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Casting the "Villain"?

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In the thread on Nikolaj Hubbe's La Sylphide the conversation turned to Hilarion and Gurn - and Alexandra mentioned that she felt they were being cast too sympathetically. I thought it was worthy of a topic of it's own.

Ballets are built on a culture that drifts like continents do; you may not see it from day to day, but after a while the changes add up. We've become much more sympathetic to the anti-hero; Hilarion is misunderstood, Gurn vies with James for Effy's and the audience's affections and Dr. Coppelius is an unsung genius.

If you were producing any of these 19th century classics, how would you deal with these issues? Would you try and show us a Hilarion or Gurn as the 19th century might have seen them? Would you go with a modern interpretation - would you try a compromise?

As for me, I've thought about Hilarion at least. I would cast him so he was physically "unsuited" for Giselle; too big or small - too broad, too dark, where her Albrecht would have to be a perfect physical match for her. Of course, this is risky, people may not read physical signs the same way, and moreover, in a less than perfect company situation will you have the dancers to cast that way? (To say nothing of being in an era of mix 'n match coupling)

What would you do? Any thoughts?

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I've always thought of Hilarion and Gurn as sympathetic, because I've seen them cast as young men of the same class as the heroine. I've never had any sympathy for Albrecht, because he's the one in the position of power, and he abuses it by pretending to be a peasant, like the Duke of Mantua in Rigoletto, although not quite as extreme. I've always thought of Giselle as the biggest wimp around, because she protects a liar and a cheat. My sympathies go to Hilarion, because he knows something is rotten in Denmark.

James as a character can be different, because while Effy is well-intentioned, she has the assumption of a particular life, and I can sympathize with the potential artist or poet or dreamer who is being squelched by standard expectations and a bourgeous life.

That said, to make Hilarion less sympathetic to me than Albrecht would only be possible if Hilarion were portrayed as (more of) a vain, abusive brute, and he could show nothing but pride and stubbornness, not remorse, when Giselle goes mad. Gurn would have to be a churlish brute as well, although he could be cast the way Alexandra describes, as a middle aged man. Although he'd have to be pompous or a lech or have a sense of buying Effy, i.e., someone insufferable, not just older. Which would turn Effy's mother into the mother in La Fille Mal Gardee?

I don't think I would have made a very good 19th century audience member. Maybe that's why I like Balanchine and older men in general so much :wacko:

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Well, Helene, there's food for thought there....

Helgi Tomasson's had very good luck in having a real Dane in the company here (SanFrancisco) who is perfect as both Gurn and Hilarion. Peter Brandenhof is a hunky guy, he's a terrific mime, he can do virtuoso steps (which Hilarion's dance of death has in the SFB version), in short he can be very attractive and a LOT of fun to watch without being AT ALL the guy who should get the girl.... As Hilarion, he's a brilliant performer, and takes it to the edge of being like Stanley Kowalski -- too forceful, too armored in his own flesh, one of those guys who can't see anything from anyone else's point of view, and so sexy he'd crush the spirituality out of Giselle....

As Gurn he's quite an acceptable husband for Effie; he's got a chip on his shoulder, sick of James getting everything he wants, with enough poetry in him to be (since he is in love) able to see the sylph but determinedly average, his mime-phrase that goes from the Sylph's flight into the pratfall (when the chair's removed) is one of hte highlights of hte show....

His physical type is a paradox, like a Piero della Francesca angel with really thick legs. To my mind, he's almost as great an asset to this company as Derek Rencher was to the Royal Ballet (which is enormously high praise, for I consider Rencher to have been on a level with Sibley and Dowell and Mason as an artist).

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Well, you know Markova said the reason Giselle wasn't interested in Hilarion was that he had a red beard.

Fun trivia fact for the day.

With the romatic ballets, since so much of the work is about the tension between the real and the ideal, I think the "other" guy needs to be very prosaic. I don't think he has to be ugly or nasty, that turns the whole thing into a high school prom kind of choice. The romantic hero has one foot in the real world and one in the world of the spirits -- that's the flaw that will thwart him in the end. His "competition" should be thoroughly grounded in the real world, a part of the community in a way that the hero is not. I think they can be handsome (I don't like to think of them as consolation prizes) and they can be sought after by other women -- they just don't have the same imagination as the hero, which is why the heroine only thinks of them second (the "I love you like a brother" line?)

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In northern Europe, red hair was the sign of a Bad Man. Vikings had red hair, and had not been thoughtful conquerors. In Denmark, the trolls have red hair (perhaps a way of wriggling out of collective guilt for being Vikings). And in Scotland, where La Sylphide is set, of course, red hair was particularly unwanted. I've posted this before, but it's relevant here. A family anecdote: An uncle of mine had red hair and had to be very careful on New Year's Eve, because there was a superstition (in this family with Scots blood) that said if the first person to cross your threshold on New Year's Eve had red hair, you would have bad luck for a year.

Gurn isn't a villain, though. He's no saint -- he does lie. (The Danes do this scene especially well -- Gurn, simple and honest and true, finds James's cap and is headed straight to the principal's office, as it were, when Madge stops him and explains that if he doesn't show the cap, he can get Effy. I'll never forget Alexander Kolpin in this -- he only takes about 15 seconds to do it, but the struggle with his conscience is visible; he's really torn by it. And knows he's going to go to hell when he hides the cap, but he wants that girl.) But he's not a villain.

I think one has to enter into the spirit of the ballet, and its times. You may think royalty is silly, but just for the night, give the King and Queen in "Sleeping Beauty" a break and enter their world. If you're a corporate executive, you may shudder at the thought of someone riding through the forest robbing the rich to give to the poor, but if you're going to stage Robin Hood for your kids' school, I'm not sure that righting this injustice is fair to literature.

One way of entering Albrecht's world is to read "Beauties of the Opera and the Ballet," a mid-19th century collection of libretti which includes "Giselle" and "La Sylphide." "Giselle" is told absolutely from Albrecht's point of view, in the same way "Gone with the Wind" is told from the point of view of Scarlett O'Hara. You have no choice but to buy into it. It's HIS story, HIS tragedy. There he is, a nice young man, trapped in this horrible court life, yearning for something Better. He sees innocence, he sees what life could be. "It's a flirt that goes bad," as one Danish Albrecht explained to me. "He doesn't mean to hurt her." Think of it that way. He doesn't propose, doesn't move her in and then cheat on her. It's ONE afternoon. He doesn't understand her fantasies. He could save the situation yet, if it weren't for that Awful, Coarse Hilarion or, as the Bolshoi did him in the Grigorovich production, a nasty little snitch, teacher's pet, whose job it was to turn in poachers, who were probably hanged. Vile little man. Sucks up to Giselle's mother, tries to win the daughter by giving her mother rabbits. Giselle doesn't want him, he can't stand the idea, he's going to ruin her life. Take that, you little bitch. Ha ha, I'll embarrass you in front of the whole village. Bad, bad, bad Hilarion. Does that help? :blink:

Kronstam's 1990 production of "Giselle" made Hilarion a contemporary villain (in much the same way Tomasson's later production does) by making him coarse and overtly sexual. He can't talk to Giselle, he can only grope her. She recoils. But he is not a bad man, just totally wrong for her. He absolutely thinks -- you can see it -- that all he has to do is unmask Albrecht, she will see the mistake she makes, and come to him. During the mad scene, he's sick with love and fear and grabs her, holds her to him as if to comfort her before she breaks away in horror.

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I don't know much about La Sylphide, but as for Giselle... I cannot see the value of a sympathtic Hilarion, as I feel that throws off the whole ballet. When I see a Hilarion I can sympathize with, it ultimately makes me see a Giselle I feel is a spoiled, selfish brat who would not be capable of the spiritualityof the second act. I guess I have seen it danced that way, and there was no "truth" in Act 2. (Not that there is any "truth" in a plot as contrived as this, anyway.) I think Hilarion needs those "bad" qualities- he needs to be someone that Giselle should be protected from, even though her mother might think he is the perfect match. Even though the Mother thinks she knows what is best for Giselle, she can't help but to be blinded by the fact that Hilarion is the village gamekeeper and would provide BOTH of them with luxuries such as fresh meat, etc, not to mention having a strong man around the house to help out. This may prevent her from seeing his possibly abusive side, or the mismatched spirituality, or his boisterous, self-centeredness. (Not to say that Albrecht doesn't also have these same qualities... but that is a different story.)

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Albrecht's point of view sounds like a series of self-justifying rationalizations to me. I'm sure Albrecht has hired his share of gameskeepers to prevent poaching on his estates; how kind of him to condescend to those who do his dirty work. Also, Giselle's mother knows that if Giselle lives long enough, she is frail enough to need someone who adores her and can provide for her, and Hilarion fits the bill.

I'm willing to listen to the point of view of a villain, but not a cad. But I loooove red hair. Maybe that explains it :ermm:

(Edited to use the right word.)

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But Albrecht formed his point of view before Ms. Magazine and consciousness raising! He operated under a pre-Watergate morality! He was, in short, a Man of His Time.

Reading that 19th century libretto, it was clear that the audience identified with Albrecht (even the women, at one remove, as -- forgive me for slipping into feminist garb for a moment -- women have had to do with much of literature). One felt sorry for Giselle, but her life was not as important as his.

I read a Victorian short story once that made me understand Albrecht a bit more. It was a memoire of a young man who had despoiled a peasant girl. Afterwards, she cried. He was stunned. "I didn't know that they could feel," he said. He was very guilty and felt horrible -- as Albrecht does in the last act. (I must say that the Albrecht who said "it's a flirt that goes bad" would have none of my theory, but I'll stick to my theory.)

I think it's dangerous (not the right word, but it will have to do) to try to update these stories too much. To use Robin Hood again, the Sheriff of Nottingham had a very different point of view, and one could, in theory, if one were presenting a drama based on the story to the cadets at a Police Academy, make Robin Hood the bad guy and a crook and have the Good Sheriff and his officers bring the villain to earth -- but that's not Robin Hood. It's another story.

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And neither way would be correct to the individual who was apparently the original of Robin Hood, a North-of-England cutpurse named Robert Hoad, who apparently stole from everybody and gave to himself. The Robin Hood of story is a personification of things that happened about a hundred years after King John, in the Peasant's Rebellion of the fourteenth century.

Anyway, Gautier practically hated Hilarion! When he describes the Wilis chucking him into the lake, he says, "Good-bye, Hilarion, may the fish eat your eyes!"

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I don't think so; Shylock was played for years either as a comic buffoon, or as a worse-than-Simon-Legree villain. David Garrick discovered the dramatic possibilities of playing the part sympathetically. Partially, he did it because he couldn't stand to play villains or clowns, but in part, it's because that reading is there. It sets up new conflicts, but it can work.

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I don't feel the need for Hilarion to be inherently repulsive. Maybe he and Giselle just don't have chemistry, and he becomes obnoxious because he just won't take no for an answer. Galina Ulanova as Giselle does a gesture, when she rejects Hilarion, that very clearly shows that she's said no before, and she's getting exasperated with having to say it yet again.

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I agree, djb. All Hilarion needs is to be less attractive to Giselle than Albrecht, who, in her eyes has rock star glamour. By comparison, yes, Hilarion is crude. And he is rough. But a fellow can be rough (within limits) and not be evil.

But I want to know why Gurn should be a villain. James' rival for Effy, sure, but a bad guy per se? Anyone?

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djb, I agree Hilarion doesn't have to be repulsive or totally unsympathetic, but he should be clearly wrong for Giselle (and in the wrong) – a little beyond mere obnoxiousness. And he shouldn't be as appealing or attractive as Albrecht. As Edmund Goulding told supporting player Ronald Reagan during the shoot of the Bette Davis vehicle "Dark Victory," "Ronnie, we've already got a leading man."

On the other hand, times have changed, and there's no reason for contemporary productions not to reflect that, within reason. For us, Giselle is just as important as Albrecht, peasant or no – a change for the better, IMO.

And welcome to the board, by the way!

I never thought of Gurn as a villain, either.

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