By Marcia B. Siegel
The performance I saw on Friday night revealed Boston Ballet’s priorities: while the dancers possess a high degree of technical skills, they have a looser notion of nuanced acting.
Giselle, directed by Larissa Ponomarkenko. Boston Ballet, at Boston Opera House, Boston, MA. Closed.
One of the oldest ballets in the repertory, Giselle (1841) has been revamped and renovated many times. Since its creation at the Paris Opera (scenario by Théophile Gautier, choreography by Jules Perrot and Jean Coralli), it’s been revived many times, notably in 1884-1903 by Marius Petipa for the Russian Imperial Ballet. Unlike music, ballet doesn’t have definitive scores that account for every semi-quaver, so, although Petipa’s last rethinking was written down in Stepanov notation, there’s no such thing as an authentic original Giselle. In recent memory it’s been reconceived to take place in a madhouse, a migrant camp, and the Internet, although it originally told a story about peasants and nobles in rural Germany. Even in a drastic overhaul, the storyline or the score can preserve the idea.
Boston Ballet’s new Giselle, introduced two weeks ago as directed by former principal dancer Larissa Ponomarenko, is based on the most recent production we’ve seen in Boston. Staged by Maina Gielgud, that one premiered in 2002 and remained in intermittent BB repertory until at least 2009. Ponomarenko danced in the Gielgud production, which was quite faithful to the generic Giselle. She seems to have followed this version as well as other standards. Along with Gielgud’s Peter Farmer decor, Ponomarenko used the original score by Adolphe Adam (conducted by Mischa Santora), and the conventional scenario seemed intact. In its two contrasting acts, Giselle provides a showcase for the two main modes of classical ballet: narrative and pure dance. I was delighted to see the ballet language deployed here by the Boston Ballet dancers.
The story is simple. A young girl from the country is seduced by a nobleman (Count Albrecht, aka Loys). When her jealous rustic boyfriend Hilarion reveals the nobleman’s secret, Giselle breaks down and dies. Act 2 takes place in the spirit world, where Giselle joins the Wilis, shades of other girls betrayed by their lovers. The Wilis rule the nighttime forest and drive away any man that intrudes on their territory. Albrecht, now remorseful, visits her grave and is pursued by the Wilis and their queen, Myrtha. Giselle’s spirit saves him in an act of forgiveness. So, Act 1 is full of vigorous peasant dancing, flirting, foreboding, jealousy, and fright. Act 2 is dominated by the ghostly choruses of the Wilis and by the ill-fated couple’s reunion and redemption on the threshold of the afterlife.
But it’s not so simple. Whichever way you tell it, the scenario of Giselle poses many questions. First of all, the original libretto told the story all the way, even in the second act that has evolved into an all-dance scene. What Gautier wrote as a through-story has lost a lot of its dramatic interactions and mime over the years, as dancing itself became the expressive vehicle. Then, the characters are psychologically deep enough to sustain many interpretations. Whole books and scholarly articles have been written about Giselle and its evolution.
The performance I saw on Friday night revealed Boston Ballet’s priorities: while the dancers possess a high degree of technical skills, they have a looser notion of nuanced acting. No surprise, given the company’s strong repertory of all-dance contemporary works. Giselle presents both opportunities, and, unlike the late-19th century standards, Nutcracker, for instance, the characters can be more than tintypes.
All the major roles in Giselle allow lots of space for interpretation. On Friday night I saw Ji Young Chae as Giselle, Tigran Mkrtchyan as Albrecht, and Paul Craig as Hilarion, with Dawn Atkins as Myrtha. Their characterizations were uneven. Chae was happy and shy in the first act, drained of emotion in the second. Before her downfall, she smiled a lot, a toothy convention that afflicted most of the other females. Her dancing was beautifully crafted in both acts, but she really astonished me when she was pleading for Albrecht’s life in the forest. In a seemingly endless series of vertical jumps, she seemed to have left the living world.
Mkrtchyan looked handsome and correct in his dancing, but didn’t seem deeply involved with his situation, either in the first act as a slumming playboy or later, when he has grown to regret taking advantage of the girl. Paul Craig, the boy next door, didn’t look at all like a peasant who hunts and works in the vineyard. Tall, long-legged, and proud, he looked more aristocratic than Mkrtchyan. His miming was so broad the audience laughed at some of his accusations.
On the other hand, some of the acting was restrained. Elizabeth Olds, as Giselle’s mother, mimed the dire prediction that Giselle might become a Wili by downplaying the danger. And Dawn Atkins as Myrtha, after her opening solo of spacious leaps and big gestures summoning the Wilis from underground, nearly disappeared in the darkness as she was refusing to release the exhausted Albrecht from her curse. I couldn’t tell what Atkins was doing there in her downstage corner, but Atkins could just as well have been sustaining a misconceived lighting idea.
Maria Álvarez and Irlan Silva danced the so-called Peasant Pas de Deux divertissement, which was inserted into the first act, to music by Friedrich Bergmüller, to satisfy a ballerina with powerful contacts higher up in the Paris Opera company. As it’s come down to us, this looks more “classical” than the rest of the Act 1 dances, more deliberately showy and expansive. But, in terms of the plot, how did these “peasant” friends of Giselle come to learn those fancy moves? Ballet movement in the early 19th century was probably smaller and more detailed than it became in later years, when Petipa developed the Russian Imperial style that’s more familiar to us. I don’t know how much Ponomarenko wanted this stylistic difference to be felt in Boston.
Some other details of the production seemed inappropriate, or perhaps aimed at the thrill-eager eyes of today’s audience. Brandon Stirling Baker’s lighting went off the realism grid; after the dawn-to-noon effects in the first act, the forest scene was a spectacle in itself of icy shafts from the sides, twinkling projections, and blue-lit fogs.
Internationally known writer, lecturer, and teacher Marcia B. Siegel covered dance for 16 years at The Boston Phoenix. She is a contributing editor for The Hudson Review. The fourth collection of Siegel’s reviews and essays, Mirrors and Scrims—The Life and Afterlife of Ballet, won the 2010 Selma Jeanne Cohen prize from the American Society for Aesthetics. Her other books include studies of Twyla Tharp, Doris Humphrey, and American choreography. From 1983 to 1996, Siegel was a member of the resident faculty of the Department of Performance Studies, Tisch School of the Arts, New York University. She has contributed two selections to Dance in America, the latest edition in the Library of America’s “Reader’s Anthology” series.