If you see only one Giselle in your lifetime, make it the Paris Opera Ballet’s

Anton Dolin, a famous interpreter of Albrecht in Giselle, once said that the heroine of the ballet should not emerge from her cottage as if she is already fragile and soon to die of a broken heart, but rather as a carefree girl who is the epitome of joie de vivre and head over heels in love.

On the opening night of the Paris Opera Ballet’s 11-day season in Sydney, Dorothée Gilbert, gave us that girl – mischievous, playful and buoyant. There’s only a hint that she might not survive the excitement of a day that begins with a flirtation with Albrecht, continues with the arrival of a royal hunting party in fabulous headdresses and floor sweeping cloaks, then ends with a tragedy that ruins many lives.

Gilbert’s performance was not only dramatically convincing but one that exemplified the Romantic style of ballet that evolved in the 1830s and reached its zenith in the masterpiece of Giselle, first performed in Paris in 1841.

Equally convincing and equally superb in their artistry were Mathieu Ganio as Albrecht and Marie-Agnès Gillot as Myrtha, Queen of the Wilis.

The exactitude of the dancers of the Paris Opera Ballet is the result of the company’s long history, the fact that most are French and most are trained at the Paris Opera Ballet School, one of the toughest schools in the world. Few survive the selection process from year to year and even fewer are accepted into the company.

It’s obvious that the style and steps of Giselle are in the dancers’ bones, inherited as they are from a long line of predecessors most recently the company’s ballet master, Laurent Hilaire and the former ballet master, Patrice Bart.

Almost every ballet company in the world has a Giselle in their repertoire but if you’re only able to see one production of the ballet in your lifetime, I believe it should be the Paris Opera Ballet’s most recent production, created by Bart and Eugene Polyakov in 1991 and revised in 1998 with sets designed for the company by Alexandre Benois in 1924.

The décor is steeped in storybook romanticism with the Rhineland landscape of Act 1 set under a canopy of summery trees. Two imposing, turreted castles emerge from rocky crags overlooking two simple cottages. Above there’s an omen – clouds in the sky that signal a stormy end to the day.

Act II seems to take place in another season. Giselle’s grave shelters under a mantle of bare black branches. In the background a moonlit white church draws the eye and was, for me, a slight distraction from the powerful, triangular relationship of Giselle, Albrecht and Myrtha and the perfection and synchrony of the corps of wilis.

Giselle is an exercise in triangles, Hilarion creates the initial triangular tension, then, as Giselle dances her solo, she is the centre of another triangle, with her mother seated on her right and Albrecht on her left.

Before she dies, she runs in a triangle, from Hilarion to her mother to her lover and after her death, she is the strongest link in the three-way tussle as she fights with Myrtha for Albrecht’s life.

On opening night, Dorothée Gilbert’s expression of the Romantic style was evident through her sustained line in arabesque, her epaulement, her batterie, the freedom of her head and the elegant line of her neck.

Mathieu Ganio is blessed with a body that represents the prototype of the prince. His sustained leaps have that floating, hanging in the air quality and his Act II variation was to me, faultless.

Ganio was an ardent Albrecht, slightly more daring than the usual interpretation in the way he approached then embraced Giselle in Act I.

Myrtha is clearly an ideal role for the tall and charismatic Marie Agnes Gillot, an intelligent dancer who brings great focus to the way she commands the corps de ballet of wilis and her relentless demands that Hilarion and Albrecht must dance to their death.

Hilarion, the gamekeeper, often portrayed as the local yokel who is not the best looking boy in the village, was danced by the handsome Audric Bezard who struck the right balance between anger, revenge and regret.

In the peasant pas of Act I, Emmanuel Thibault’s impressive elevation and beats came with a bonus – his evident enjoyment of just being on the stage. With the delicate Mélanie Hurel as his partner, the couple exemplified the happy relationship and joy that Giselle herself might have been seeking with Albrecht.

One of the most fascinating aspects of the production was the detailed mime. Wilfred, the equerry to Albrecht (Adrien Bodet), used this dance language in a very eloquent way when he advised Albrecht to be careful in his planned duplicity.

As Berthe, Giselle’s mother, Amélie Lamoureux, foretold the story of the wilis, with clear gestures, indicating how the vindictive dancing creatures arise from the ground, complete with veils and wings.

At this point, the lighting dims, as if to anticipate the transition from the vivid, real world of the village, to the unreal, moonlit world of the wilis.

A further mime scene, seldom performed in productions of Giselle, opens Act II when Hilarion’s friends play a dice game before they are startled by the wilis who appear not as pretty women with floral wreaths around their hair, but as aggressive ghosts.

Judging from interval and after show comments, it was the wilis who made the biggest impression on the opening night audience whether they were newcomers to Giselle or seasoned observers.

The 26 wilis, in their long, diaphanous, off the shoulder tutus, created a dream like illusion as they moved as one. Most impressive was the identically curved line of their arms and the uniformity of their lines in arabesque as the corps criss-crossed the stage.

The monotones of the act are in startling contrast to the summer colours of Act I in which the corps of village girls are dressed alike in peach and pale pastel colours, while the royals parade in jewel colours, among them ruby, gold, purple and forest green.

Not everything went according to plan on opening night. The orchestra, titled the Sydney Lyric Orchestra, conducted by the Belgian, Koen Kessels, needed more rehearsal time to work in harmony with the company. At times, the tempo seemed too fast and there was some musical uncertainty during Act II’s adage for Giselle and Albrecht

The lighting may need adjusting at the end of Act 1 when a follow spot creates an odd effect on the backcloth.

As for the mist effect in Act II, there was so much dry ice pumped onto the stage at the beginning and end that the dancers were partially obscured although not, thankfully, when Ganio, as Albrecht, seems to awake from a dream as he lies by the grave.

Was the whole act Albrecht’s dream? Dreams in ballet are standard fare – from Clara’s in Nutcracker to Prince Siegfried’s in Nureyev’s Swan Lake – but this is the first time in my memory that Albrecht indicates that the wilis were a figment of his imagination.

Giselle has been subject to some radical reinterpretations, from Mats Ek’s production in which Giselle ends up in a mental hospital to Fabulous Beast’s bloodthirsty setting in an Irish village, complete with butchers and line dancers.

But as Cyril Beaumont wrote in his wonderful book, A Ballet Called Giselle, it might be tempting to tinker with the story, but the patina of the ballet refuses to be erased, and perhaps this is one ballet where respect for heritage is always going to be the best option. The Paris Opera Ballet production proves that.

6 Comments