What Was Count Albrecht Thinking? and Other Thoughts On ABT's GISELLE

(top photo of Nina Anashniavili as Giselle by MIRA; bottom of Paloma Herrera, photographer unknown, taken from Observer here)

Sorry about the lateness of this post. Again. I think in the future I may limit myself to one dance review per week, because, as much as I love ballet and as much as I love being in the theater every night, I just get so tired when the pressure’s on to write so much — especially when ballet season is segmented by two big ballroom competitions and there are weekly dance shows on TV… it just starts to cut back a bit on the enjoyment for me. Plus, I’m supposed to be spending the summer revising my novel and other fiction / creative nonfiction pursuits… We’ll see how I feel in six weeks when I’ll likely be bored out of my mind and starved for dance…

Anyway, I liked Giselle but can’t say I fell completely in love with it. For people new to this ballet, it’s the oldest classical ballet that is still being performed (was first performed in Paris in 1841), and the story is basically: Hilarion, village gameskeeper is in love with Giselle, a peasant girl; Count Albrecht, a nobleman, decides to pretend he is a peasant so that Giselle will fall for him; he passes; she falls; Hilarion, figuring out Albrecht’s disguise, reveals his true identity; and Giselle goes mad and dies of a broken heart. That’s the first Act; second Act is: Albrecht and Hilarion go to visit Giselle’s grave where each man in turn encounters the Wilis, a group of spirits who in life were maidens whose lovers failed to marry them before they died. They now roam the earth from dusk till dawn, their spirits restless with unrequited love. Any male who enters their kingdom risks being forced by them in their vengeance to dance to his death. Hilarion suffers this unfortunate fate, but Giselle protects Albrecht from her sister Wilis, and he lives.

(photo of Julie Kent as Giselle by Roy Round)

(photo of Ethan Stiefel by Richard Perry from NYTimes)

I saw the cast with Julie Kent in the lead, the illustrious Ethan Stiefel (who I haven’t really seen dance since his double knee operations a couple of years ago now) as Count Albrecht, and Michele Wiles as the Wilis’ queen. I love Julie in this role and can’t really imagine anyone dancing it better except Veronika Part who wasn’t ever cast in the lead role (why, does anyone know?) Julie’s such a wonderful actress; she does the fullest mad scene I’ve seen, as she slowly realizes Hilarion is right about Albrecht’s identity, runs around stage nearly ripping her hair out, then falls to her knees holding her head in her hands trying to will it not so, then running around stage again, having a moment of seeming normalcy, then reverting to anger, then to tears, finally collapsing. You really believe she’s gone mad. And she plays the character with so much fragility throughout; you can see her delicacy and her constant emotional wavering between extremes even at the beginning when she’s counting the flowers of her daisy. When she ends with a “he loves me not” she throws down the bouquet and runs from him, looking terrified, but when he tricks her by surreptitiously discarding a petal behind her back, her mood instantaneously changes to extreme bliss. Julie hints at what is to come for this poor emotionally fraught girl.

At intermission I overheard in the bathroom line a young woman — must have been in her late teens or very early twenties — say to her friend, “I just don’t get it? What do you mean she dies of a broken heart???” The girl laughed and rolled her eyes. “Yeah,” the friend responded with a giggle and a shrug, indicating she liked the ballet but didn’t know how to defend it.

My biggest problem isn’t that it’s unbelievable that in this time period an emotionally unstable young woman may have gone mad — although I think it might make more sense to contemporary audiences to just have Giselle kill herself rather than literally die of her madness — but that I don’t understand Albrecht’s motives. The way Ethan played him, he didn’t seem to either. And the ballet starts in the middle of his story, where he’s already asking his friend if his disguise works, so he’s not really a fully developed character. So it’s not really entirely the dancer’s fault the character doesn’t make complete sense; but I still think he must figure it all out for himself beforehand and decide how he’s going to interpret it so it’s as clear to us as possible. Albrecht’s a nobleman and he’ll always be a nobleman, so did he just see this beautiful peasant girl one day while he was out and about and was so taken with her he wants to seduce her, or did he really fall in love with her and does he think there’s actually a future for them, class issues aside? Is he just a playboy who’s not thinking? Does he plan to marry her and somehow think he’s going to be able lead this double life forever? Is he a bit off, himself? Does he know how fragile she is and how serious is his deceit? I don’t know, but it’s important to me to have those answers or the ballet’s story doesn’t resonate. The way Ethan played the character, he seemed first intent on passing in his disguise, intent on flirting and getting her to like him, then annoyed at Hilarion for exposing him, then suddenly upset that she’s dead (which he doesn’t seem to have expected), then finally showing up at her grave in sorrow and dancing with her spirit. Because his character made more sense to me in the second Act — he now sees the error of his ways and is horribly sorry — I liked that part better than the first.

The other thing about this ballet that keeps it from being a favorite for me is that the story seems to be told primarily through the acting or miming rather than through specific choreography. Certain scenes, like where she goes mad for example, aren’t very movement-specific; her insanity and ensuing death aren’t depicted through actual twisted, tortuous steps, etc., but just by however the ballerina chooses to act it (falling to the floor and covering her face with her hands, etc.) Maybe the repeated one-footed bouncing bourrees would have been better suited for this scene than for the Wilis scene. Such a repetitive movement seems a little maddening… Anyway, a ballet should be told primarily through movement; otherwise it’s more like a play.

I loved both Sascha Radetsky as Hilarion (I really felt his pain on Giselle’s death and I understood all of his actions — of course he’s going to reveal the imposter who’s going to lead to his love’s demise) and Michele Wiles as Myrta, queen of the Wilis. Michele was so controlling and regal, yet forgiving and willing to “listen” to others. As Giselle’s ghost danced with Albrecht, instead of simply standing aside, Michele’s Myrta stood regally in front of her flock of potentially murderous maidens, maintaining the power to unleash them at any time on the poor Count. Michele continued to look all powerful, then turned, crooking her head over her shoulder regarding the two, as if to make sure Albrecht wasn’t taking advantage yet again of her new charge. The pas de deux almost became Michele’s, though she stood shock still, as you could read the subtly changing expressions on her face –Â the hatred of Albrecht, the realization that Giselle loved him, the decision to let him live. I didn’t used to like Michele so much, but I feel like she’s finding the layers, the vulnerability, making each character her own.

(photo of Michele Wiles in Sleeping Beauty, by MIRA)

Anyway, one thing I won’t be missing for the second half of the summer is all that obnoxious Lincoln Center construction. It wasn’t fun trying to navigate your way through the multiple mazes to find the State Theater, the Met, the library. And of course crowd control was near impossible because of limited entrances. I don’t think ABT started before 8:15-8:20 p.m. a single night this season because of the length of time it took to get the audience through those doors. And where did my fountain go :( Let’s pray it’s done by next year.

7 Comments

  1. Sasha just rocks. LOL excuse the nerd in me but I’ve loved him since Center Stage and I’ve tried to follow his career

  2. I saw my favorite ballerina, Victoria Jaiani, and her real life husband, Temur Suluashuili, dance the parts of Giselle and Albrecht, respectively, last October. Normally, Victoria would have me near tears, but I found the storyline kinda retarded as well. Like you, I felt Albrecht’s character wasn’t at all developed. Now, it’s possible that it was simply the artist’s interpretation that I found lacking. I was happy with it just b/c I like watching Victoria dance as well as all of the other cast members, but the story is boring. Bottom line, this ballet is all about the artist’s interpretation of the character. This fall, the Kirov is bringing their Giselle to Chicago, and I may go see it again despite how I felt about them the last time they were here. Man, I’m thinking that if I saw Julie Kent and Ethan Stiefel do Giselle together, the storyline wouldn’t even matter since I love them both.

    Best

  3. “Anyway, I liked Giselle but can’t say I fell completely in love with it. ”

    In order to fall in love with Giselle the ballet you have to see a great Giselle danced by a supreme dancing actress. And when you do you will never forget it. I still remember the Giselle performances of over 30 years ago given by Fracci, Makarova and Kirkland. (Especially the last – her mad scene had the audience shaken, gasping. Makarova was freaky great in the second act.) All of the ABT Giselles are competent but none is great, IMO.

    The Albrecht character is nowadays played as a nice guy who kind of messes up with Giselle. In my opinion, this is totally wrong. Albrecht is a bastard. He’s nobility and he trifles with a peasant girl. No one wants to do that nowadays which is why the story confused you.

    I too would like to see Part dance this. Perhaps McKenzie thinks she is too tall for the part. But the modern Giselle is essentially based on Spessivtseva’s interpretation, and she was tall for her time.

  4. My opinions of ABT Albrechts I’ve seen:

    Marcelo and Jose dances the role of Albrecht like a bit of a jerk, a flirt, with a tenderness towards Giselle but ultimately, not too serious about his love for her.

    Angel Corella and Vladimir Malakhov portrays Albrecht as a guy who sincerely loves GIselle but is stuck between social pressures and family expectations.

    I guess there are only two ways of portraying Albrecht? They aren’t really what I call “three-dimensional” characters, unfortunately.

    MIchelle Wiles does play an amazing Myrta, and so does Sofiane Sylve, who performed it this recent season at SF Ballet.

    The story of Giselle is a bit silly but honestly, what ballet doesn’t have a weak story line? La Bayadere made me laugh out loud–the opium dream! I’m gonna defend Giselle, even though she is such a silly girl in the 1st act, I love the idea of strong women defending their loves, essentially having Giselle take her power back, and the sadness and poignancy of the 2nd act makes up for any plot flaws :)

    Who can forget the indelible pas de deux poses in Giselle? Perfect in expressing emotion, any audience member can see what it means when Giselle stands in an arabesque, leaning and hovering over Albrecht, kneeling on the floor.

  5. Thanks you guys! I’m glad people agree; I was afraid everyone was going to hate me for this post!

    Jennifer, I agree, the second Act is really beautiful and that’s what saved the ballet for me.

    Sophia, I’m going to have to watch some video tapes of prior ballerinas dancing this role; something makes me think everything was danced better, or at least more passionately, in the past. Just by watching documentaries of dancers like Nureyev and the little excerpts of Robbins ballets they had recently at the library at Lincoln Center, it seems like ballet was just different in the past. I figured maybe Kevin didn’t cast Veronika for that reason. There are larger men though who can partner her well though… unless he was thinking tall people in general don’t have that same air of vulnerability, which I don’t agree with. A great dramatic ballerina is a great dramatic ballerina, period.

    Chimene, please do go see the Kirov in this if you get the chance, and let me know what you thought. I know you didn’t like them last time, but maybe it was just that production that was lacking. I saw them here, although I missed their classical series, but I thought they did an excellent job with the Balanchine and the Forsythe.

    And Katrina, haha, you’re definitely not a nerd for liking him! Unfortunately, word has it that he’s leaving ABT and going to a company in Europe…

  6. WHAT!!! no! How in the world am I going to follow him then!!!

  7. I don’t think Giselle dies from going mad. She has a weak heart. Berthe is constantly warning Giselle not to dance because she’s worried about her heart. It’s my understanding that Giselle dies because she (her heart) can’t take the stress/strain of Albrecht’s betrayal.

    Although I’ve never seen this done, I’ve read that, at least in one production, Giselle commits suicide with Albrecht’s sword.

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