Thanks Giannina and cristian! I decided with the Nutcrackathon to look at everything with detail, and I found a lot that I hadn't seen before. Giselle is such a familiar ballet that doing the same thing has yielded even more -- the ballet really can be done so many different ways and that's why it's a timeless classic.
Giselle (1977) - Natalia Makarova, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Martine van Hamel, Marianna Tcherkassky and Kirk Peterson - ABT
This Giselle is the first live Giselle. Previous Giselles were films, with dancers dancing on a soundstage. But in 1977 "Live from Lincoln Center" produced this performance of Giselle, and for this reason this Giselle is important. Earlier films gave the impression that "Giselle" as a ballet was a tragedy, a showcase for dance, the greatest romantic ballet of all, but this "Giselle", with its loud applause from the audience, shows us that at its best, Giselle can be hair-raising theater. The screaming for Makarova and Baryshnikov seems to propel both of them to dance better as the evening progresses. It spurs them to greatness, the way Giselle's dancing spurs Albrecht to dance, and the effect is quite visceral.
This Giselle is what I'd call an "Act 2 Giselle." There is nothing particularly wrong in Act 1, but Makarova's Act 1 doesn't have the distinctiveness of Ulanova or Fracci. In her autobiography she confessed that she changed her interpretation of Giselle often, and her comments about Giselle might explain why she's not so convincing in Act One:
I suddenly understood why the plot itself had never excited me: the poor village girl, the count pretending to be a peasant and deceiving her, insanity, death = the whole ordinary little melodramam interpreted and re-interpreted a thousand times and by now completely uninteresting. Beyond the primitive plot I suddenly had a clear vision - not just of romantic drama, but of a drama of the dualism of body and spirit, of their fatal incompatibility, which turns out to be the tragedy of love.
Only one thing is important to me: both acts of Giselle are manisfestations of her soul, her inner states of being. And her soul is one. In the first act, still in her corporeal existence, she lives with ordinary human concerns -- the dances with the villagers, the suitor, Hilarion, her madness -- which are transformed in her by the first feelings of love. But freedom from these wearying realities comes with death. In the second act, her soul, frreed of all that is worldly, superficial, and ordinary, is filled with regal quietude and wisdom, and she becomes a bearer of eternal femininity, of chastity and purity. And in this purity she is not capable of punishing: she is now above her earthly passions and their excitements. Only forgiveness is available to her, and it comes to her naturally, from her deep feminine sympathy.
In other words, Makarova seemed to feel herself that the first act was more prosaic, less profound, than the second, and later she describes Act 1 Giselle as an "odd girl." Her first act is well-danced but a bit anonymous, without the sharp character details that other Giselles have been able to add to the role. Her face is also a bit too serious and mature-looking (by this time, anyway) to look appropriately fresh and innocent. Mikhail Baryshnikov portrays Albrecht as an ardent young man, an interpretation I find makes it harder to contrast to his Act 2 redemption. One thing I do love about Makarova and Baryshnikov in the first act is their side by side dancing reveals how obviously they are both sprung from the same school -- the identical height of their jumps, their port-te-bras, even the way they hold their necks, it's quite something to watch. But overall their Act One interactions I find a wee bit too precious and puppy-loveish, and as I said, a bit generalized. It lacks the specificity of Fracci's wide-eyed infatuation with Bruhn, for instance.
The best part of Act 1 might be Marianna Tcherkassky and Kirk Peterson in the Peasant pas de deux. I often find this to be my "fridge break" but not here.
Here is her Mad Scene. I find it a bit affected and hammy. A bit silent-movie acting in its dramatic swooning and lurching.
It is in Act 2 of this performance that Makarova and Baryshnikov show why they were renowned in these roles. Makarova's Giselle had both ballon and elevation, and thus was able to really give the illusion that she was flying. Her grande jetes have surprising power -- she doesn't skim the floor with little jumps, a la Fracci or Alonso, she flies across the stage. The exposed developpes and arabesques hold no terrors for her -- liquidy adagio movements were her specialty. She has real extension -- this doesn't mean she can graze her ear or is even particularly flexible, but her limbs seem to float effortlessly up and down in arabesques, attitudes, and developpes. This is something terre a terre dancers simply can't achieve, even if they are flexible. On the other hand, Makarova is noticeably weaker in turns, entrechats, the petit allegro steps that, say, Alonso mastered.
But most of all, Makarova and Baryshnikov are able to achieve a unity in their dancing that makes their Act 2 seem like one long, perfectly harmonized duet. Makarova plays Giselle in Act 2 as a forgiving spirit (no scary ghost makeup or mannerisms). And Baryshnikov's Albrecht does not tire in Act 2 -- in fact, he seems to become stronger and bolder as the act goes along, which kind of goes against the storyline that Albrecht is being danced to death, but for once gives the idea that Albrecht is really gaining strength from Giselle's spirit.
The climax of the ballet might be Albrecht's trumpet solo. He flies into the air, and dances with such precision that he too seems as if possessed by a spirit no longer his own. But at the end of the variation, instead of collapsing to the ground (as most Albrechts do), he is on his knees, in perfect form, hands to heart. The crowd goes wild, but the camera does a closeup of Baryshnikov's face, and it's flushed and triumphant. He has danced magnificently, and he knows it.
Martine van Hamel is a wonderful Myrtha -- tall, imposing, steely bourrees, and a great physical contrast to the short Baryshnikov and the shorter Makarova. Baryshnikov however doesn't seem intimidated by her. In his traveling brises there's something almost defiant about the speed and accuracy with which he does them. And Makarova during this whole act is a flying ethereal spirit, completely oblivious to the Wilis.
After watching this Giselle I thought that the main theme that Makarova and Baryshnikov were able to create was not really an interpersonal love story. Fonteyn/Nureyev for example was a Giselle/Albrecht pairing known for its intensely romantic nature. Makarova and Baryshnikov instead make Giselle and Albrecht united in their love of dance. This is probably why their Act 1 strikes a somewhat false note, but their Act 2 is so out of this world.
Not a complete Giselle, but I thought I'd focus on three excerpts of Giselle that I think are just so great that they merit their own post.
Olga Spessivtseva's Mad Scene:
The frustratingly brief fragments of her Giselle give us an idea of what a force of nature it was. In the film "Portrait of Giselle," even Alicia Markova, a ballerina not known for generosity to other ballerinas, spoke in awe of Spessivtseva's Giselle. Every time I see this fragment I'm surprised by a couple of things: the short, almost Karinska-like tutu she's wearing in Act 1, her beautifully toned, muscular legs, and how the grandeur of her dancing she seems to transcend the shoddy production values (she's dancing on what seems like an absolutely tiny stage). I love the way she holds her head at 1:01, she seems to be almost pulling on her long hair, as if her head were really about to explode. A wonderfully realistic touch. Anton Dolin points out the rightness with which she walks -- it has that blankness and irregular patterns of many mentally ill people I've seen who lurch through the subways or NYC streets. The way she holds her arms too has the kind of twisted posture of many mentally ill people. Most of all, I LOVE how their is not even a hint of Romantic "pretty insane" in her Mad Scene. I once watched a Lucia Mad Scene where the soprano was stained in blood but she fluttered her eyes prettily to the left, and then to the right, and swooned beautifully to the ground. I find a lot of Giselles also go for that "pretty mad" look. But Spessivtseva, who went to mental asylums for preparation for her role, and herself suffered a complete mental breakdown, brings a stunning realism to this often cliched scene.
2. Fonteyn/Nureyev excerpts of Giselle:
This excerpts are all we have of the legendary Fonteyn/Nureyev Giselle but I'm so grateful they exist at all. There's some artificialness to it -- it was obviously filmed on a tiny soundstage, and the scene loses much of its impact with no Wilis and no Myrtha. The relentless closeups of Nureyev only reveal his unfortunate habit of always opening his mouth too wide while dancing. The pas de deux between Fonteyn and Nureyev though shows why people cried during their Giselle. It always amazes me how perfectly their lines matched -- watch both their arms stretched forward at the exact same angle at 3:56, and Nureyev's other arm perfectly matching the angle of Fonteyn's free leg in arabesque. Fonteyn was called "prim" and "elegant" so often, but people who actually knew her spoke of a warm-blooded, passionate woman, and this is the other quality I love about this Giselle excerpt. She looks ethereal in her frilly and poofy romantic tutu, but she is a very physical Giselle. The way she touches Albrecht at 8:21 is not the distant "now you feel it now it's gone" touch most departing Giselles give Albrecht. She firmly runs her hands down Albrecht's torso, face, and hands and cardles him tightly. There's something extremely sensual about Fonteyn's Giselle and that is what I love most about this video.
3. Gelsey Kirkland's Spessivtseva variation
Omg, I can't believe this is the only video that has turned up of Kirkland's Giselle. But what an excerpt! Her dancing is incredible for its lightness and grace, but she doesn't for a moment seem to be showing off to the audience. When she raises her leg in arabesque I'm captivated by the way her leg rises, rather than the final position, which so many Giselles like to hold to show off their extension. It reminds me of Alexandra Danilova once telling a student that the leg should start low and rise slowly, so the audience can see the beauty of the leg rising, rather than the final pose. When she does her hops across stage, it has none of the grim "I must make it from point A to point B" steeliness -- she takes her time, softly hopping, pausing slightly between hops. If you notice carefully she doesn't actually travel very far, but she creates the illusion of flitting across the stage effortlessly. And finally, her pique turns accelerate at a breathtaking pace, as if Giselle herself gets more and more excited by her own dancing, before she finally drops demurely to her knee in front of her mother.
I know Gelsey Kirkland was never satisfied with herself, her dancing, or her own body, so it's amazing to see how effortlessly girlish and fresh she looks. Her large, saucer-like eyes, her heart-shaped face, the adorable but not overly glamorous hairdo, are all perfect. I really really hope more excerpts of her Giselle surface.