Toulouse, Ballet du Capitole. December 24th
On Christmas Eve, I’d rather partake in seduction, madness, death, zombie rituals, and on-stage wine making than submit to (year after year) forced good cheer, snowflakes, and “let us now bless the fruitcake.”
God I love France. For the holidays, ballet companies can still afford to program intelligent and saccharine-free entertainment for tired grown-ups. This December 24th not a Nutcrack was stirring and no kid played a mouse. In Paris, to chase the winter blues away you could have treated your family to either the glistening and tragic Nureyev-Petipa “La Bayadere” at the Opéra Bastille or Pina Bausch’s eviscerating version of “Le Sacre du printemps” at the Palais Garnier. On that same day in Toulouse, you would have been swept away into a new production of “Giselle,” as most thoughtfully revisited by its director, Kader Belarbi.
Because of the glories and pitfalls of ballet being part of an “oral tradition,” there has not been and will never be “the” authentic version of any ballet made before the ability to record live performances became ubiquitous. And even now, technique will continue to develop (the idea scares me a bit), coaches will always encourage their heirs to go that one step further, adding clutter when clutter is what needs to be cleared away.
Even if I’ve been a Giselle-ophile since as long as I can remember, I’ve always been perplexed by all the different versions proffered as “the one” by different companies and quite often wished that at least one of them would smooth out some of the anachronisms in the drama (which are frequently rendered less palpable by the sheer force of the dancing personas of a specific G or Albrecht…which can explain why it endures despite its oddities).
So here are some reasons to be thankful for this new Giselle in Toulouse:
#1: the set and costumes. Why shouldn’t we get rid of Alexander Benois’s nostalgist tsarist-inspired happy-serf aesthetic? And rightfully rediscover something closer to the original French point of view? This ballet was born in France just the “bourgeois monarch” Louis-Philippe ordered that Notre-Dame finally be landmarked and medieval revival style – as well as class conflict — was all the rage. Giselle is a poor peasant, right? What’s with the little cozy cabin and the perfectly wrought bench? Make the hut look like a hut, the bench a log, the peasants wear bright colors with white knickers [yeah, too clean and very 19th century, but let’s get not too historically correct. The overall feeling is). Have Wilfred hide Albrecht’s noble sword in a yet-to-be-filled wine barrel. More the pity then that, in Act 2, Giselle’s grave doesn’t look freshly dug but lists to the side as only very old markers do. If that is the case, does the obsessed Hilarion really need to be shown where it is?
#2: peasants vs. nobles. Put peasants in soft slippers, make their dances squat and flexed-footy and sharpen class difference by making the noblewomen actually dance, and angularly – in an almost Art Deco way — on pointe with their cavaliers (much more fun to watch than reluctantly trotting borzois, as it turns out). The specificity of movement on each side not only clarifies the gulf separating these two worlds. Now it calls attention to how Giselle’s (Maria Gutierrez) gentle and airborne way of moving – the steps we are used to – determines that this unusual girl is caught in-between. Her steps partake of neither camp. Next, finally cast a Berthe who looks the right age to be the mother of a teenager, who acts as grounded and dignified as peasants really are, and entrust the role to Laura Fernandez’s strong spine and pithy mime. Adding two drunk male villagers might at first seem off-putting when you first open the program, but the high-flying travails of Minoru Kaneko and Nicolas Rombaut – partly to odd bits of Adam’s original score – made more sense than the usual frou-frou. That frou-frou also known as…
#3: ze Peasant pas de deux. Interpolated music, interpolated dance, why? Of course I know it was there from the start, a gift to a starlet in 1841, but the intrusion persists and never really ever satisfies. Good lord, I’ve seen duos, trios, sextets, octets, all set to this music, all of which stop dead the arc of a drama that is supposed to be building steam. Here Belarbi re-channeled the steps via a real quartet of villagers, clearly introduced by Giselle at an appropriate moment. Kayo Nakazato and Tiphaine Prévost, Matthew Astley and Philippe Solano exchanging, echoing, responding to each other’s steps, made it all fresh and rescued the flow. When Astley and Solano quit lightly competing and sank gracefully to the knee in perfectly relaxed synchronicity I thought, “this fits this imaginary world.” Usually this section seems to interrupt the narrative, like a hula dance devised for tourists. Here it almost felt too short.
#4: Hilarion. Demian Vargas may be the best one I’ve ever seen. Rough and rustic enough but only to the point that we understand that Giselle might find his passion a bit too intense. But she could never deem him creepy, as Gutierrez emphasized in her soft sad mime, knowing how her words would pain him. Little added bits of business – he goes to fetch water for Berthe as a hopeful future son-in-law would do; doesn’t have to go as far as breaking into a house in order to find the sword – made you root for him. For once not forced to do “lousy dance” when hunted in Act 2 (normally emphasized so that Albrecht looks better). Because of the set-up in Act 1, the fact that he danced to his death using the same kind of classic vocabulary that had isolated Giselle…made sense. This misunderstood Hilarion, too, had been trapped by birth in a village that could not fathom an equally honorable soul. Just one detail from many: in the mad scene, when this Giselle falls splat down in our direction, her hands with violently splayed fingers seem to be reaching out to us. During his dance of death, Belarbi makes Hilarion repeat this image. It’s subtle, you might not catch it, but it embodies how Hilarion has been haunted by Giselle’s fate, and is now submitting to his own.
# 5: Bathilde has a real dancing part! Juliette Thélin brings authority and style to whatever she does, and here she was given something do to other than look as peevish and elegant as a borzoi. I’ve always hated the way that this character talks about love to a naïve girl, seems so generous and warm, sits around and then just stalks off in a huff when things get messy. If you want to be correct about peasants, then be correct about the aristocratic concept of duty. Real aristocrats don’t ever lose their manners. Bathilde matures before our eyes and dances towards Giselle’s sorrow (to another inhabitual snippet of Adam’s score). The “mad scene” thus expands into a tragedy not only observed but felt by all. Albrecht’s behavior doesn’t just destroy Giselle’s life, but clearly Bathilde’s one chance at happiness too. Therefore here is the one case where I wish that Belarbi been much more daring and given us the original ending where Albrecht’s melancholy now-wife arrives and leads him back to the home where their hearts aren’t.
I would need about 6,000 words to convey every morsel of the sensitive directions in which Belarbi has taken this beloved warhorse. Instead, just find an excuse to fly to Toulouse to see the rest of what I have only started to talk about and judge for yourself. This theatrically coherent and beautifully danced Giselle will sate you more than any Nutcracker ever will.