Some thoughts on ‘Giselle’ and the Paris Opera Ballet

Interesting news from Paris is that Benjamin Millepied will take up the position of Director of Dance at the Paris Opera Ballet following the retirement of Brigitte Lefèvre in 2014. Millepied, dancer and choreographer whose performing career has included a significant stretch of time with New York City Ballet where he rose from corps dancer to principal, is perhaps best known to a wider public for his work with Natalie Portman on the movie Black Swan. Millepied’s stage choreography was most recently seen in the southern hemisphere in 2012 in the Royal New Zealand Ballet season of NYC. RNZB staged Millepied’s 2005 work 28 variations on a theme by Paganini.  

Meanwhile, the Paris Opera Ballet, a company with a long and illustrious heritage, opens its Sydney season of Giselle at the Capitol Theatre tomorrow. It has been a while since a full production of Giselle has been danced in Australia, and this is a perfect opportunity to see it performed by the company whose forebears danced it at its world premiere.

Gisellefirst took to the stage in Paris in 1841 at the theatre of the Paris Opera. The ballet was developed by a first-rate team of European creatives. Its libretto was written by poet and critic Théophile Gautier and dramatist Jules-Henri Vernoy de Saint-Georges and was based on a story by the German writer Heinrich Heine. Its music was composed by Adolphe Adam and its choreography created by Jean Coralli and Jules Perrot. On opening night the role of Giselle was danced by Italian ballerina Carlotta Grisi and her performance that night established her as a major star.

Since that opening performance Gisellehas hardly been out of the ballet repertoire making it one of the most enduring of all the classics. It has undergone various changes over time, as happens with all works in the performing arts, but essentially it remains the story of a young peasant girl, Giselle, who falls for Albrecht, a nobleman in disguise. She has her heart broken and dies when it becomes clear that Albrecht is engaged to a noblewoman, Bathilde. Giselle returns in spirit form—as a Wili, that is a spirit of a betrothed girl who has died before her wedding night. Led by their queen, Myrthe, the Wilis are intent on pursuing to their death all men who enter the forest at night. It falls to Giselle to save a grieving Albrecht from this fate.

But like all works of art that have endured over centuries, Giselletakes place in a complex world. We encounter many differences of life-style—peasants appear alongside noblemen; and different realms of nature—a fertile countryside where a bountiful grape harvest is celebrated in Act I contrasts with a forest graveyard and the chill of night in Act II. In the Paris Opera Ballet production flower symbolism also plays a significant role. White flowers appear in both acts. They are daisies and field flowers in Act I. Giselle’s peasant admirer, the gamekeeper Hilarion, leaves a bouquet of white daisies outside Giselle’s cottage rather than the dead rabbit or bird he leaves in productions by many other companies. A single daisy also hints that all is not well when Giselle and Albrecht engage in the ‘he loves me, he loves me not’ game with daisy petals.

In Act II Hilarion returns with daisies for Giselle’s grave but the flowers of Act II include lilies, white roses and flowering myrtle, powerful symbols of love, immortality, purity, and in the case of myrtle used for centuries in bridal bouquets. The Queen of the Wilis, Myrthe, carries a branch of flowering myrtle as her sceptre; Albrecht enters with an armful of lilies for Giselle’s grave; Giselle pleads with Myrthe to spare Albrecht and a handful of white roses tumble from her arms and fall at Myrthe’s feet. The forces of nature are powerful throughout.

Gisellealso presents us with a number of conundrums. Where or who is Giselle’s father for example? We only meet her mother, Berthe, who in Act I superstitiously tells the story of the Wilis and provides a foretaste of what will occur in Act II. Could the father be the Duke of Courland, who in Act I arrives with his hunting party and is served with refreshments by Berthe? In the Paris Opera Ballet production (at least on its current video manifestation) he takes a particular interest in Giselle, cupping her chin in his hands and looking into her eyes. He seems quite familiar with Berthe as well. And why did Giselle die? Was it of a broken heart? Was it from all the dancing in which we see her engage in Act I, just as Berthe prophesied? Or did she inherit a weak constitution? And how does she die? Does she stab herself with Albrecht’s sword, which Hilarion uses to expose Albrecht’s real identity? And what of Albrecht? Does he really love Giselle? Or is he living a lie and wreaking havoc on the life of a young peasant girl as he plays at being a peasant himself? Marie-Antoinette and her fake rustic village at Versailles come to mind.

The dancing itself in this Paris Opera Ballet production is almost flawless in a technical sense. In addition, the dancers, male and female, have an elegance and a perfection in the way they carry themselves that not only reflects their impeccable training but somehow also seems to reflect their royal heritage. The Paris Opera Ballet can trace its lineage back to 1661, when the French monarch Louis XIV, the Sun King, established the Académie royale de danse. Louis XIV was an enthusiastic and accomplished dancer himself. His familiar name, the Sun King, is reputed to date from his appearance as Apollo, god of the sun, in one of the sequences in Les Ballets de la nuit in 1653. He was just 14 at the time and was dressed in a costume replete with golden rays that fanned out around him as we imagine the rays of the sun radiate from a golden orb. Legend also has it that he had such slim and elegant ankles that he loved to pose with his heel pushed forward to show the royal ankles in all their glory. Ballet technique, the story goes, has been characterised by a ‘turn out’ of the feet and legs ever since.

There is so much to ponder on as the story of Giselle unfolds. I am filled with anticipation!

Giselle, Paris Opera Ballet, Capitol Theatre, Sydney, January 29–February 9

© Michelle Potter, 28 January 2013

Postscript (29 January 2013): Shame about the misspelling of Laurent Hilaire’s name in The Sydney Morning Herald‘s article (p. 7) this morning. Not a good advertisement  for Australian media on the morning of the Paris Opera Ballet’s opening. And, although the same article also notes that Millepied has no official ties with the Paris company, Millepied has made a work for the company, his Amoveo (2006). Excerpts from this work and others by Millepied made recently are on his website.

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Telstra Ballet in the Park. The Australian Ballet in Canberra

This is an expanded version of a review written for The Canberra Times

Autumn in Canberra is usually the best of seasons. March 2012 has, however, been marked by excessive rain and a performance was touch and go on 16 March when the Australian Ballet arrived bringing its Telstra Ballet in the Park Gala to the city. But the company had not performed in Canberra for several years so people came in droves to Commonwealth Park for the performance, which was scheduled as part of the annual Canberra Festival. Dressed in rainwear, they sat under their umbrellas, picnicking regardless, and waiting. About five minutes before the show was due to start, the rain stopped, the umbrellas went down and the very large audience was treated to a series of ballet bonbons showcasing some of the company’s top dancers.

Lana Jones and Daniel Gaudiello, dashingly costumed in red, black and gold, opened the evening with Petal Miller-Ashmole’s pas de deux, La Favorita. Both Jones and Gaudiello have strong, sure techniques―those double fouettés from Jones were stunning―and cover the stage majestically with their movements. It was a joy to watch them dance together. They also both have great onstage personalities and what made this item the stand-out of the evening for me was their ability to project those personalities off the stage and into the audience. We weren’t seated in a space enclosed by walls and a roof and the extent of the ‘auditorium’ was vast, so being able to project in such a situation was some feat and not achieved to the same extent by others during the evening.

Another highlight was Rachel Rawlins and Ty King-Wall dancing the pas de deux from Giselle Act II. Rawlins is such a mature artist and captured beautifully the ethereal qualities of Giselle, as she danced to keep her one true love alive until dawn. Rawlins looks as though the balletic vocabulary is such a part of her very being that it is completely effortless, even during those demanding moments in Giselle’s variation where she travels backwards, upstage, executing a series of fast beats and relevés. King-Wall partnered her elegantly and his variation showed off his own fine beaten steps and elevation.

I was also impressed by Juliet Burnett and Andrew Killian who danced the pas de deux from Nutcracker. Burnett was poised and controlled in one of the most classical of pas de deux. Her adagio movements unfolded with an elegance and calm sense of control and she allowed us to see the structure of every développé, every arabesque. Killian was a suitably caring cavalier and danced his solos with great style.

We also saw the rising star of the company, Chengwu Guo, in two items, the pas de deux from Don Quixote and Le Corsaire. While Chengwu’s turns and jumps were spectacular, I missed the sexuality that more mature performers are able to bring to these works. There were strong flourishes every so often from Chengwu but there was a kind of restraint in the upper body rather than what I think the roles demand, the appearance of throwing caution to the wind in a display of unbridled passion. Chengwu partnered Reiko Hombo in Don Quixote and Miwako Kubota in Corsaire.

Also on the program was the Act III pas de trois from Graeme Murphy’s Swan Lake with Amber Scott, Adam Bull and Amy Harris. It was especially interesting to see Murphy’s contemporary choreography on a program that consisted of works in an older classical style. The Murphy style stood up beautifully although this pas de trois generally suffered from being seen out of the context of the complete ballet and without the set, which on reflection adds a brooding quality to the unfolding drama of this particular moment in the work.

Completing the program were the pas de deux from Stephen Baynes’ Molto Vivace, smoothly danced by Amber Scott and Adam Bull, and excerpts from La Baydère where Lana Jones and Daniel Gaudiello returned as Nikiya and Solor and in which the three variations were danced by Hombo, Harris and Dimity Azoury.
Artists of the Australian Ballet. Telstra Ballet in the Park

Artists of the Australian Ballet in an excerpt from ‘The Kingdom of the Shades’ from La Bayadère, 2012. Photo: William Hall. Courtesy the Australian Ballet

Canberra region audiences used to see the Australian Ballet once a year but a decision, an unpopular one in the eyes of audiences, was made some years ago now to remove Canberra from the touring schedule. The size of the audience for the Telstra event, which took place in less than ideal weather conditions, seems to me to be a clear signal to the Australian Ballet that it is time to return to the national capital on a more regular basis. The announcement that Garry Stewart and an unnamed collaborative team will make a new work for Canberra’s centenary in 2013 is a start.

Michelle Potter, 20 March 2012

Balletgoers love ‘Giselle’

As Jack Anderson says in a recently published article, balletgoers love Giselle. It has been some time since I have seen this classic of the Romantic repertoire performed live, which I regret. Still very clear in my mind is the Finnish National Ballet’s production of Sylvie Guillem’s staging, which while not the most recent I have seen—it goes back to the 1990s—for me is easily the most intelligent and most moving production I have had the good fortune to see. I still recall, however, Clement Crisp’s remark in a review in London’s Financial Times that this staging was ‘ultimately wilful as a view of an old text’.

Anderson’s article in New York Theatre Wire concerns a recent production of Giselle by Pacific Northwest Ballet under the direction of Peter Boal, and is also a comment on the recent meeting in Seattle of the Dance Critics’ Association. Although I will never be convinced that there is not also a place for those ‘wilful’ productions like that of Guillem, the Anderson article is a terrific piece of writing offering many insights into what is a remarkable ballet.

Read the article at this link

Michelle Potter, 2 July 2011

‘Peggy!’ The Australian Ballet

The first part of Peggy!, the Australian Ballet’s tribute to the company’s founding director Dame Peggy van Praagh, may well have delighted her. Mark Annear’s Birthday Celebration, a work made originally to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Australian Ballet School in 2004, was a joyous offering. Dame Peggy, who cared deeply about teaching and the training of dancers, would I think have been delighted to see that the Australian Ballet School, whose founding she fostered, is alive and well under its present director, Marilyn Rowe. The work showcased students of the school, including some very young children. Almost without exception their dancing was filled with the joy of movement—so refreshing.

The rest was not so exciting. A series of short excerpts from various ballets — van Praagh’s Garland Dance from the 1973 production of The Sleeping Beauty; an Act I pas de deux from Giselle, inserted into the ‘standard’ production by van Praagh in 1973; and extracts from Frederick Ashton’s Cinderella — suffered from lack of context and from ordinary dancing. The Giselle pas de deux, for example, is a beautiful addition to a great Romantic classic. As I mentioned in a much earlier post, dramatically it serves to establish early on, and in more depth than is usual in other productions, the relationship between Giselle and Albrecht. To perform it in isolation requires much more than Kirsty Martin and Ty King-Wall were able to give. Their interpretation was bland in my opinion. I also missed the choreographic delights I recall from the performance of this pas de deux in the Australian Ballet’s 2001 production — its Cecchetti-inspired use of epaulement and its light as a feather jumps for example. They just weren’t there.

The final work on the program, Antony Tudor’s Gala Performance, in which van Praagh herself once played the leading role of the Russian Ballerina, lacked the satirical subtlety that I was hoping to see. Like most of the ‘comedy’ staged recently by the Australian Ballet the roles were exaggerated making them a travesty of what was originally intended. However, if we are talking about roles suiting particular dancers, as we were in the comments on Coppélia recently, I have to say that Reiko Hombo was well suited to the role of the French dancer. She was properly bubbly and flighty.

In many respects in this program I preferred the ancillary material to the dancing. The archival film footage and interviews with those who had been close to Dame Peggy, which preceded each major segment on the program, gave interesting insights into the way Dame Peggy worked. And the small exhibition of photos and other items, which was set up in the foyer of Melbourne’s State Theatre, captured some key moments in Dame Peggy’s life. It’s a shame it wasn’t given a better space but it attracted a lot of interest both before and after the show.

Michelle Potter, 30 June 2010

‘Peggy!’ The Australian Ballet in 2010

When the Australian Ballet announced its 2010 season in September 2009, one of the most appealing aspects of the year long program was the prospect of a tribute season called Peggy! The ‘Peggy’ of the title is of course the Australian Ballet’s inaugural artistic director, Dame Peggy van Praagh. The program features works with which she is closely associated in some way and is also a centenary celebration of her birth in 1910. Peggy! will be seen only in Melbourne in eleven performances between 25 June and 5 July 2010.

Perhaps the most interesting of the works on the program is a pas de deux choreographed by Dame Peggy in 1973, which she made to be inserted into Act I of her 1965 production of Giselle. The pas de deux is not well known. Recent Australian Ballet audiences are probably more familiar with Maina Gielgud’s production of Giselle, which she first staged for the Australian Ballet in 1986. Van Praagh’s  pas de deux does not appear in this production. The Gielgud production remained a mainstay of company repertoire throughout Gielgud’s reign as artistic director and beyond. After leaving the company at the end of 1996, Gielgud returned ten years later in 2006 to stage it once more for the Australian Ballet. The van Praagh production of Giselle, with its distinctive pas de deux, was revived briefly by Ross Stretton for the Australian Ballet in 2001, but has not been staged since.

In a program note for the 1973 season, the company’s then musical director, John Lanchbery, wrote: ‘As a novelty there is a new pas de deux for Giselle and Albrecht in Act I which I have orchestrated and adapted from Soviet sources’. The pas de deux is rather more than the ‘novelty’ of Lanchbery’s note, unless one considers that Lanchbery was using the term in its less popular sense of ‘something new’. It is certainly not a ‘decorative trinket’, to use the word in its more popular sense. Choreographically, its Cecchetti-inspired use of epaulement and its light as a feather jumps are a delight, as is its denouement into its final, charming pose. Dramatically, it serves to establish early on, and in more depth than is usual in other productions, the relationship between Giselle and Albrecht. It also anticipates their Act II pas de deux and, as a result, the dramatic tension of the work is heightened when the Act II pas de deux is performed.

 

copy_of_marilyn_jones_and_johnathon_kelly_the_australian_ballet_giselle__photo_unknown_197311Marilyn Jones and Johnathon Kelly in the van Praagh pas de deux from Giselle. The Australian Ballet, 1973. Photograph reproduced by courtesy of  the Australian Ballet

Van Praagh’s biographer notes that, while she could probably not be considered a choreographer in her own right, she was adept at ‘imitating a choreographic style in the mode of either Petipa, Bournonville or Cecchetti’. This is probably true, but it is sad in many ways to be seeing the van Praagh Giselle pas de deux out of context. Its charm, however, makes it worth seeing, even as a kind of divertissement.

The Peggy! program also includes a staging of Antony Tudor’s 1938 ballet Gala Performance, in which Van Praagh created the role of the Russian ballerina. She also staged the work on various companies and her choreographic notes from her staging for the Royal Swedish Ballet in 1957 exist in her collection of papers at the National Library of Australia. They can be seen online at this link.

Peggy! also includes the Garland Dance from van Praagh’s 1973 production of The Sleeping Beauty, made in conjunction with Robert Helpmann, the pas de deux from Frederick Ashton’s Cinderella and Mark Annear’s work from 2004, Birthday Celebration.

© Michelle Potter, 29 September 2009

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

  • Christopher Sexton, Peggy van Praagh: a life of dance (Melbourne: Macmillan, 1985)