Ballet West’s presentation of Giselle at the Capitol Theatre in February was a new re-staging of a familiar ballet classic that was well received by an appreciative audience. The sets, costumes, music, and dancing all showed the high level of artistry and technical perfection that is expected of a well-established professional company. The challenge with performing such a well-known work is that the audience knows exactly what the ballet “should” look like, and many are watching for flaws at critical steps or for deviations from their favorite choreography. Sayaka Ohtaki, who performed to a nearly full house on Saturday night, was totally believable in the title role. I could expand my descriptions about the nuances of specific dancers in a specific show, but this information is ephemeral. Instead I would like to explore the deeper meaning of this tale of love, betrayal, vengeance, and forgiveness in the context of contemporary issues.
There have been many stagings of Giselle, and a long tradition of modifying the basic story to add new meaning and movement to the familiar score and choreography. Some presentations are safe tributes to tradition while others have been unconventional and notorious. There are many ways to present the characters. The innocent maiden, Giselle, can die from a weak heart, or by suicide with Albrect’s sword. Giselle can save her unfaithful lover Albrect by drawing him to the cross on her grave, implying that the willies are satanic, or by confronting the willi Queen Myrthe in a display of personal strength and determination. Artistic director Adam Sklute’s program notes state that he “wanted the characters in this decidedly nineteenth-century ballet to speak to a twenty-first-century audience.” So what emotional impressions did the new Ballet West version create for me?
I always feel that Hilarion, the humble village boy, is far more virtuous than Albrect and the story makes him a victim of injustice. He is sincere in his love for Giselle, is kind to her mother, and his only offense is to speak truth to power by publicly calling out Albrect’s deception. In this version, Giselle kills herself with Hilarion’s knife, making him, not Albrect, the proximal contributor to her death. Albrect benefits from upper-class wealth and privilege, which allows him to betray both his fiancée, Bathilda, and the emotionally vulnerable village girl. Does this sound familiar? The character acting by the cast was ambiguous: it could have conveyed stronger moral and social messages. How did the villagers feel about Hilarion’s presenting the evidence of the matching design on Albrect’s sword and noble’s hunting horn? The Duke’s demeanor when leading his court and retainers off stage conveyed only the faintest hint of disapproval of his son’s behavior.
Hilarion’s final dance was shorter and less dynamic than other versions that I have seen. It ended with him being pushed by two willis and stumbling off stage, rather than being forcibly and convincingly thrown into the lake. Why does Giselle save Albrect, and not Hilarion? Is this a legacy of structuring the dramatic plot to appeal to the upper-class patrons? Could artistic license have allowed Hilarion to ultimately escape and survive while still retaining the powerful leaps, turns, and collapsing to the floor depicting punishment by the willis?
Both revenge on the part of queen Myrthe and the willis and the female empowerment of Giselle were effectively portrayed in Act II. Giselle bravely positioned herself to protect Albrect and pleaded for him. An overall message of forgiveness was conveyed when Giselle handed Albrect a flower from behind the scrim representing the tombstone on her grave.
Should the twenty-first-century message be that a privileged man deserves to be forgiven for misleading his lover? Wilfred, Albrect’s squire, helps in the deception and reminded me of the enablers of contemporary philanderers. The Ballet West program notes create sympathy for Albrect’s betrayal of Bathilde by referring to an arranged marriage of noble duty, an anachronism today and never a justification for prosperous men to prey on vulnerable girls. Alternative endings to the ballet have shown Albrect in total despair after realizing the consequences of his actions, doing his noble duty and reconciling with Bathilde, or simply collapsed on the floor ambiguously as the willis fade away. Each choice of ending reinforces a different message. I believe that Mr. Sklute played it safe with a carefully staged presentation that exhibited the company’s skills and acknowledged contemporary questions while not straying too far from long-standing conventions and tradition. I was able enjoy an exquisite performance and left the theater with much to think about.
Ballet West’s Giselle was at the Capitol Theater, Salt Lake City, Feb. 7 – Feb. 15.
John Veranth has been a mainstay of Salt Lake City’s dance community for many years as theatergoer, supporter, maker and performer. John and his wife Martha Veranth both perform and take class in various contexts around town and can be seen at many performances in the audience. John has danced character roles in various local ballet productions as well as collaborating on more experimental projects. He was recently seen in Alexandra Barbier’s experimental evening Take This With You at Commonwealth Studios.