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About the Change

Royal Ballet

Giselle, Insight Day

March 2002
London, Linbury Studio Theatre, Royal Opera House

by Suzanne McCarthy

1934 - first 'RB' Giselle

RB 'Giselle' reviews

RB Giselle performances recent RB reviews

A Canadian friend of mine, reading in a Canadian newspaper about Evelyn Hart's appearance (age 45) in Peter Wright's production of Giselle, commented that the narrative seemed very sad. Indeed, melodrama can't be an understatement. But the story, as Ross Alley explained at this Friends' Insight Day, of unrequited love and of love betrayed, is universal and eternal. A romantic ballet in the truest sense, it has been said that Giselle is to ballet what Hamlet is to drama.

In the early 19th century the term "romantic ballet" had certain connotations that would have been appreciated by audiences. The expectation would have been of a story about searching for the unobtainable (usually love) and be set in some exotic location. (Scotland would have seen very foreign to Continental audiences watching the first productions of La Sylphide). To us a story set in a peasant community on the Rhine does not seem very strange, but in the 1840s such a place would in popular culture been swirling about it an atmosphere of myths and legends. A very suitable environment in particular for the mysterious and other worldly elements of Act II. Further, any romantic ballet of the period would need to show contrasting acts - the earthly and sentimental followed by an ethereal, other worldly scene (the "white" act.)

In fact the Giselle we see today is several times removed from the original, as the work was adjusted to accommodate specific dancers. This could be advantageous. For example, Fanny Elssler's playing of the title role resulted in the insertion of Giselle's mad scene in the first Act. (The inclusion of a mad scene was almost compulsory in early to mid 19th century opera and ballet.)

The work we now know as Giselle owes much to Petipa. He revised it several times, the last being in 1864. He did, however, respect the original ballet, and it is believed that he remained true to the original work. (In fact, the West had lost Giselle until Diaghilev staged it in 1910.) In essence the Peter Wright version is a summary of all these different versions.

While many aspects of Giselle could profitably be explored, the day concentrated on the score and the use of mime. Both aspects had the effect of usefully placing the work in its original context. The two speakers, Ross Alley, music lecturer at Birkbeck College, and Giannandrea Poesio, senior lecturer and programme director of the MA in Dance Studies at the University of Surrey, gave insightful lectures on these respective aspects (the latter ably assisted by Sandra Conley, who, as a dancer, has been associated with the Royal Ballet since 1962). The Royal Ballet dancers used to illustrate the work, courageously coming straight from a rehearsal of Enduring Images in the main house, were Gemma Bond, Iohna Loots, Leire Ortueta and the irrepressible Ivan Putrov.

Adolphe Adam is not a well known composer, but he was a force in the music world of 150 years ago. A prolific composer, he wrote 14 ballets. Giselle survives, according to Alley, because it was better that the others, (critics of the time called it a "real tour de force"), and contained the three elements required for a successful ballet score - singable tunes, danceable rhythms and dramatic, atmospheric qualities.

With ballets at this time often the ballet master would have the idea for the work and have decided on the steps before calling in the composer. Generally the music for such works was only tenuously related to what was being performed and of poor quality. Giselle was, unusually, a collaborative effort between Adam, Gautier (scenario based on story by Heine) and Coralli and Perrot (choreography). Coralli was probably responsible for devising the dancing for the corp while Perrot created the steps for Giselle.

What also distinguishes Adam's score for this ballet from contemporary works was its unity. It was not composed of short pieces that could be scissored and pasted according to the fancy of the prima ballerina who happened to be in town and wanted to dance her favourite number, (known in opera circles as the placement of "suitcase arias"). Rather the music in Giselle is in unity with the dancing as it tells the story of a young peasant girl who metamorphoses into an ethereal being as a result of deception and loss.

However, nothing is ever perfect, and money always talks. That is why in Act I for no real reason a pas de deux was inserted for two dancers. The original reason for their interruption of the story is that the banker backing the original production wanted to see his girlfriend, Nathalie Fitzjames, given something special to do on stage. Peter Wright, Alley thought, had sensibly turned this into a pas de six thereby enabling this number logically to be linked to the rest of the Act.

One way Adam achieves a sense of unification is by giving musical motifs to different characters. For example, Berthe, Giselle's mother, is associated with limited, non adventurous notes to suggest a large, protective, provincial woman, while Hilarion's theme (played only by the strings and without harmony) indicates his jealous, sly nature. It would, of course, be monotonous to keeping playing these themes like some sort of musical calling card throughout the piece whenever these characters make an entrance. Adam got around that by continually associating these characters with, if not the same tunes, music of a similar nature.

Albrecht and Giselle, being more complex individuals who develop over time, are treated somewhat differently. Albrecht is the true romantic hero, being constantly after the unobtainable. His tunes express his grand and impulsive nature, his tenderness for Giselle and later his remorse. Giselle, (in some texts indicated to be only a girl of 14) starts in the first Act with a light and bouncy motif in triple time and then in Act two incorporates the supernatural element associated with her incorporation into the Wilis.

Alley demonstrated how Adam builds up the atmosphere of Giselle right from the start. The overture displays tension by insistently repeating one note. The melody used reflects the nature of the tragedy through the insistence of unrelated chord resolution. However, the overture also indicates the lyrical nature of the work with a melody that could easily have been an operatic aria.

Adam uses various devices to set scenes. What is known as "pipe drone" permeates Act I to provide peasant colour. This was a common convention of the period as bagpipes were associated with folk music all across Europe. There is also the use of hunting horns and horse rhythms to create the aristocratic huntsmen. Act II opens to the sound of a clock tolling 12. Adam creates an eerie atmosphere by combining each bell tone with an unrelated chord indicating the alien environment of the forthcoming act. This is followed by a motif that represents fear, and the use of the minuet, which to 19th century audiences would have been a dance associated with the dead.

The only thing missing from the music is the malevolence of Myrtha and the Wilis. The music for Myrtha's entrance does succeed in giving the impression of a spirit who is not bound by the earth's gravity. Adam does this by using a three beat melody with the accent on the off beats. (In the 19th century productions Myrtha was often hooked up to wires and flew about the stage.) The music is, if anything, sweet, almost cloying. Certainly Adam did not want to scare the patrons from their seats! Also, as Poesio later remarked, Myrtha was originally envisaged as petite and wispy, a beautiful little sylph, not a "general in a tutu".

Complementing Alley's lecture, Giannandrea Poesio's discussion of mime explained how that often ignored and misunderstood element is intrinsic to the telling of the story and is essential to both the musicality and physicality of 19th century ballet. (Think of the emptiness of Sleeping Beauty if it was without Carabosse's mime.) Certainly Berthe's telling of the myth of Myrtha and the Wilis in Act I is essential if Act II is to be understood. Like the score, the 19th century audiences understood the mime conventions, and could "read" the dancing, mime being the "language of the hands". Originally Giselle was three hours in length with an hour of mime to music. It would be hard to see a modern audience sitting through that!

As Poesio explained, mine was a significant component of 19th century ballet and opera being derived from Commedia dell'arte. (A 1625 acting manual describes every movement. Mime requires the use of the eyes as well as the arms and hands. A legacy that persisted at least until the days of silent films.) For ballet these movements had to be somewhat less codified in order to allow for their interpretation by the dancers.

Berthe's mine has a honourable pedigree. Karsavina, who had learnt it when she was at the Maryinsky theatre, taught it to Gerd Larsen. She in turn taught it to Sandra Conley who performed it before the Insight Day audience. Asked how important young dancers found learning mime, she confessed that they initially did not see it as terribly important, and that teaching it at the Royal Ballet School had been a bit of an "uphill struggle". Nevertheless, she believed that once in the company and seeing the production of full length ballets they began to understand its value and tended to give it more respect. At least Iohna Loots must have been listening in class as she showed us she could remember Giselle's mime on hearing Albrecht's knock at her door.

It seems that this division about the use of mime pervades other companies with the young dancers at the Kirov divided into those who think it is antiquated and others who believe it helps to deliver understanding of the music and the dancing. In Denmark mime is part of the dancer's training. It was noted that, while mime may no longer be so central to an audience's appreciation, it has not been fully forgotten by 20th century choreographers as the works of MacMillan and Ashton show.

With the addition of Gemma Bond, Iohna Loots and Leire Ortueta the Day moved on to considering the ballet's particular choreography. There were conventions in 19th century ballet regarding the inclusion of certain dances in any work. For example, a waltz had to be included in each act. (Ballet masters also taught social dancing so such a dance could become a money spinner for them afterwards.) Further, the corps felt entitled to at least one number dedicated to them.

Poesio observed that the actual number of different steps in Giselle used was not large. However, the way they were used was very effective in conveying character. For example, Giselle, being a young girl in the first Act, had simple bouncy steps. As she was part of a homogeneous community, her steps were very mirrored by the rest of the peasants in Act I.

The step integral to this ballet is the ninety degree arabesque. It is characteristic of Giselle's yearning, as portrayed in all those 19th century lithographs. The Wilis are also closely associated with this step. For them it symbolises their unenviable position of being doomed to exist forever between heaven and earth.

The afternoon ended with a rehearsal by Alexander Agadzhanov of part of the pad a deux for Giselle (Gemma Bond) and Albrecht (Ivan Putrov) from Act II. Gemma in particular deserved her round of applause, since she was learning the role from scratch before a live audience. Before yesterday her understanding of how to dance it had come merely from watching a video. She had a sympathetic partner in Putrov.

Later that night I had a chance to see ROB's production of La Bayadere, and was amazed by how much its conventions mirror Giselle generally and specifically by how much mime also pervades that piece. Certainly the Insight Day had made me more understanding of 19th century ballet as a body of work and aware of what the different gestures used continually in those ballets mean. I was rather proud that I could understand most of the elements of this artistic "sign language" being performed on stage.

The day has left me wondering whether the movements in Wayne MacGregor's new work, Nemesis, will need an insight workshop 150 years from now. If so, those attending them will be thankful if the ROH has someone in place as dedicated as Mari MacKenzie.

The RB will be performing Giselle on 21, 23, 26, 27 and 30 March and then again on 3, 4, 6, 9,11 April 2002.

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