Tuesday, June 28, 2016

This Spirit Soars: Giselle at the National Ballet of Canada

Artists of the National Ballet of Canada in Giselle. (Photo: Aleksandar Antonijevic)

Giselle is a work of fantasy, as compelling as anything seen today on Game of Thrones or Outlander, or any other contemporary pop culture enterprise probing the paranormal. No matter that the story of a Rhineland peasant girl who returns to earth as a ghost after dying of a broken heart is now 175 years old. It remains a powerful tale of love and vengeance – ballet as powerful theatre. Certainly, this iconic Romantic work has enabled the National Ballet of Canada to conclude the bumpy 2015/2016 season with a bang. The company’s performance of Giselle at Toronto’s Four Seasons Centre for the Arts two Fridays ago was especially sharp, with everyone from ensemble dancers to solo artists turning on the charm to make the ballet come alive for today’s audience. Sir Peter Wright’s 1970 remake is both logical and lively, despite dwelling 50 percent of the time in the land of dead. It is also sumptuously gorgeous. Adolphe Adam’s original 1841 score is a hauntingly beautiful – and readily recognizable – piece of music which the National Ballet Orchestra, under the baton of David Briskin, made poignantly dramatic. You can’t help but be moved just listening to it. But the ballet is really a feast and on this point Desmond Heeley’s eye-grabbing sets and costumes, bathed in tones of emerald green, burnished gold and lapis lazuli blue, more than deliver. The celebrated designer, a fixture of Canada’s Stratford Festival, died five days before Giselle opened on June 10; the National Ballet used the occasion to pay tribute to Mr. Heeley, dedicating the opening night June 15 performance to his memory.

Giselle, costume sketch by Desmond Heeley (1969).
While steeped in the supernatural, Giselle is fundamentally concerned with earthly matters. The class struggle is chief among them. The ballet’s opening scenes show grape-harvesting peasants toiling on land owned by finely dressed aristocrats who can barely stifle their feelings of contempt when faced with their labourers in the flesh. The gritty realities of the uneven social field in Act One contrast with the supernatural in Act Two where love, as an ideal, exists apart from the human world of deception and blatant sexual tension. Embodying the ballet’s many dualities is Albrecht, a nobleman from the castle looming on the horizon who has disguised himself as a villager named Loys so as to flirt with the comely Giselle, a low-born seamstress with a delicate heart who is completely taken in by his elaborate lie.

This season, Harrison James makes his company debut dancing Albrecht, taking the lead just days after the National Ballet announced it had promoted him from soloist to principal dancer, its highest rank. His elegant and eloquent performance speaks for itself as to why he is now in the company’s upper echelon of dance talent. His springy split-leg jumps, soundless landings, quick-silver beats of the foot, mark him as a dancer with exceptional technique. He is also blessed with dashing good looks, a noble carriage and a friendly demeanour that makes him easy to like – and even adore. With Albrecht, James shines not only as a technician but as an artist who can take the ballet’s mimed scenes and turn them into wordless monologues and dialogues stamped with a distinct individuality.

The New Zealand-born dancer plays Albrecht not as a cad, as others have done, but as a sexually-charged young man who longs to be free of responsibility and the obligation of his pending aristocratic marriage. He genuinely delights in Giselle and is fascinated by her innocence even as he intimates to his squire, Wilfred (danced by Giorgio Galli), that what he’s really after is her body. He is petulant when he doesn’t get his way, and quick to draw his sword when crossed by Hilarion, his rival for Giselle’s affections, who is superbly played by the Piotr Stańczyk. When Albrecht realizes he is responsible for Giselle’s demise, his remorse is keen. Giselle’s death awakens in him a sense of decency. It’s a transformation that James conveys slowly and carefully, like the unwinding of a watch.

Sonia Rodriguez. (Photo: Cylla von Tiedemann)
On this night, the more senior dancer, Sonia Rodriguez, dances opposite James in the title role of Giselle and her delicacy is a perfect match to his flash and fire. Rodriguez has danced the role before and so she knows the ropes – happily leading Albrecht in the villagers’ dance and partnering him in a pas de deux. The aim in both is for Giselle to be rhythmically in step with this handsome stranger in her midst while still being spontaneous, like a free spirit. Her portrayal of Giselle in Act One is all smiles, and high-stepping quick turns. She is guileless, a young woman in love for the first time, and it does, quite literally, take her breath away. Her love of life is infectious, compelling members of the village to dance around her with joy. Her “friends” include first soloists Jenna Savella and Tina Pereira, the latter scrupulously executing her pointe work, and newcomer Laurynas Vejalis, a member of the corps whose elevation and fluidity marks him as a one-to-watch.

The carnival atmosphere of the fall gathering comes to an abrupt halt when Loys is revealed to be Albrecht, and worse, engaged to Berthe, his beautifully bored fiancée as played by Stephanie Hutchison. The revelation of deceit causes the carefree Giselle to transform instantly into a tortured soul who unloosens her hair (symbolizing her loss of control) during a mad scene that not for nothing has Giselle dubbed the Hamlet of ballets. She grabs a sword, lying conveniently on the ground, and then expires on the spot, throwing everyone into grief.

In Act Two Giselle’s metamorphosis from pretty filly to pathetic phantom is predicated on dancing that ironically requires a great deal strength to appear weightless. The ballerina here must create the illusion that she is pure spirit, and to achieve this she jumps repeatedly and spins in a low arabesque turn, her arms bent like broken wings. Rodriguez masters it all, and then some. She has always been among the National Ballet top dancers; certainly she is one of their better dancer-actresses. This time, she manages to out-perform herself. With this performance of Giselle, Rodriguez is particularly strong, and convincing.

Her dancing illuminates the vibrancy and melancholic verse of the Adam score while enhancing the Romantic atmosphere of the ballet blanc. When her partner holds her aloft during the Act Two pas de deux she slides her ribcage to one side of her torso to give the illusion that she is flying, a creature of the air. Isolating the dance image, Rodriguez mines its emotional essence, appearing in this instance more than like an imagistic poet, than a dancer. But a dancer she is, and one worthy of great praise. During her final moments on stage, just when you think she might want to truly expire from the effort, Rodriguez pulls out the stops to perform a series of gliding pas de bourrée suivi steps on pointe, a masterful feat that makes palpable Giselle's evanescence.

Principal dancer Heather Ogden, in rehearsal for Giselle. (Photo: Daniel Neuhaus)

How did Giselle get from there to here? Sir Peter Wright’s interpretation of the ballet, first staged in 1970, complicates what happens to our flesh-and-blood heroine when she discovers her lover is a fraud. In the 1841 original by Jean Coralli and Jules Perrot, based on a book by Vernoy de Saint-Georges with input from Romantic poet, journalist and dance critic Théophile Gautier, Giselle goes mad and dies of a broken heart, a narrative detail preserved in the 1862 version which the formidable Paris choreographer, Marius Petipa, created for the Imperial Ballet in Russia. Petipa’s ballet, since re-exported around the word, forms the basis of Wright’s own. But while faithfully recreating the energetic peasant dances of Act One and the ghostly visions of Act Two (originally created by the relatively new invention of gas light during the Romantic era), the choreographer departs from tradition by having Giselle die not of broken heart but instead of self-inflicted stab wound. Death by suicide makes sense given that Giselle is buried in unhallowed ground as would have been dictated by the Church at that time. Heeley’s set design shows the grave as a dirt pile in a dark wood, far from civilization. The mood is both sad and terrifying, augmented by what happens next.

When Giselle rises from the dead, she is dressed head-to-toe in the diaphanous white costume and veil of the Wilis, a mythical band of jilted maidens who haunt the forest at night. Illuminated by moonlight (Gil Wechsler did the wondrous lighting design), the Wilis enter the nocturnal scene two by two, jumping first left and then right before executing more assertive jetés that carry them forward to create a dense diagonal line forbidding penetration. Giselle is the newcomer and she positions herself just outside their fearsome society. Myrtha, the merciless Queen of the Wilis, is the leader of these vampirish females, danced here by a hard-as-nails Heather Ogden holding branches of rosemary in her hands, symbolizing memory. Some grievance in her own past has made Myrtha vengeful; Ogden’s imperious portrayal is flecked with hints of remembered pain and anger: a monster with a backstory.

Myrtha orders her weird disciples to kill first Hilarion, which they do by tossing him in a nearby lake. Albrecht they conspire to dance to death. But Giselle intervenes, countering Myrtha’s anti-Christian edict with an act of selfless devotion to the man she loves. She keeps the now penitent Albrecht alive until dawn. With the tolling of the church bell, the horrified Wilis slink away, back to their dark tombs. Giselle vanishes along with them, but not before giving Albrecht the gift of her undying love, as symbolized by the white lilies she showers upon him, signifying her eternal purity. Albrecht clutches at them as tokens of what he has both lost and gained. It’s not cheap sentimentality. Forgiveness is the theme here, and it bridges the distance between life and death. It’s what has allowed Giselle to endure for close to two centuries. The ballet speaks to the heart of what it means to be mortal, and flawed. It’s tale of second chances against all odds, a ghost story that’s hard to dismiss.

 Deirdre Kelly is a Toronto-based journalist, author and internationally recognized dance critic. She writes for Dance Magazine in New York and the Dance Gazette in London, and is a contributor to the International Dictionary of Ballet (St. James Press). A staff writer at The Globe and Mail, she was her newspaper's award-winning dance critic from 1985 until 2001 before transitioning to the Style section as the fashion reporter. She has also served as the paper's rock critic and as an investigative reporter in the visual arts with a focus on art crime. The best-selling author of Paris Times Eight and Ballerina: Sex, Scandal and Suffering Behind the Symbol of Perfection, recently re-released in paperback, she writes on dance, theatre, the visual arts and fashion for Critics At Large.   

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