Giselle on Film: A Bloke’s Tale

Albrecht encerclé (capture d'écran)

Albrecht encerclé (capture d’écran)

The Royal New Zealand Ballet’s “Giselle,” now at a cinema near you in France (starting December 12).

As so often when I go to the movies, I don’t quite know what to expect after having been seduced by the trailer. Will I see a chopped-up version, where we’d cut back and forth between a performance and a modern-day retelling of this love triangle? A documentary à la Delouche? Tons of shots from all over the theater but especially from backstage and in the studio?

Instead, Toa Fraser’s film turns out to be most astonishingly straightforward. What we have here is mostly a “filmed before a live audience” testament to the Royal New Zealand Ballet dancing at top form. Sensitively filmed: Fraser makes the dancers look good and never cuts away at the wrong moment.

What I also didn’t expect: just an opening section and a quasi-music video between the acts that allows our principal dancers in modern dress to strike wistful poses to Dan McGlashen’s “When the Trumpets Sound” (the text a wink to Hilarion, perhaps?). While we’ve now all learned about the New Zealand landscape due to Peter Jackson and his hobbits, most of the interludes were filmed in Shanghai and the Catskills. In them, a couple – mimed by the same ones who dance the leads — is happy and then unhappy, first looking into each others’ eyes and then staring into space while wandering around or dancing on a rooftop in sneakers. There is only one dance scene set in a studio, and it proves completely staged, not a coach in sight. We get a few slo-mo moments as Giselle collapses at the end of Act 1. Some shots of an empty theater are seen through Myrtha’s (Abigail Boyle’s) eyes, which prove as giant and expressive as her jumps and gestures.

No one says a word throughout the entire film.

So why bother to get out of your chair to go and catch this rather tame cinematic experience?

The answer. To see how Ethan Stiefel and Johan Kobborg – both great interpreters of the role of Albrecht – have put their combined intelligences into sculpting a most delicate and dramatically attentive version of “Giselle,” without having to travel to New Zealand, Shanghai, or the New World (as James did in February).

Albrecht -–the buoyant and all-out Qi Huan — opens and closes the action as a broken older man, flayed alive by his emotions. Tiny, distracting, and incoherent details from the 19th century have been caught and transformed and polished. This prince dominates the action, the film should have indeed been called “Albrecht.” The character of Giselle has always made sense, given a distinct and coherent dramatic arc, Albrecht…not. Here, in a most Romantic Dumasian way, he is at the center of everything, including the evil attention of the Wilis (and just look at how you can make only twelve look like a swarm if you give them more to do!)

As he now has more to dance, in a very different and most forcefully folkish way, Hilarion – the buoyant and grounded and whirling Jacob Chown – finally becomes more of a distinct presence and less of a role handed off to a tired old character dancer (or confused young one). I have never been more saddened when this lovelorn forester got his due, here literally smushed down into the muddy waters by Myrtha…

The actual Giselle, Gillian Murphy, then doesn’t need to carry the show. She is incredibly strong and fierce in balances and able to bounce as high as the guys and quite beautiful, but she’s just not my kind of ballerina, and there is no way to explain this statement (try explaining falling in love). Therefore being a fan of hers, or not, should in no way influence your desire to see this film.

This is a “Giselle” from the men’s point of view, but concocted by two deeply intelligent men. I do not want to spoil any surprises, but Cobborg and Siefel’s re-thinking of the Peasant Pas de Deux in Act One finally moves the thing out of the dull realm of “divertissement” into making so much dramatic sense that I think even the ghosts of Jules Perrot and Jean Coralli and all the other the Romantic puffballs would approve.

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