Timeless TBA: art & politics in ‘Giselle’

“We could do with a regiment of Wilis to haunt the halls of Congress,” Martha Ullman West declares, and then she tells us why. Art Scatter’s chief correspondent, who reviewed Oregon Ballet Theatre‘s current production of “Giselle” here for The Oregonian, expands on her ideas for us, moving the conversation into the twilight territory between arts and politics.

Giselle (Haiyan Wu) and the peasants in "Giselle" at OBT. Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert.

By Martha Ullman West

With no apologies whatsoever to PICA and its annual TBA festival, Giselle is a sterling example of time-based art.

The creators of this collaborative piece from 1841 – composer Adolphe Adam, choreographers Jean Coralli and Jules Perrot, and librettists Vernoy de Saint Georges and Theophile Gautier – were seasoned, rather than young, creatives.

Coralli and Perrot were making some distinct innovations in ballet technique, particularly pointe work, which gave new prominence and independence to ballerinas. You can see this particularly in Act II, where the women balance in unsupported arabesques. And the librettists were expressing, or reflecting, some political ideas just seven years before Karl Marx (who came from the Rhineland, in which the ballet is set) issued the Communist Manifesto.

So the ballet is at once time-based and timeless, a great work of art, providing a cathartic experience in the theater as well as much food for thought. Oregon Ballet Theatre’s new production (staged by Lola de Avila, and repeating this weekend) looks distinctly old, but because of the commitment and talents of the dancers, it speaks to our concerns as well as our hearts.

Think about the libretto. The class divide (or “war,” to use Republican hyperbole, and which our president isn’t causing) drives the plot.

Albrecht, a duke in peasant disguise who is already betrothed to another aristocrat, steals the heart of pretty Giselle, a peasant girl with a helicopter mother who is worried that dancing, never mind romance, will kill her. Which, alas, they do. In Act II, the Wilis (what the 16th century theologian John Knox might have meant, had he known about them, when he referred to “a monstrous regiment of women—), who are ghosts of girls who have been jilted on their wedding day, busily kill men by dancing them to death – regardless of class.

In light of recent statements by politicians and priests about issues affecting women’s health and what we choose to do with our bodies (Giselle, after all, chooses to dance), we could do with a regiment of Wilis to haunt the halls of Congress. In the ballet, they fail to kill Albrecht, because of the love of a forgiving Giselle, who as a ghost is strong enough to keep him more or less on his feet until dawn breaks. She returns to her grave permanently, and he lives unhappily ever after. We hope.

So in this ballet, dancing kills women and saves men. It’s an interesting view of the art form, and an equally interesting take by the male sex on what used to be called the “frail” sex.

George Balanchine, the master of neo-classical plotless choreography, called Giselle a “perfect” ballet, and in Oregon Ballet Theatre’s rendering of it the corps of peasants in Act I (as both my companion on opening night and Mr. Scatter commented) looked porcelain, like Meissen figures, fixed in time and place: an aristocrat’s idea of what a peasant looks like. This is in part because of their costumes – very beige, very clean – but also their dancing, which was technically fine, to be sure, but much too careful. This may have been due to opening-night jitters, although the jitters certainly didn’t affect the precise, cold-hearted beauty of the Wilis in Act II.

It is of course extremely difficult for classical dancers, trained in an aristocratic art form, to move with the roughness of peasants. As Hilarion, the gamekeeper who loves Giselle and is favored by her mother (he’s an upper peasant, if you will, and a good catch), tall, long-legged Brian Simcoe couldn’t help looking just as aristocratic as Chauncey Parsons, who was dancing the duke in disguise. And when Simcoe reveals Albrecht’s deception by driving the duke’s sword between the ill-fated couple, he does it with the same imperiousness as the Prince of Verona delivering his ultimatum to the Montagues and Capulets in Romeo and Juliet. In Hilarion’s terrified dancing to escape the Wilis in Act II, the choreography was clunkier, much more appropriate, and the class difference between him and the Duke drawn much more vividly (as was, later in the act, the Duke’s courtly bow to the Queen of the Wilis).

As Bathilde, to whom Albrecht is betrothed, Candace Bouchard – dressed for a day in the country in red velvet – carried herself with considerable arrogance. Her interpretation of the role was bitchier than I’ve been used to, but when she and Giselle look at each other, realizing that Albrecht has deceived them both, I fantasized a confrontation between Newt’s second and third wives. One expression said, how dare he; the other, how could he. Bouchard also dances Myrtha, and she’ll be well worth watching: she can act and she can dance.

Each of the four Giselles, I’m told, has a different interpretation of the role. Haiyan Wu, the one I saw, is the most experienced in the part, which is her favorite, and she truly inhabits it, technically and dramatically. In Act I she’s feisty, willful, and flirtatious with Albrecht, leading him on a bit. Her mad scene is heart-rending, her dancing body clearly disconnected from her mind. In Act II she dances with the same lightness as the Wilis in her hops and jumps, but with the emotional affect they lack. She and Parsons dance again Thursday night.

I suspect from seeing Yuka Iino’s heartbreaking interpretation of Odette, the Swan Queen, as well as from recent published interviews, that she gives an even more heartrending and deeply personal performance as Giselle. Iino, who is partnered here by Yang Zhou, is a gorgeous, musical dancer, lovely in the classical repertoire in which she was trained, yet also capable of delivering harder-edged contemporary dancing in works like Fonte’s Petrouchka. Julia Rowe, exuberantly precise and musical in opening night’s Peasant Pas de Deux, does the children’s matinee on Saturday, partnered by Simcoe; and Xuan Cheng, new to the company this season, also dances this weekend, partnered by Parsons, who it would seem was born to dance Albrecht.

In this production the Albrechts, whose choreography is just as challenging technically as the women’s, get to wear the most beautiful costume, the black velvet bejeweled tunic of the second act. It’s something a Medici might well have worn, and that’s appropriate, since it was Catherine de Medici who took the seeds of ballet to the French court.

But that’s another story, also time-based, like Giselle.


ILLUSTRATION: Giselle (Haiyan Wu) and the peasants in “Giselle” at OBT. Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert.