Born out of Artistic Director Peter Boal’s desire to create a signature version of “Giselle”, Pacific Northwest Ballet’s (PNB) world premiere staging attempts to recreate this most famous of Romantic ballets as it was originally performed in its 1841 Paris debut. Key to the re-creation are three historic manuscripts: A 1842 musical score annotated by ballet master Antoine Titus with detailed descriptions of the mime sequences; another ballet master, Henri Justamant’s 1860’s manuscript describing the dancing and mime sequences (only recently unearthed at a German flea market in 2002); and a turn of the 20th century manuscript in a now defunct form of dance notation, Stepanov notation. Luckily, PNB’s own staff includes Stepanov notation expert Doug Fullington, who collaborated with Boal and University of Oregon musicologist/dance historian Marian Smith to reconstruct the original choreography and mime sequences from these historical sources.
“Giselle’s” title character is a young peasant girl wooed by Albrecht, a duke disguised as a commoner. Rejected by Giselle, jealous gamekeeper Hilarion reveals that Albrecht is a nobleman and thus an unsuitable match for Giselle. Albrecht’s duplicity drives Giselle to madness; Act I ends with her death of a broken heart. Act II takes place in a haunted wood outside Giselle’s village. Giselle’s spirit joins the ranks of the Willis, the spirits of young women who died before their wedding day and who have transformed into harpies haunting the woods at night in hopes of wreaking vengeance on men.
Most contemporary productions of “Giselle” are based on choreographer Marius Petipa’s version of “Giselle” performed in St. Petersburg in 1884. PNB researchers found that there were fewer differences between Petipa and the original Coralli/Perrot choreography than scholars previously suspected. The most significant difference was an excision of mime sequences that had fallen out of favor in the ballet world.
The PNB production re-introduces two comic mime sequences at the opening of Act II. In the first scene, a group of young hunters convey through bawdy gestures that they have come to the woods seeking a little action with the Willis. Hilarion convinces the hunters to leave for their own safety. In the second scene, a group of intoxicated young villagers, led by an equally drunken old man, literally stumble upon the Willis who lure the young men with provocative poses. Warned by their older companion, the young men narrowly escape the Willis’s spell. Another key difference in the PNB production is the depiction of Giselle as a spirited and coy young teen who defies her mother in order to pursue romance. Many contemporary Giselles are wan and melancholy, even before their untimely death.
Multiple principal dancers will portray Giselle, Albrecht, Hilarion and Myrtha (Queen of the Willis) during “Giselle’s” eight-performance run. On opening night, Carla Korbes played the title character with a sweet coyness that shone through both Giselle’s earthly and supernatural forms; in Act II, her spirit plays peek-a-boo from behind her tombstone with the grieving Albrecht. Korbes does not display the spectacular technical prowess of some earlier, renowned Giselles. Where she shines is in her ability to invest each body movement with emotion; even from the back rows, one can sense Giselle’s pout as her game of he-loves-me-he-loves-me-not does not end on the desired petal. And in spite of what modern audiences may consider slight justification in the plot for such a violent reaction, Korbes invests Giselle’s “mad scene” with believable and touching distress.
Karel Cruz’s Albrecht has manly presence and athleticism, gaining impressive elevation during his solo in Act II. In Act I, he successfully portrays the carefree caddishness of the privileged classes, supplanted by a grieving tenderness during his pas de deux with Korbes in Act II. Batkhurel Bold as the coarse and direct Hilarion presents just the right counterpoint to Cruz. Carrie Imler appears to float weightlessly onstage as Myrtha, Queen of the Willis. Overall the dancers showed technical competence, although some of the ensemble dancing of the Willis appeared occasionally to be out of sync with the score.
Certain aspects of “Giselle” do not speak to contemporary audiences. The portrayal of German peasant dances in Act I that may have appeared quaint and exotic to 19th century audiences are somewhat monotonous by today’s standards. Although always appropriate to the libretto in mood and tempo, Adolphe Adam’s score is more in the nature of movie music than the distinctive ballet scores by later composers such as Tchaikovsky and Stravinsky. Overall the PNB modifications make for a more accessible “Giselle”. The comic yokel scenes provide a touch of levity before the melancholy but beautiful second Act; the bawdy nature of the mime sequences adds entertainment value to the highbrow ballet aesthetic. And the portrayal of Giselle as a spirited young teenage girl makes her fit of madness more psychologically believable.
“Giselle” plays through June 12 at McCaw Hall.