Giselle : Belle of the Ballet
Sunday, April 2nd 2017
Double Giselle :
19th Century & 21st Century
Paris & London
Alina Cojocaru & Tamara Rojo
Marius Petipa after Jean Coralli/Jules Perrot & Akram Khan
A girl with a weak heart & a zest for life. What makes an innocent and fragile heroine relevant today ?
As Marina Warner (writer & mythographer) explains, conditions of life in 19th Century Paris were tough for girls and women. Tamara Rojo, Artistic Director and Lead Principal dancer of English National Ballet, engagingly presents the facts. In the early 19th Century, poverty was rife and the industrial revolution brought immigrants to the city until it was bursting at the seams. A desire to escape from urbanisation and return to nature meant that the 19th Century audience connected to Giselle in a visceral way.
Akran Khan’s commission to make a gritty, new Giselle for English National Ballet places her firmly in today’s world, in the concerns of today; the same story (more or less) becomes as relevant to 21st Century audiences. Khan’s factory-based Giselle is not naive, she’s a strong woman who is not ill. Why should illness define her ? Should it not be her love of life and joy of dancing that are the things that set her apart from her peers ? Love and betrayal are still the themes, and the character of Albrecht is central to both versions.
Khan’s choreography for Giselle and Albrecht – how they touch their faces – has been picked from his Indian background, where, if he were Albrecht, nobody would touch his face. As Khan says, emphatically, “only husband and wife.”
Gaslight and wreathes of smoke
The 19th Century wide-eyed Giselle relies on mine, highlighted in the seduction scene and perfectly, (and with a dash of humour), demonstrated by Rojo, who dances and says, as Albrecht comes close to her, “it’s a little bit too much. We can try with the daisy, the daisy will tell me whether you love me or not.” Mime is central to ballet of this time, and still is, but for today’s audience it is often a mystery and so Khan tackles things differently. Adolphe Adam’s music supports the story without words and Gavin Sutherland demonstrates and explains how original & important it is.
Madness was a very 19th Century occupation, particularly in women. Psychiatry was just beginning to take shape. The French had a word for madness – hysteria, from the Greek work uterus. Hysterical people are considered to be interested in life, and everything it has to offer, regardless of any risks. This was true for Giselle, especially when she finds that everything she thought to be true, was not. Alina Cojocaru, dancing the role, regards the madness scene as “a loss of reality. Everything just collapses. Yet the mind still tries to find a way to see that it was real.” She continues, “for one moment, they are both at the same level.” Act One ends with Giselle’s death.
But would 21st Century audiences relate to weak hearts and madness in the same way ?
There’s a twist in the plot for Khan’s version, but the result is the same : in Act Two the ballet becomes darker and unsafe. In the 19th Century version we find the characters to be far less earthbound. The setting, a wood, signify tracks that disappear, lost people. The Supernatural. At this time, magnetism and microscopes were being discovered. Here we are introduced to the Wilis. Wili is derived from a Slavic word, Vila – a female vampire. It’s plural, Vilas is a terrifying horde of them. “They were hurt, they were bitter, and they craved retribution” says Rojo, and this leads us to bamboo sticks and pointe shoes for Khan. He explains, “the pointe shoes were not just to elevate them. They are also a weapon. They are a weapon of justice, a weapon of rage, from the point of the pointe shoes all the way to the head is a knife. It’s the vertical. It’s the thing that connects earth to heaven, and there’s something very spiritual about that.”
It’s unusual for contemporary choreographers like Khan to use pointe shoes, but 175 years ago, when Giselle premiered, pointe shoes were a new phenomenon. Ethereal dancer Marie Taglioni danced in satin slippers and through sheer strength she danced on the tips of her toes. Carlotta Grisi (married to Jules Perrot) took Giselle to another level by being in the right place at the right time – with a pointe shoe, and with tulle and gaslight. Tulle gave the costumes the much-needed ethereal look, and gaslight had the capacity to change the atmosphere of the theatre and brought a new dimension to theatre-going.
If there’s anything you want to know about Giselle – this is the programme for you. Leitmotifs ? Tick.
Forgiveness is the main theme of this ballet and this programme brings you dancing excerpts from Cojocaru and Rojo, who explains how she tries to become ethereal in these final scenes with Albrecht, to go into his soul rather than just embracing him. Giselle leaves a melancholic trail, as she’s made almost from air, and this ballet conveys pure emotion in both versions. The choreography dictates that Giselle should be floating, dancing like a leaf in the wind. Isaac Hernandes, dancing Albrecht, explains how tiring this choreography can be, coming at the end of the ballet, “usually it’s only the ballerina who enjoys it at this stage.” Khan feels that today, forgiveness is being replaced by judgement, and he explores this in his ballet by giving Giselle the power she never had in life, and she will decide Albrecht’s fate.
Ultimately, she forgives him. They dance all night. A new day dawns, and while this saves Albrecht in the 19th Century, in Khan’s version, it is Giselle who saves him.
And this is why the ballet endures.