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A Last Impression

Pacific Northwest Ballet's 'Giselle'

by Dean Speer

June 4, 2011 -- McCaw Hall, Seattle, Washington

My encounters with “Giselle” go back to my ballet student days when my first male teacher, William (Bill) Earl used to regale us with hilarious stories about his own performing career. Among these was the time he did the part of Albrecht in Germany. Prefacing his story with the observation that in the Romantic Era ballets, remorse is shown two ways – by the length of your cape behind you and how long you took to walk onto and across the stage [to Giselle’s grave]. He decided that since he was an American, he’d take the no-nonsense, direct approach – so waited until the last possible moment, ran onto stage, thrust his arm out in the direction of the grave, and demanded forgiveness. Self-described as the “John Wayne” cowboy approach.

Said the local critic, “Mr. Earl brought everything to the stage except his horse!”

Earl later locally staged the satirical “Giselle’s Revenge” where at the conclusion she nails the cad into her coffin. Before this, Earl enters onstage and, by the very, very long cape that trails him – and by the piles of lilies he strews – he shows us just how remorseful Albrecht can and should be.

Another observation from Earl that relates to “Giselle” came during partnering class: In pressing up the female in a ballet where they’re supposed to be light and ethereal, you have to look as if you’re pulling them down from and out of the air, not lifting them up, even though you are! Watching him later in performance, he could actually effect this – something I’ve rarely seen since.

I think iconic and senior dance critic Arlene Croce had the last word about capes when she described the renowned for self-indulgent excesses, yet princely Rudolf Nureyev as “Always a good man with a cape.”

Restraint and good taste are the order of the day for Pacific Northwest Ballet’s new production of this virtually sole-surviving Romantic Era ballet. “New” is an accurate term here. It’s new because PNB has never done “Giselle” before. It’s also new in the contemporary meaning of “refreshed.” Using original sources, artistic director Peter Boal superintended a complete reconstruction with Doug Fullington [notation] and Marian Smith [score/libretto] interpreting these sources.

What we getis a “Giselle” that both looks like it should – steps, groupings, and patterns as I’ve seen in other productions but one that is also unique, particularly in Act II where three scenes were restored: Hilarion with friends; a small group of men who encounter the Willis but who are saved by the older man with them who recognizes these temptresses for who they are, warns the younger men, and they all flee; and finally, a loving and forgiving Giselle who at her own grave side, takes her engagement ring off, pressing it into the hand of Albrecht, and points to his other fiancée, telling him to get on with his life and marry her, as the hunting party returns.

The cast we enjoyed included those built and wired for their parts. First and foremost, Kaori Nakamura in the title role and Lucien Postlewaite as the duplicitous duke, Albrecht. Nakamura has that marvelous ability to fit herself like a glove into every type and kind of ballet in which she’s cast – from the most abstract or even weird to the most traditional and rigorous technical part. Her “Giselle” was finely etched. Clear about being lively, perky and fun while part of the earth yet restrained and soft as a newborn Willi in the concluding act. One of the challenges is to remain “soft” while still having to do some of the most challenging and exposed passages – entrechat quatres, controlled adagio extension and fouetté into arabesque penchée. Like her partner, she has to give the appearance while being pushed up in the lifts – one overhead done twice and a couple mid-way – that she’s having to be pulled down from the sky. They worked their team magic here and gave the right impression. When in Act II she comforts him after Albrecht has collapsed to the ground from exhaustion, having been made to dance until he expires, all eyes were moist in reaction to the sweet tenderness of the moment.

Blessed with a body of long lines built for ballet and possessing the kind of excellent training and technique that we have come to enjoy and expect from someone with his breeding, Postlewaite has grown artistically from assignment to assignment, each preparing him for the next. For the part of the Duke Albrecht (“in the attire of a villager”), he was more than ready. Ready to show his single-minded and earthy ardor for Giselle, ready to fight Hilarion, ready to express his shock at Giselle’s madness and sudden death, and importantly, ready to be transformed into a man, assuming remorse and grief.

Postlewaite’s double cabrioles en avant (finishing in a deep cambré back) and multiple entrechat six were applauded.

I liked how in this staging, they kept how the class difference between Giselle’s two suitors can be shown. In Act II, when pleading with the head Willi, Myrtha, to spare their respective lives, Hilarion kneels but Albrecht does not since, as royalty, he wouldn’t – he’s communicating with a peer.

Among his farewell performances, Jeffrey Stanton made the most of the villager rube Hilarion who’s truly in love with Giselle from the get-go but who gets rebuffed. Stanton’s acting was fierce and strong, each gesture’s intent clear. Not much pure dancing for him to do in Act I but in Act II he “gets” to show his stuff as the Willis make him dance to death – double assemblé en tournant.

As one who’s done the Peasant pas de deux – both as a duet and, in one version, as a pas de trois – I paid particularly rapt attention to the interpretations of Margaret Mullin and Jerome Tisserand. Both were excellent, sharp and clear. This pas is an insertion that provides an opportunity for showcase dancing. Bravura dancing that contrasts in intent with the softer duets of Giselle and Albrecht in both acts. It’s filled with “flashier” stuff than that of the other Act I duet which, with its famous signature motif for the tragic lovers of ballottés front and back, a ballonné, and grand jeté en attitude typify movement that’s meant to be more “expressive.”

Maria Chapman exemplified Mythra’s queenly coolness and chill, listening to but not heeding pleas for mercy from the hapless and helpless men whose paths they, the Willis, cross. Chapman has a very impressive and amazing vertical elevation that’s rare among females, this kind of height typically being associated with male jumpers. But in her beaten soubresauts, I’d swear she cleared at least a foot or more off of the ground. I liked too how when dawn broke and the Willis’ power waned, her body but not her face reacted – a long pause followed by a sharp 180 degree turn back to face the couple as she bourées off back to the spirit world.

In the end a terrific production that showed much care both in its physical realization and in its acting and dancing.

As a sidebar comment, I should note that one of my ballet teacher friends grabbed me by the arm on the way out...and called me too the next day, being really bothered by the ending here where Albrecht accepts his ring back from Giselle who presses it into his hand, and Bathilde reaches to him. She wanted to know from me if this “was real.” I know this question was on more than one mind, so I contacted Doug Fullington, who provided choreography reconstruction and this is his reply:

The return of the hunt at the end of the ballet is in the original libretto and orchestral score, the 1842 repetiteur, and the 1860s Justamant score. The translated libretto is in Cyril Beaumont's books and also Marian Smith's book.

The mighty PNB Orchestra was conducted by the newly-appointed music director, Emil de Cou.

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