Giselle has never been my cup of tea. I know, I’m sorry, please don’t yell at me. I mean, I understood why so many people are obsessed with it: it’s the epitome of romantic ballet, one of the greatest classics ever, the most challenging role for a ballerina, etc. etc. Fine, whatever. For me, it was boring. The whole ballet felt like the story had to be there as an excuse for dancing, and the second act especially seemed like it had no plot. Consequently, I was bored. Last night I saw the Paris Opera Ballet’s production for the first time, and that part of my ballet life is over. The Paris Opera’s tour has been the biggest ballet gift I’ve received since moving back to New York; ABT has absolutely exquisite moments every season but something usually seems a bit off. NYCB is fantastic at what it does: Balanchine, Robbins, Wheeldon, etc. but telling stories has never been their thing; even The Nutcracker (as much as I adore it) is really a series of self-contained segments that don’t really connect to an overarching narrative. Paris Opera Ballet gave me the best of both worlds. They have the technique, that’s never even a question, but they also know how to be in the story, how to make the steps serve the narrative; they know how to make a ballet come alive, even if everyone in it is dead. I’ve said that New York audiences love to applaud when a dancer does something technically brilliant, and that’s true, but every time they did during Giselle it felt superfluous. Like, of course they can hop on their pointes, their pirouettes are perfect and they can balance forever. Who cares? That’s missing the point entirely. I’m not going to write about technique, it’s unnecessary. Instead, let’s focus on how the dancers used it.
First, a word on the corps de ballet. I’m pretty hard on various companies’ corps; for me, soloists and stars simply cannot shine as brightly if the corps is a mess. It’s very distracting if there’s an arm out of place or varied timing and, frankly mistakes like that make the entire company look bad. The Paris Opera Ballet is the reason I feel like it’s not only appropriate, but necessary to insist on proper corps work. Look! This is what you could be! This is what you’re aiming for! They were together and musical, proving that those values do not have to exist in a vacuum! Instead of individual members competing for audience attention by dancing separately, they worked together and as a result the group was breathtaking as a whole. The best part about this is that because I wasn’t distracted by various legs and arms, I could focus on how very musical and, well, haunting they were (sorry, but that’s the right word). Their synchronicity gave the illusion of a forest full of Willis; because every movement of every dancer was in perfect harmony, the stage could only show a tiny fraction of the ghosts. I could almost swear that those lines went on for miles. I’m not going to get over how truly beautiful this was anytime soon.
My two Giselles were Dorothée Gilbert and Clairemarie Osta (in her final performance). Both dancers were lovely and both are largely responsible for why I now actually enjoy this ballet. They did have slightly different approaches to the character which I’d like to address through their respective ‘mad scenes’ and second acts.
Gilbert, I felt, was the dancer that really showed Giselle losing her mind. She wavered back and forth on her pointe shoes, and instead of letting her hair fall down gracefully, she pulled half of it out of the bun, making her appear deranged. This, for her, was not supposed to be pretty. As she remembered time spent with “Loys,” Gilbert had a smile on her face and eyes that were completely glazed over while her body, almost without her realizing it, reenacted the daisy and the promise. She ran maniacally through the crowd of villagers, but she wasn’t saying “help me, help me.” Rather, she didn’t seem to realize she was running. As a Wili, Gilbert made the decision to keep her face completely blank; she kept her eyes glazed over. Mentally, she was dead, she didn’t consciously recognize Albrecht, and yet she knew him. Everything the girl Giselle wanted to say to Albrecht was expressed through the Wili’s movements. She couldn’t really see him or talk to him, but some small glimmer of recognition buried deep down made her protect him.
Osta, by contrast, gave her Giselle more lucidity. In act one she knew exactly what was going on but she didn’t want to believe it. When she remembered Loys’s promise and their morning together, it looked like she was going through everything to reassure herself that it actually happened. “No, I’m not crazy, he said this, he promised me… how is this happening? This can’t be real.” Osta reached out for help as she ran and when she finally got to Albrecht, it was the final realization that he would never be the man she thought (aka Loys) that killed her. Her act two was the opposite of Gilbert’s but just as gorgeous. Her Giselle knew Albrecht; she actively wanted to protect him, but she was incorporeal and could not physically do as much as she wanted to. Physically, she was more ghostly, though her soul and mind were completely intact. She seemed to fight, to try to push beyond what she had become and break back into the mortal world in order to save Albrecht. Her interpretation made me doubt at times that Albrecht could see her; he sensed her as a protective spirit, but I’m not sure that he actually saw her as a ghost. When he woke up in front of her grave, he almost believed the entire thing had been a dream. It certainly was for me.
Shockingly, I didn’t cry either night. Normally, I’m a huge crybaby at ballets, but I was far too busy thanking God/Louis XIV/Terpsichore/ whatever deity you pray to for allowing this ballet to exist. I think that sums it up.