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Giselle: a "drama about dance itself"?


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#1 bart

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Posted 17 June 2006 - 09:49 AM

Alastair Macaulay, whose reviews in the Financial Times are often posted on Links, has written an essay in the Times Lliterary Supplement which is not available on line, but which discusses a number of aspects of Giselle and La Sylphide, both of which have been performed recently by the Royal.

Macaulay points out that, of all the great 19th century classics, only Giselle and La Sylphide have significant dancing by both the male and female leads.

For Sylphide, he refers only to the Bournonville. (Apparently the 1832 Paris version gave relatively little dancing to James.) "In both [versions], the hero's efforts to join and hold the unaobtainable sylph are what drive the plot; but in Bournonville's, his efforts to join her in dance are what drive the choreography."

Macaulay then compares Sylphide and Giselle. More important, he compares the extent to which plot/action drive the ballet, and the extent to which it is driven by the compulsion to dance:

Both these couples -- the Sylph and James, Giselle and Albrecht -- are impelled to dance. In La Sylphide, this instinct sublimates itself in the cause of the plot. In Giselle, it becomes the plot -- it doesn't need to be sublimated -- and leads the protagonists into areas taht touch on the sublime. The dancing in Giselle has nothing to do with Christianity -- if Albrecht had respeced his faith, he would have stood motionless by the cross until dawn arrived to send the wilis back to their graves -- but it is certainly a matter of life and death: Tamara Karsavina referred to it as a 'holy ballet.'


In Act One, as Giselle discoveres Albrecht's perfidy, the complexities are all dramatic -- she goes mad and dies. Her madness is a mime scene in whicih she remembers the bliss of a few steps -- those glissades -- she first performed with Albrecht. But in Act Two, the dance and drama interact more powerfully than [Peter] Wright [whose version of the ballet is done at the Royal] or any other Western produceer of Giselle, seems to understand.

Why does Albrecht leave the sanctuary of the cross? To the makers of the ballet in 1841, the answer was clear: because he would rather dance himself to death with his beloved Giselle than stand safely by. It is Giselle who defies her own siren nature: she dances with him too spare his energies, in the self-ssacrificing hope that he will be allowed to return -- not to her, but to Bathilde.


One more point:

"For [Giselle and Albrecht] this is a ballet about another nineteenth century theme: la dansomanie, or the drive to dance; which, in some ballets, was food for comedy, but which in Giselle becomes ever more poetically morbid. You don't need to change the steps to reveal these aspects of the ballet; you just need to give the choreography full value. Every pas counts ...

Macaulay was unable to catch Cojocaru in the part, but he comments on a few other great Giselles:

In my experience, only a few supreme Russian performances in the 1980s -- Irina Kolpakova and Altynai Assylmuratova with the Kirov, Nadezhda Pavlova and Vyacheslav Gordeyev with the Bolshoi -- have proved how far this is a drama about dance itself, in which motivation and suspence keep changing, darkening.

Fascinating stuff. It made me think: this is one reason Giselle is so powerful, as compared with many other 19th-century story ballets. The dancing is not just a way to move the story (and to prove that it's a ballet). In some fundamental way both Giselle and Albrecht, and their story, ARE their dances. The package can't be split. Which, when you think of it, is something Giselle has in common with a great deal of contemporary ballet-making.

#2 bart

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Posted 19 June 2006 - 09:38 AM

More on the theme of "a dance about dance itself" -- this, from Sarah Kaufman's review of the recent Kirov Giselle in Washington DC. This has to do with the charactrs of Giselle and Myrtha.

Giselle as someone with dancing in the blood. This quality really should be compulsive, it seems:

Daria Pavlenko, in the title role, embodied this approach--her Giselle was a sunny innocent, with a beaming, open face. You could believe in her back story--that she loved dancing so much she would ignore the growing symptoms of her infirmity in order to join in the village festivities--because Pavlenko never seemed to stop moving. Her body was in constant flow, whether in buoyant moments of full-blown virtuosity or in subtle, alert reaction to Adolph Adam's music ...

And .. dance as the expression of Myrtha's power over the other wilis

Viktoria Tereshkina, as Myrtha, queen of the Wilis--the spirits of jilted virgins, of whom Giselle is the most recent inductee -- ought to serve as a model to Myrthas everywhere. An understated sovereign, she ruled by the fearful exactitude of her dancing, and her realm was the air.

Kaufman goes on to describe the lightness, airiness, almost intangebility of Giselle's dancing in Act II, comparing it to the effect of the fog that floats across the stage. In a sense, can we see Giselle's defiance of Myrtha's commands as a competition in which different styles of dancing are the weapons?

#3 sandik

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Posted 19 June 2006 - 09:51 PM

I've often thought that one of the reasons that Giselle is such a succesful ballet is the centrality of dance to the characters and the plot.


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