cubanmiamiboy

My Blanche Dubois Giselle...

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This is a post that I’ve been longing to make, with thoughts I’ve been wanting to share for a while. And it is about My ballet...Giselle.

Giselle is, as I've said many times here, a work that is deeply engraved in my soul for many reasons, some of them very personal. For once tt was my very first live ballet-(at least being done by a professional company)-, and until today it doesn’t cease to “get” me all the way for the simplicity and very human design of its story.

So let’s get down on the subject.

I was recently sharing that amazing clip of Osipova dancing the “initiation” scene of Act II with my friend. I don’t think I’ve EVER seen a ballerina with the ballon she shows in this clip, where she literally seems to be pulled up and down by invisible strings while in her jumping sequence right after the Grand Pirouettes. Her elevation is just astonishing. Then we saw her beautiful Spessivtseva’s solo from Act I, and toward the end I found myself wondering…”why is that I sitll don’t “get” her performance…”...“what’s missing here…?”. I had been thinking about this for a while, and trying to get in touch with the inner feelings that make Giselle such a unique item for me-(all this while picturing Villella’s ballerinas in the upcoming MCB production…)-, when suddenly I knew EXACTLY what it is that I haven’t gotten from recent Giselles. I’ll explain.

Back in Cuba, when I started getting familiar with the ballet, Mme. Alonso was still dancing some fragments-(specially the entrechats sequence and final scene from Act II, as well as the Mad Scene, in all of which she still excelled very well way into her 60’s, particularly her entrechats, which I have NEVER seen done with such speed). Anyway...along with La Alonso other aging ballerinas were also very active within the Company-(Josefina, Aurora, Loipa, Charin, etc…). The thing was that while they were still performing, there were not too many opportunities for younger dancers to take over the role. The result was a curious one. The Cuban Giselle changed, and the changes happened in front of my eyes. The character took a different air, and for me-(and I’m sure for thousands of Cubans too)-the woman who stood out of the left cottage onstage and commanded the stage for the next two hours was not the one described by de Saint-Georges. My first Giselles-(and so the model from which I started comparing all subsequent interpretations)-was not an innocent young girl having her first love affair. All the ballerinas that danced the role during my first ballet years were, just like La Alonso , middle aged women usually older that her partenaires. And THAT’S how the design of my OWN Giselle started to take shape.

My Giselle was not-(still isn’t)-a young girl. She is a fourtish aged woman trapped in the circumstances of her solitary, miserable life, which is all about about taking care of her increasingly aging, possessive mother. She probably had hopes and maybe a love affair back in the days when she was younger, but now it is even harder for her to get out of the house because of her ailing mother Berthe, who has never allowed her to fully live her live, as she is very overprotective and demanding. All Giselle’s friends are married already, and so she’s the official “old maid” of the village, but one that is still famous for her beauty, charm and dancing skills, qualities that doesn’t go away even with her age. Suddenly this mysterious guy shows up...a younger, high spirited lad who drags her away from the solitude of her house and life…and then suddenly Giselle is back to feeling a little bit of a hope...feeling beautiful and desirable again. The rest of the story we all know how it gets, and that’s why it made more sense for me to see her going mad when discovering that this very last hope was just a lie vanishing before her very eyes..that her real, cruel destiny was just to age alone in her little cottage while taking care of Berthe for the rest of her life...that once more life was making her its own toy. In this aspect I always related Giselle’s story and character more as a Blanche Dubois than a Juliet. The wisdom she shows in the original libretto at the end when she gestures for Bathilde to take Albrecht away from her also reinforces this idea. Giselle, just as Dubois, is-(at least for me)-a mentally ill, aged woman trapped in an unrealistic dream enhanced by personal insanity that ends up as a nightmare.

Young ballerinas have NEVER been able to bring that picture to my eyes. La Alonso was the ultimate master on this story.

Just a thought...

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I like your scenario Christian and would love to see it performed! A step in the right direction for a mature Giselle would be the tape with Lynn Seymour and Nureyev---the most mature Giselle I have seen. I also have a "what if" scenario-----what if Giselle had married Hilarion? I think she would have made the poor fellows life miserable. Here was a girl who was trying to rise above her class; she was attracted to a nobelman because she knew instinctively that he was a cut above the rough-edged village lads; she loved fine clothes and jewelry. She could have been another Emma Bovary..... :sweatingbullets:

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I like your scenario Christian and would love to see it performed! A step in the right direction for a mature Giselle would be the tape with Lynn Seymour and Nureyev---the most mature Giselle I have seen.

I have that tape, atm711, and have watched it several times. Her portray is one of the most realistic I've ever seen. No glamorous diva demeanor, nor young spitfire dancer showing off either. Just a simple suffering woman mourning her last lost hope. Right when she stands up after falling on the floor for the first time in the mad scene she looks as she has aged considerably from just a few minutes ago...

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hV3X42IxoEk&feature=related

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WbEZR99hW70&feature=related

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I like your scenario Christian and would love to see it performed! A step in the right direction for a mature Giselle would be the tape with Lynn Seymour and Nureyev---the most mature Giselle I have seen. I also have a "what if" scenario-----what if Giselle had married Hilarion? I think she would have made the poor fellows life miserable. Here was a girl who was trying to rise above her class; she was attracted to a nobelman because she knew instinctively that he was a cut above the rough-edged village lads; she loved fine clothes and jewelry. She could have been another Emma Bovary..... :sweatingbullets:

Thank you both for your interesting scenarios - poor Hilarion, no happy ending for him no matter what,

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How old was Alonso was when she danced her last Giselle?

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How old was Alonso was when she danced her last Giselle?

73

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On the stage chronological age matters far less, and skilled actor-dancers can be as young or old as they like until if and when they push it too far. Things have changed somewhat in that regard, as the bias for youth has increased in the theater as well. (Vivien Leigh remarked late in her life that when she was young middle aged actresses could play youthful and sexy women on stage convincingly and it was an accepted convention, but that was apparently not going to be true for her and her age cohort.) Giselle always seems to have been the role of choice for older ballerinas, but not because they played Giselle as aging but because it was an ideal role for preserving the illusion of youth.

I have a little trouble seeing Giselle as a variation on Blanche because Blanche's type didn't exist back then, at least not as Blanche lived her life. She doesn't belong in a period piece. No young nobleman would look at an old maid of the village of forty plus as a sex object no matter how well preserved, it wouldn't happen with girls around to choose from. People would laugh at a middle aged woman dancing and frisking like a much younger woman, unless she had enough property to make people clam up. She'd be a figure of fun, trying to be younger than she is. Very thought provoking idea, though, Cristian.

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On the stage chronological age matters far less, and skilled actor-dancers can be as young or old as they like until if and when they push it too far. Things have changed somewhat in that regard, as the bias for youth has increased in the theater as well. (Vivien Leigh remarked late in her life that when she was young middle aged actresses could play youthful and sexy women on stage convincingly and it was an accepted convention, but that was apparently not going to be true for her and her age cohort.) Giselle always seems to have been the role of choice for older ballerinas, but not because they played Giselle as aging but because it was an ideal role for preserving the illusion of youth.

I have a little trouble seeing Giselle as a variation on Blanche because Blanche's type didn't exist back then, at least not as Blanche lived her life. She doesn't belong in a period piece. No young nobleman would look at an old maid of the village of forty plus as a sex object no matter how well preserved, it wouldn't happen with girls around to choose from. People would laugh at a middle aged woman dancing and frisking like a much younger woman, unless she had enough property to make people clam up. She'd be a figure of fun, trying to be younger than she is. Very thought provoking idea, though, Cristian.

Dirac

I'm glad you said that, I have to agree. Giselle danced like this comes across as a really dodgy oedipal cautionary tale of a mad village cougar meets a granny grabber. I do think Giselle more than any other ballet is about youth, Giselle's one power (though she doesn't realise it) is her youth and beauty which ultimately destroys her, especially when she meets Bathilde against whose aristocracy she is ultimately powerless.

Her naivety has to be a product of innocence, which is attractive enough to Hilarion to be equally in love and besotted, danced as a menopausal woman with learning difficulties who can't accept she isn't 15 anymore it becomes a really patronising tale of a whole village indulging the village idiot and Albrecht's motivation is no longer a passion that makes him take leave of his senses but an act of sadism against a poor tortured middle aged woman.

I also have to say I have real problems with ballerinas who just can't do the steps anymore dancing roles which demand a young technique. Giselle especially is a role that needs a ballerina who can clear the floor when she jumps. The Alonso video especially I found quite sad as you saw her technique already diminished at the age of 58 dwindle to nothing at the age of 73 when that last film was shot.

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Giselle danced like this comes across as a really dodgy oedipal cautionary tale of a mad village cougar meets a granny grabber.

Vividly put, Simon. :)

Alonso does look a bit sad. After a certain point age really does matter.

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Blanche in Streetcar is actually in her late 20's. She's often played by actresses in their 40's.

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I can't speak about the Blanche DuBois analogy, but I am intrigued (like atm711) by the scenario of an older Giselle. Perhaps this is because when I was a youth older dancers seem to have continued dancing the role longer than today, while truly young Giselles were rare.

Was Giselle considered a role so great that you had to earn the right to perform it?. This was not unknown in the theater. Sarah Bernhardt performed iconic youthful roles right to the end of her career. Katherine Cornell was performing Candida and Cleopatra well into her 50s.

I agree with Simon that the dancer must be able to do the steps. The video showing a sequence of Alonso Giselles is a fascinating document. By the end of her career in 1993, the entrechats barely leave the floor, though to her credit she still insists keeping the super-fast tempo. On the other hand, she slows the music for the three overhead lifts almost to the stopping point, and has difficulty controlling her legs while being lifted. Her exits devolve from running, to walking, to being carried off stage.

There is a great story here, but it tells us more about Alonso's voracious love of the stage and her unwillingness to give up a signature role, and also about the adoration she commanded from her fans, but very little about Giselle.

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Giselle especially is a role that needs a ballerina who can clear the floor when she jumps. The Alonso video especially I found quite sad as you saw her technique already diminished at the age of 58 dwindle to nothing at the age of 73 when that last film was shot.

I've always found this film sad. Perhaps in the theater with a very forgiving audience, it could have worked but the camera is ruthless. It can't record what isn't there but it can shift the focus unmercifully against the performers and that's what looks to me what has happened here. These performances would have been better served by being recorded only in the memories of the audience members.

A comparable memory I have is the Maria Callas/Giuseppe di Stefano concert tour of 1973-74. Parts of certain concerts were filmed and they are indeed a sad spectacle.

Unfortunately there are way too many relics of performers who against all good judgement couldn't let go of the call of the audiences approval. I realize that for many performers, the applause is what feeds them but documentation of this process is usually pretty sad.

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I agree with most of the comments above, and couldn't agree more with the one related to Alonso's diminishing technical abilities at 73. On the other hand, I firmly believe that the performers ultimate goal is to provide pleasure to those on the other side. As simple as that, I can only say that, whatever the reason was, I have NEVER experienced in my WHOLE LIFE such a satisfied, live, electric environment like the one she was able to provide with her almost non existent technical skills by the end of her active career. For me that's the only thing that matters. I'm sure some people here were able to see the very last years of Nureyev career, which for what I've read, were pretty much in the same pattern. I would be willing to bet that almost no one would go back in time to knowingly erase those viewing moments even if they belong to the "sad" chord.

There is a great story here...about the adoration she commanded from her fans,...

Exactly. Just as I've said before; a commanding, even if technically diminished performance, could prove to be a success. A technically perfect, boring one...now THAT'S a sin-(and we all know about those...I'm sure...)

Just saying...

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Blanche in Streetcar is actually in her late 20's. She's often played by actresses in their 40's.

Very good point, macnellie, Blanche is probably about thirty, but from the beginning she's been played by actors in their mid-thirties or older. Probably of the first Blanches Uta Hagen was closest to the character in age. Vivien Leigh was slightly younger than the role's originator, Jessica Tandy. (She's deliberately photographed in the film to look older.) So the 'aging' of Blanche took place fairly early on. The mature actresses who play her now aren't playing younger in the way fortyish actresses used to play young for, say, Juliet in the days when casting older women in young roles was more common than it is today).

These days such casting for Blanche is probably necessary, because thirty in a woman is much younger in social and cultural terms than it used to be.

(Blanche also wasn't anything like an old maid; she has been married, she wasn't left on the shelf. Her desperation has different sources.)

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You can't help but be reminded of Karsavina's edict: "leave the stage before the stage leaves you." The problem facing mature female performers in both acting and ballet is precisely that the big meaty roles just aren't there once a woman reaches a certain age. Ballet is almost exclusively about youth, with very few exceptions the lead roles are based on women in or barely out of puberty, whereas the parts for women in acting after mid 30s are almost exclusively mothers, grandmothers, aunts, menopausal women or patronising variants on mature female archetypes - it's no secret that there's a great deal of resentment within the acting community against Meryl Streep who has first crack on yes or no at any interesting mature female part.

It's not surprising that mature actresses have appropriated Blanche Dubois and play her considerably older than she's meant to be, it's one of the few roles which can lend itself to maturity and be played convincingly as approaching menopause. Though as stated she's only a few years older than Stella who still obviously is very much capable of conceiving.

And of course there's the unfairness that an actress's powers only increase over the years, an experience she can bring to wider roles and the smaller roles, should she be one of the lucky ones whose career doesn't end at 40. Whereas a ballerina, whose emotional and interpretive range does increase just can't do the steps anymore, certainly not in the same way and while I'm not a martinette in demanding stellar technique, she does need at least the bare modicum of technique that the role demands. But we all know that's the greatest irony/tragedy of ballet that just as the dancer as artist comes into full bloom their physical powers begin to wane. But at the same time there's no substitute for extreme youth finding its way in the great roles just by instict. I've seen Cojocaru dance Giselle several times, but for me the very best time was her very first one in a matinee on April 11th 2001. She was 19, still just a first soloist and it was a try out for her - after that performance she became principal and it's one of those historic performances. I've never seen her dance with such abandon since, certainly not in Giselle.

Due of course to the constraints and heavy artifice of ballet we accept women in their late 30s and 40s dancing girls and Juliet but that doesn't translate to a 40 year old acting Juliet - either way it does ignore the whole point of R&J that it's about the tumescent thrusting madness of adolescent lust/love with the overriding amazement and teenage discovery of "Wow, what's that going on in my underpants?"

Christian, when I was a kid I did indeed see Nureyev on one of his very last tours and it was grim, absolutely grim, even as a kid I recognised that this was a literally pathetic spectacle. I didn't bring any artistically edifying impression away, just a lesson in the importance of ageing gracefully.

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It would probably been best had these performances not been preserved on film which is such an analytical medium - and perhaps they shouldn't be judged on that basis.

But why is "menopausal" or "post-menopausal" a criterion or point of no return for acting or performing? That sort of term - out of "Mad Men" perhaps - was perhaps the thing Tennesse Williams was questioning. Are there post-menopausal men - or post-menopausal children? Does anyone age gracefully? Do they have to? (Proust says somewhere old age is like a suit awkwardly worn inside out.) Why such hard use of the reality principle - especially in an area of human activity where it's supposed to be set aside for a while?

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It would probably been best had these performances not been preserved on film which is such an analytical medium - and perhaps they shouldn't be judged on that basis.

But why is "menopausal" or "post-menopausal" a criterion or point of no return for acting or performing? That sort of term - out of "Mad Men" perhaps - was perhaps the thing Tennesse Williams was questioning. Are there post-menopausal men - or post-menopausal children? Does anyone age gracefully? Do they have to? (Proust says somewhere old age is like a suit awkwardly worn inside out.) Why such hard use of the reality principle - especially in an area of human activity where it's supposed to be set aside for a while?

There are countless highly successful actresses who asked themselves that once they hit 40-45 and suddenly found their careers dwindle to nothing. There's nothing more real than the cold hard business of art as commerce.

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On the other hand, I firmly believe that the performers ultimate goal is to provide pleasure to those on the other side. As simple as that, I can only say that, whatever the reason was, I have NEVER experienced in my WHOLE LIFE such a satisfied, live, electric environment like the one she was able to provide with her almost non existent technical skills by the end of her active career. For me that's the only thing that matters.

I understand this completely. The audience experience -- especially for those who have a close emotional connection to a company and/or an individual artist -- can be very complicated. I think of my own emotional involvement with New York City Ballet (especially the Balanchine repertory) from the late 50s to the mid-80s. Many were the times that I found myself surprised at experiencing real joy while watching certain dancers who had long passed their prime.

Alonso's place in Cuban culture is probably deeper and more intense than that of any other ballet figure in any other country. She has long been a monstre sacre in the best sense of the term. On video, those of us on the outside can watch and judge things like the inadequate entrechats. (Conversely, some of us may ignore the technical problems and focus on how inspiring it is for a 73-year old to be able to jump, turn and point her toes at all.)

Cuban audiences there in the theaters were experiencing something much more complex and, in my opinion, much more rare.

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it's no secret that there's a great deal of resentment within the acting community against Meryl Streep who has first crack on yes or no at any interesting mature female part.

I don't think that's accurate really, although I'm sure many envy her. I recall a Vanity Fair article about Shirley MacLaine, in 'Postcards from the Edge', and there was Shirley's daughter comparing Shirley as if embarassed to the great Meryl Streep. When it's not so hard to see that Shirley might be perceived as the better actress, even if she says idiotic things like 'I talked to Goldie about it [Meryl], and she thinks it's channelling'. So much for a coupla white chicks sittin' aroun' talkin'. You have to find her 'mature female parts' interesting to begin with, which is totally subjective. And they're not, as far as I'm concerned. Then there's Vanessa, who out-acts her and is even better on the stage than she is on film; as well, she can do 'younger wives' if the plays are ancient enough (Euripides). Then there are some slightly younger ones. Streep gets the big cartoon parts--Prada, Julia Child, Thatcher. The word 'overrated' has always followed her around, and she even said she 'wondered if she might agree that she was overrated', which is a little like hiding in plain sight. But, admittedly, she gets starring roles, even if I think they've all been grotesque for the last 10 years. She's a brand, and now that people are mentioning Blanche Dubois, I definitely think that ought to come next. Who needs Natalie Portman to get a second Oscar?

It's not surprising that mature actresses have appropriated Blanche Dubois and play her considerably older than she's meant to be, it's one of the few roles which can lend itself to maturity and be played convincingly as approaching menopause. Though as stated she's only a few years older than Stella who still obviously is very much capable of conceiving.

Very interesting.

But we all know that's the greatest irony/tragedy of ballet that just as the dancer as artist comes into full bloom their physical powers begin to wane. But at the same time there's no substitute for extreme youth finding its way in the great roles just by instict. I've seen Cojocaru dance Giselle several times, but for me the very best time was her very first one in a matinee on April 11th 2001. She was 19, still just a first soloist and it was a try out for her - after that performance she became principal and it's one of those historic performances. I've never seen her dance with such abandon since, certainly not in Giselle.

Marvelous, all of it, and that irony/tragedy is especially moving since you've articulated it in a way so that it is like an immutable cloud over the entire art, and yet forms a structure within which the art functions, and must do. Maybe it's so integral to the art that it's even positive.

Due of course to the constraints and heavy artifice of ballet we accept women in their late 30s and 40s dancing girls and Juliet but that doesn't translate to a 40 year old acting Juliet - either way it does ignore the whole point of R&J that it's about the tumescent thrusting madness of adolescent lust/love with the overriding amazement and teenage discovery of

That's helpful. I tend to think the 'love' aspect has to be emphasized a little more than is 100% convincing for that age, given that there's not much 'quotidian economy' involved, and Romeo's gentleness accounts for the fact that he didn't ask for permission to kiss on the first date.

Christian, when I was a kid I did indeed see Nureyev on one of his very last tours and it was grim, absolutely grim, even as a kid I recognised that this was a literally pathetic spectacle. I didn't bring any artistically edifying impression away, just a lesson in the importance of ageing gracefully.

I didn't see these on purpose, but heard about them. He would naturally do that though, he was that kind of driven stage animal. Alonso obviously too and I saw her Giselle in 1979. I barely knew who she was, so was not subject to any knowledge of her diva status. A ballet teacher I worked for told me she loved the way Alonso knew exactly how to take center stage, but it wasn't till I saw the clips leonid put up that I saw all of what the fuss about Alonso was all about--one was La Fille Mal Gardee and leonid has said 'madame always looks so centred and pulled up'. Quite so. It was glorious. But I can easily understand those who find the 'theatrical aura' satisfying as bart pointed out, even when the steps aren't there. I concede that I was never able to.

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It used to be common for mature actresses to play Juliet on stage. In fact, there was an old saying that an actor wasn't prepared to play Juliet until she was about

We seem to be casting the net for "menopausal" a bit widely in this thread. Women of 40 are not pre-menopausal in the sense it's generally used. They're women of 40. What I think is meant is that stars, especially film stars, have a briefer shelf life than their male counterparts and this phenomenon is related to their perceived sexual appeal. All of which is true (although the cutoff age used to be even earlier - 35). I certainly agree with you, Quiggin, that this shouldn't be so, but it is, certainly in film, which is why you often see female movie stars of 40 plus migrate to the stage. But times change. But even on the stage today you probably wouldn't see a 40 year old or even thirtyish Juliet.

I guess it's hard for me to take inspiration from a septuagenarian who doesn't know it's time to get off the stage, or at least time to make sure there aren't any cameras around while she is. Cristian had a wonderful experience and I envy him. But we know from other examples that people aren't having that wonderful experience watching dancers who can't handle the dancing demands any more.

Streep gets the big cartoon parts--Prada, Julia Child, Thatcher.

Off topic - these are not cartoon parts. They are two light comedy parts and one dramatic role that other actresses would would love to have. I think the point is that Streep is the default choice for the (few) choice roles for an older woman. Part of that is because she's so good and is still box office, but it also has to do with the fact that there just aren't that many roles to go around.

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Reading through the first part of this thread I started to think of Giselle as a slightly less saintly version of Beth from Little Women.

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