With a wave of cutting edge choreography being presented throughout the Capital Region this summer, one might wonder whether the age of full-length classical works is a thing of the past. However, if you ask Karen Kain, artistic director of the National Ballet of Canada, Romantic-era ballet productions continue to capture the timeless themes of love, betrayal, revenge and forgiveness. The company’s recent performance of Giselle offered a relevant depiction of the ongoing human drama.
Premiered in 1841 at the Paris Opera House, Giselle is one of the pillars of classical ballet, complete with a broad emotional landscape that includes flights of fancy as well as unresolved tragedy. The production capitalizes on the universal struggles of social barriers and unrequited love. However, the dancers’ delivery is far from a one-dimensional portrayal of this familiar tale of woe.
What begins as an innocent fairy tale of rural bliss, complete with pastel-colored peasant dresses and the crowning of the Harvest Queen, quickly enters a darkened psychological terrain. The role of Giselle, performed by principal dancer Jillian Vanstrone, is at first a light-hearted adolescent who enjoys the simple life of flower picking. However, when she falls in love with a nobleman, Albrecht, who attempts to blend into agrarian life, she experiences the painful realities of class and deceit.
What results is Giselle’s disturbing fit of insanity, which has become one of the most recognizable scenes in the world of ballet. No longer restricted to sculpted positions and classical technique, Giselle’s devastation transforms her into a frantic yet fragile being, saturated with emotional intensity. Vanstrone’s portrayal of the scene is convincing and courageous, as she brings her own personalized elements of fear and anxiety, tenderness and desperation.
Vanstrone brings a certain maturity to the role, evidenced by her balanced extensions as well as her expressive torso. Meanwhile, principal dancer Naoya Ebe offers a distinct lightness to the male lead, trading fierce athleticism for a more refined and elongated presentation.
In act two, Giselle finds herself in the eerie afterlife of the broken-hearted. However, it is unclear whether her death was caused by the hunter’s sword which she thrusts into her chest, or the unbearable state of psychosis caused by lost love. In the early days of the production, most notably at the Imperial Theater in Russia, it was unacceptable to display an act of suicide on stage. Today, it is left up to viewers as well as the interpretation of the choreographer, to determine the cause of Giselle’s death.
Giselle is swept into a murky underworld of betrayal and unmitigated grief, surrounded by a fleet of deceased would-be brides, known as the Wilis in Slavic folklore. The women are dressed in ankle-length ivory tulle, the fabric slightly discolored as if having been discarded in a damp basement. Even the seams of the satin bodices appear to be aged and decrepit, reinforcing the image of death and decay. This lifeless quality is captured further by the vacant expressions of the dancers along with their hunched shoulders and limp arm movements.
While choreographer Peter Wright re-imagines elements of the well-known production by Marius Petipa, there are aspects that remain untouched due to their potent effect. The original choreography is preserved as the fleet of Wilis cross the stage in a stoic military formation. The company approaches center stage from both sides, each dancer maintaining an identical arabesque lunge. As the entourage shuffles on one foot across the length of the stage, it is as if the gates of the afterlife are being opened to Giselle, who reluctantly enters.
The Queen of the Wilis, performed by Stephanie Hutchinson, is a mastermind of control and revenge. Unwilling to let Giselle reunite with her beloved, the Queen seems to harbor her own unresolved pain. As Giselle struggles to free herself from her oppressive surroundings, her efforts seem to liberate her from her own beleaguered psyche. As her mourning subsides, she finally releases her hold on her deepest longings.
While the ballet lacks any optimism or consolation for Giselle’s suffering, the production carries a very accurate portrayal of human relationships and their less than desirable outcomes. It is this unabashed realism that makes this nearly bicentennial ballet enduring.