Wednesday, 29 January 2014

Reflections on Giselle

Adèle Dumilâtre (1821-1909) as Myrtha, Source Wikipedia

The performances of Giselle with Carlos Acosta and Natalia Osipova that I saw at Covent Garden on the 18 Jan and in the cinema on the 27 Jan were outstanding and will take their place in my memory alongside magnificent performances that I saw over 40 years ago by Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev, Antoinette Sibley and Anthony Dowell and Carla Fracci and Erik Bruhn. However, I always feel uneasy after seeing Giselle - not just this performance but any. I hear my father's reproaches that time once lost can never be recovered,

The reason I have a problem with Giselle is the story. It is not that it is a silly story.  Compared to Swan Lake and The Nutcracker it makes perfect sense. An impressionable young girl who has a steady relationship with the village gamekeeper is seduced by a playboy aristocrat in disguise who is already engaged to another woman. She shows him off to her mother and her friends and she is crowned queen of the wine pageant.  The aristocrat's connections visit the village and he is exposed as a philanderer by the gamekeeper.  Betrayed and humiliated the girl loses her reason and goes into a frenzy in which she either dies or kills herself.  So far so good.  The story could have come out of The Archers and I would not be surprised if something like it has not been run at some stage over the last 60 years.

But then the plot loses me because Giselle is buried in unconsecrated ground where her spirit joins those of other women who have been seduced and die before their wedding day. They have it in for men and if any man is unfortunate enough to stray across their path as the gamekeeper did they kill him (though having said that I have seen one performance, though I cannot remember which company, where the gamekeeper survives and the curtain falls on his shaking hands with the playboy).  That is a pretty unpleasant as well as fantastic story and offends my sensibilities as a Quaker as well as an aesthete.

Interestingly I see from the programme notes that Peter Wright had similar reservations about the story when asked to stage Giselle and it is only in the last day or so that I find that he was also brought up as a Quaker. You see the idea of burying in a forest a young woman who has died of a broken heart or even killed herself  appals us and the idea of hateful and vengeful forest spirits is .... well let's not go there.  All this is of course a product of romanticism which produced great art but it also had a dark side which degenerated into nationalism, racism and, ultimately, fascism.

Of course all this was wonderful material for the Soviet authorities.  Look at what used to happen in older superstitious times and count yourselves lucky that you now live in a modern socialist state that has no place for the likes of Albrecht. No wonder Giselle remained in the the repertoires of both the Kirov and Bolshoi and was indeed developed by them.

Yet Adam's music is so beautiful and the choreography of the second act is so compelling that I can't keep away from Giselle. I am ashamed to say it but it is my favourite ballet,  And I leave the theatre after a good performance like the one on the 18 Jan damming the waves of tears. How do I sit through it despising myself for harbouring those emotions yet unable to walk away?  The solution - and it is one that partially works for me any may not for anyone else - is to put the story out of my mind.  To absorb the music and dancing as pure abstraction as though they were the work of Balanchine.

Further Reading

Adult Beginner  Giselle  8 Feb 2014  A very interesting and perceptive view of a performance of the Royal New Zealand Ballet by a blogger from Los Angeles.

See the wonderful Flashmob video of the second act of Giselle danced by the Dutch National Ballet in a Beijing shopping centre ("Now you can see why I am such a fan of the Dutch National Ballet" 8 Dec 2014).

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