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National Ballet of Canada - 'Giselle'

Danced to Life

by Michael Goldbarth

November 18 and 21, 2004 -- Hummingbird Centre, Toronto

You know what memories you’ll take home when you see "Giselle": alabaster ballerinas, blowing mist, silent acting, love, life, death, afterlife, this, that, and a whole lot more. It’s a classic, the Hamlet of ballet. "Giselle" first premiered in Paris at the Théâtre de l’Académie Royale de Musique on June 28th, 1841. Quite an artistic enterprise keeping a ballet alive for 163 years! The players who first graced the stage (Carlotta Grisi as Giselle and Lucien Petipa as Albrecht) have long been forgotten. The music rarely receives air play. Indeed, even classical music aficionados wrinkle their foreheads, stumped at the mere mention of the ballet’s composer, Adolphe Adam. The writer responsible for the fabled theme of the Wilis, Heinrich Heine, is only known in his homeland of Germany.

It’s impossible to know how much of the original choreography by Jean Coralli and Jules Perrot survives in today’s productions. Despite all of the above, ballet companies around the globe continue to revisit history. Why? That’s what my review hopes to answer as the National Ballet of Canada performs Peter Wright’s version of this romantic tale.

I enjoyed all three performances I attended, but one outshone all the others. The future is bright for future Albrechts with the incredibly gifted Guillaume Côté and an improving Nehemiah Kish. Chan Hon Goh will no doubt dance forever and Sonia Rodriguez was a dream. If only she had more of a bad hair day for her Mad Scene. Of course, it’s almost impossible for Sonia Rodriguez to have a bad hair day! The couple that stole the show for me was the ageless Aleksandar Antonijevic and gorgeous Greta Hodgkinson. They made the struggle fighting my way through the Sunday Santa Claus parade traffic worth every elbow, push, and shove en route to the Hummingbird Centre ...

From the moment Antonijevic, and then Hodgkinson appeared in front of a noticeably full house, the audience responded with spontaneous applause and we all had a hunch this would be a most memorable performance-the last in the run. Both were at their flirtatious best gliding about the stage arm in arm and then in the famous ‘he-loves-me-he-loves-me-not’ game where Albrecht, Count of Silesia, fixes the result. Flowers abound so much, I’m surprised a florist has never sponsored this ballet for the National Ballet of Canada. Albrecht is already betrothed to another in a pre-arranged marriage. So what’s he doing wooing the sweet Giselle? No doubt he is out to deflower this beautiful virgin peasant in the cottage he rented. Before long, lust turns to love for this convenient neighbor and the Count is in hot water.

A very earnest Ryan Boorne, as Hilarion, demonstrates his very bad manners by interrupting their courtship. Hilarion has had his eyes on Giselle for a long time and does not approve of this stranger. Giselle’s mom approves of Hilarion as he has a steady job (gamekeeper) and drops by with gifts. This time around it appeared to be a pheasant-uncooked. The grape pickers restore the village’s previous happy equilibrium. Giselle and Albrecht, masquerading as common man Loys, overcome with luv dance en grand jeté-passé (jumping sideways really high). Their pas de deux climaxes in blown kisses galore.

The next major scene is ‘listen to your mom or else.’ Giselle has a very weak heart and thus should not dance so enthusiastically – especially not as much as a principal ballerina like Greta Hodgkinson! Through mime we learn that young girls who die before their wedding day will spend eternity as one of the Wilis-ghosts condemned to dance forever.

Giselle then meets Countess Bathilde played with duly upturned royalty by Julie Hay. She presents a bouquet of flowers and Bathilde responds by giving Giselle her necklace. Keiichi Hirano may have danced his way from 2nd to 1st soloist during the Peasant Pas de Deux. Hirano pulled off a series of gravity defying brisé volé (traveling jumps) that left me reaching for a non-existent remote control to rewind his wow-inspiring air show!

The villagers then proclaim Giselle Queen of the Vintage as she’s hoisted onto a grapevine wagon. Hilarion blows up Giselle’s dreamy day by summoning the royal party with a hunting horn. He reveals the true identity of Loys as Albrecht and thus Giselle discovers the truth that it is Bathilde who is engaged to be married to Albrecht and not her. A truth she cannot come to terms with.

One quality clearly separated Hodgkinson’s Mad Scene from the others: patience. From my close up, opera glasses assisted point of view, Hodgkinson's performance was so captivating I was transported from my theatre seat into Giselle’s nightmare. The descent into madness was gradual – as it should be. From the tussled strands of hair to reliving her playful flirtations with Albrecht to drawing a circle with his sword sealing her fate to dance forevermore as a Wili – Greta fully plumbed the depths of the role as she died of a broken heart. Go deep, future Giselle! Go deep! You can be a pretty ballerina or you can go for it all and be a dancer/silent actress. When these two come together then you’ve earned the title of Principal. Otherwise, you’re just another pretty face. It was obvious Hodgkinson had done her homework replaying every scene in her mind in the weeks leading up to the ballet.

There was not that much to do dancing wise in the 1st act but Aleksandar Antonijevic more than made up for it with impressive silent acting. He expressed a full range of emotions from two timing flirt to love to sheer rage to utter anguish. Bravo! I hope James Kudelka keeps this duet together.

Act 2 opens to an enchanted, nubulous forest glade fast asleep for the exception of the spirit of the otherworldly and most omnipotent Wilis -- jilted virgins who have died before their wedding day. These apparitions only come to life to dance to death any man who dares enter their dewy Rhineland forest. Hilarion, and then Albrecht, come to visit the eerie grave of Giselle in the cold dead of night. Though they walk through tremulous moonlit paths a strewn with fallen leaves, pine needles, and branches, this forest makes no sound for the exception of a bone-chilling wind. They have crossed into a black and white nightmare of the Wilis’ making. No man has ever escaped their wrath! For no man can resist the will of these sirens, such is their hypnotic beauty.

Enter alabaster beauty, Heather Ogden, as Myrtha, the Queen of the Wilis, displaying her brilliant technical virtuosity in a running pas de bourrée. Myrtha is not in a good mood as she silently skims across the glade and tosses off some grand jetés. With wands made of flowered branches, she summons her two lieutenants and all her sisters dressed to kill in the Desmond Heeley wedding gowns they were denied (snow-white long-skirted tutus). The time has come to initiate a new Wili in Giselle. She rises from her grave to mirror all of Myrtha’s movements. It should be noted, not a pointe shoe could be heard from this critic, despite sitting in the coveted double letter seats for all 3 performances-which means there was a lot of pointe shoe bashing before the ballet!

After hearing the approach of Albrecht, the Queen Wili orders her ghostly tribe to disperse. Albrecht pays respects to his beloved with a bouquet of lilies. Giselle now plays the part of flirt in a ghostly game of ‘he-sees-me-he-sees-me-not.’ They dance tenderly together and the dream turns into reality when Giselle jetés through the dewy night releasing lilies which Albrecht retrieves. They disappear into the forest at the arrival of Hilarion.

Queen Myrtha encircles her sisters around poor Hilarion. The tribal counsel has spoken and Hilarion must face the music of the Wilis and dance! Hilarion meets his end chased off a cliff, plummeting into the lake. A small price to pay for the man who set all this in motion by cheating on the lovely Myrtha in the form of Heather Ogden on the eve of their wedding! What was he thinking? I must interrupt with one small criticism for the lighting. A little razzle-dazzle during the demise of Hilarion and the initial appearance of the Wilis would mesmerize the audience even more so. For a ballet like "Giselle," you have to pull out all the stops!

Now it’s Albrecht’s turn to face the music and dance. Heather Ogden is unrelenting in her icy cold-hearted glare as she passes her sentence of death upon the pleading Albrecht. Giselle temporarily saves Albrecht’s butt by persuading her love to take shelter by the cross of her grave and symbolic crucifix of her arms. This is but a momentary reprieve as the Queen of the Wilis will have none of this and orders Giselle to lure Albrecht from his Wili asylum with a come-hither solo. Giselle cannot resist her command and Albrecht cannot resist dancing with Giselle for she is the true love of his life.

It’s time for the ‘Grand Pas de Deux’ to this ballet. Greta Hodgkinson effortlessly floats through the cool night air as if carried by the musical notes alone flowing from the orchestra pit. She exhausts Albrecht by compelling him to lift her high into the air and now he must dance alone. Many grand jetés and assorted leaps later Giselle implores Myrtha with an offering of lilies to spare his life. This angers Myrtha even more so and all her sisters gaze in unison evil-eyed at their victim. Giselle is ordered to dance even faster and Aleksandar Antonijevic somehow finds the energy to pull off some brisé jumps.

Giselle dances for Albrecht to allow him a moment to catch his breath and then his frenzied dancing resumes once again. All the Wili sisters join in the dance to finish off the almost spent Albrecht. Over and over he tumbles to the ground dangerously close to fainting from sheer exhaustion. At long last, chimes toll the break of dawn rendering the Wilis of the Forest powerless. They fade into the trees. Giselle through all her pleading and dancing has saved Albrecht’s life. She returns to the earth released from the spell of the Wilis. All that remains of Giselle is her lilies. Aleksandar Antonijevic, alone on the stage and filled with guilt, weeps over his loss. The End.

Congratulations if you made it this far! "Giselle" is well worth the journey into history and can be quite a satisfying theatrical experience when the players have mastered the steps along with the ability to silent act. The real magic of this ballet is how it works with the music. Played on its own it’s a little flat. On stage, the music magically comes to life! The last performance, headlined by Greta Hodgkinson and Aleksandar Antonijevic, was the kind that leaves ballet fans talking well after they’ve left the theatre. They made this 163 year old ballet memorable. Bravo!

Edited by Jeff.

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