle got me thinking of memory. This Giselle is first a memory that has been preserved due to the scores of the original ballet that have been saved intact in archives. The enacted choreography that was created from these scores was lovely, so I think it can be said that what was preserved was worth preserving and that the process of preservation worked. Since the process worked, it suggests that if choreographers today want their own work to last hundreds of years, they should invest in creating similar scores of their work.

But I think it is also true that this Giselle appeals to lost memories. For example, the pantomime is not just enactments of meaning without words, but is a set of specific symbolic signs for meanings, much like modern sign language encodes one gesture for one word (and is also analogous in some respects to the system of gestures used in Classical Indian dance). For instance, drawing a circle above one's head with an upward flourish represents a hat with a feather and means "great lord". How likely is it for modern audiences to know the meanings of hat fashions from hundreds of years ago? And never mind hundreds of years ago, no one in the US has worn a hat since John F. Kennedy did away with them. Some other pantomime signs, such as putting one's hands over one's heart to mean "love", are easily readable by a modern audience. PNB put together a two page pictoral guide to some of these pantomime signs in the performance program. I read this before the show started and found it helped me understand the ballet. The point is that while the ballet is a reconstruction, the audience is modern. In 1841, these pantomime signs would have been common knowledge to an extent that is certainly not true today. Memory loss is widespread and ever progressive: it used to be a sign of an educated person to be able to recite many poems and even entire books from memory, but today we follow up vague recollections with a trip to a library or a Google search. With the advent of smartphones, some people can't even remember the phone numbers of close friends.

Even with symbolic pantomime signs known, dance has a hard time conveying detailed plots. You almost always should know the story ahead of time when seeing a story ballet (so read the synopsis in the program if you don't already know the story). I don't regard this as a problem. Dance can do a great job of showing you the how and the emotion of the action, and is thus also consistent with Brechtian dramatic theory.

PNB's Giselle challenges the audience to read a dance presented in an older mode. Challenge is good. Even in one viewing, the audience can pick up most of the plot, much of the pantomime and enjoy all of the accomplished dancing. I suspect that an audience member would be rewarded if he or she bought tickets to more than one performance. I would certainly see this Giselle again.

But as important as challenge is, and as important as preserving the past is, we as a dance community cannot succeed only by challenging our audience. We also need to adapt to modern expectations of memory. So I ask you this question: What was the last great silent movie you saw? The answer is probably "None." Almost no one makes silent movies anymore. Perhaps it is time to experiment with talkies in dance? With a production like Giselle, there might be supertitles like the ones used in opera that translate the pantomime. Supertitles above the stage might be a distraction to those in the audience who don't want or need them, so an alternative would be to provide audience members who do want the text with a heads up display they can mount on their glasses (I know someone in Seattle who can build such a device). Or maybe an audio commentary provided through headphones that don't leak sound. With either a heads up display or audio commentary, there could be multiple channels, such as guides to the plot, steps and performers. Perhaps the dancers should keep the pantomime but also speak matching lines of dialogue? The challenge, of course, will be how to add new modes of artistic communication without losing what is great about works of pure dance. The new modes could be an integral part of the art, or could be a way of training audience members in progressive steps so that they eventually need the new layers less. Either way, I think it would be a fun experiment to try.

Here are a few things I liked in PNB's Giselle, plus a few random thoughts. Act I opened with children playing that foreshadowed the rivalry Hilarion (a peasant who is also in love with Giselle) and Albrecht which forms the core of the plot. The whole production had a lightness that I found appealing. The comic bit with Giselle playing "Loves me-Loves me not" with a flower's petals and Albrecht helping her out by adjusting the flower's petals so that it ended on "Loves me" was very funny. I thought the corps de ballet, when dancing as winegatherers, danced with great energy. And this leads to two crazy ideas, one of which I am stealing from a friend of mine: PNB should do a wine tasting version of Giselle where the audience could sample wines like those produced by the characters on stage (since Giselle is a German story, I guess that might include some Rieslings) – see Wine Lovers The Musical, and for the really crazy idea, the dancers should do a dance where they literally crush grapes which could then be used to produce PNB wine.

Is Giselle Kate Middleton? Supposedly Giselle goes mad because in those days crossing class lines was forbidden, but maybe in a modern version, Giselle would bring a dose of sense to the royals. That would still leave the fact that Albrecht is betraying Bathilde, his betrothed, by wooing Giselle, which frankly is a more plausible reason for Giselle's madness: perhaps because Albrecht betrayed Bathilde, this makes Giselle feel betrayed too.

The sumptuous sets have great depth. The music is inspiring. The orange costumes of the peasants in Act I nicely suggested harvest time.

During the divertissement in Act I, there was a movement with a kick left and an arm curved right I especially liked. They danced with power and enthusiasm. The footwork was often admirably quick. In one section, I liked the use of levels, with the men popping up in back. There were several sections where a woman would cross the entire stage en pointe in feats of brilliance, once gracefully moving on one foot while the other leg was bent at the knee, and another diagonal cross spinning constantly. The audience was greatly enthusiastic here too. (And if you didn't get the pun two sentences back, feel free to groan now.) There were sections with interweaved lines of motion I liked very much.

I liked the way that Giselle was clearly overcome with passion in her mad scene. Was a broken heart really enough to kill her though? Maybe Giselle also had a medical condition that was acerbated by stress.

The raising of the curtain at the very end of Act I as a way of reminding the audience of the beautiful tableau with which Act I ends was a nice touch.

Act II is located at Giselle's tombstone, which seemed rather larger than a peasant family could afford. The only logical explanation I can think of, other than it needed to be that large to read to the back of the house, was that Albrecht paid for it.

The Wilis, with their tiny pointe steps, flying veils and overall great dancing, were simply ethereal. I liked the way that the footwork among the corps in Act II was often slower than in Act I: it provided a contrast in the choreography that mirrored the change in the scene.

There were some zig zag diagonals that I remember liking. Also a formation with determined hopping, with arms and one leg extended parallel to the floor.

The slower dancing of the Wilis mentioned above contrasted with other sections in which they danced frenetically: this showed off the dual nature of the Wilis. Sometimes in the latter, they seemed to be engulfing the men they were attacking, which seemed apt.

Giselle and Albrecht danced some very nice partnering.

When Giselle danced with flowers, the flowers extended her wingspan in a beautiful way.

Hilarion had some impressive high leaps.

Why do these men fear the Wilis anyway? Where I come from, there is a romantic notion that dropping dead on the dance floor is an ideal way to die.

Are the Wilis entitled to redemption? Perhaps if the man they are attacking can keep up with their dancing until sunrise, the Wilis should be set free.

As a dancer, Albrecht seems worthy: when he is dancing with the Wilis, several times exhaustion starts to overtake him, but each time he seems to have something left: he gets up and keeps dancing.

At the end of the ballet, Albrecht reaches a flower out to Giselle's grave, while also holding Bathilde's hand. Pacific Northwest Ballet's Giselle is a fine and beautiful ballet, but Albrecht is going to need some therapy if his marriage to Bathilde is going to last.

The very helpful mime guide PNB included in their performance program that they have graciously allowed us to reproduce. Illustrations by Uko Gorter.

The cast and crew for the June 10, 2011 performance.

Pacific Northwest Ballet principal dancers Lucien Postlewaite as Albrecht, and Kaori Nakamura as Giselle, in PNB's world premiere staging of Giselle.

Photo © & courtesy of Angela Sterling

Pacific Northwest Ballet principal dancer Kaori Nakamura as Giselle, with company dancers in PNB's world premiere staging of Giselle.

Photo © & courtesy of Angela Sterling

Pacific Northwest Ballet principal dancer Maria Chapman as Myrtha, queen of the Wilis, with company dancers in PNB's world premiere staging of Giselle.

Photo © & courtesy of Angela Sterling

Pacific Northwest Ballet principal dancer Maria Chapman as Myrtha, queen of the Wilis, with company dancers in PNB's world premiere staging of Giselle.

Photo © & courtesy of Angela Sterling

Pacific Northwest Ballet company dancers as the ghostly Wilis in PNB's world premiere staging of Giselle.

Photo © & courtesy of Angela Sterling

Pacific Northwest Ballet principal dancers Kaori Nakamura as Giselle, and Lucien Postlewaite as Albrecht, in PNB's world premiere staging of Giselle.

Photo © & courtesy of Angela Sterling

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