Hilarion steps out of the shadows….

The village gamekeeper thought he might win the pretty Giselle, but along came a good-looking boy called Loys.

Hilarion is suspicious and jealous, but when he discovers Loys is really a duke, he unmasks his rival and, as we all know, things take a very bad turn for the worse.

Of all the roles in the classical ballet canon, Hilarion is one of the most thankless. No one seems to like him, he doesn’t take part in the village festivities, he is usually dressed in a nasty green or forest brown costume, he looks like his evening taste in footwear might be Ugg boots by the fire and in the end he is sent to his death by the Wilis.

And worst of all, in Act I, poor Hilarion doesn’t dance but only mimes envy, frustration and anger.

But the gamekeeper is about to have his moment in the sun.

In a recent interview, Ethan Stiefel told Gia Kourlas, writing for Time Out New York, that Hilarion will have a bigger part to play in the new Giselle he is creating with Johan Kobborg for the Royal New Zealand Ballet.

“We’re giving him a little bit more”, said Stiefel, “which creates more tension within the love triangle”.

Let’s hope the “little bit more” will include some more dancing and a better looking costume.

As a child, I remember seeing my first Giselle, in which Hilarion seemed to my eyes a true villain and ugly as well. He wore a
red beard, as was the tradition for Hilarions of the past.

But as Cyril W. Beaumont wrote in his classic book, The Ballet Called Giselle, Hilarion could not be simply a bad boy.

“A gamekeeper would enjoy a certain esteem in a hard working community”, wrote Beaumont. “A man of this type would not fail to appeal strongly to the average village lass”.

It could be argued that Giselle is not an average young woman, but nevertheless, Hilarion seems a good catch as a boyfriend until Loys came into the picture.

I think Bertha, Giselle’s mother, would be fond of the man who in some productions brings food and flowers to their house.

Why, I wonder, is he almost always depicted as a wimp or a thug?

Hilarion is one of eight main characters in the ballet – Giselle herself, Albrecht (the duke), Bertha, Wilfred, Bathilde, the Prince of Courland, and Myrtha, and for a successful production, all eight characters must be totally believable, even the very small role of Wilfred, who is Albrecht’s squire.

It seems as though Stiefel and Kobborg are bringing Hilarion out of the cold and may be rethinking the role of Myrtha as well.

….but Benno stays in the wings

Having recently researched revivals and reconstructions of the 19th century repertoire, I’ve also been thinking about Benno in Swan Lake, another ambiguous character from that era.

Benno, the friend of Prince Siegfried who accompanies the hunting party to the lake, is largely unseen these days but in the 1895 Petipa-Ivanov production of Swan Lake in St Petersburg, Benno was not just a bit player.

The iconic pas de deux of Act II, in which Odette dances with Siegfried, was originally a pas de deux Ă  trois, in the phrase of the Russian balletomane, Nikolai Bezobrazov.

In his book, Tchaikovsky’s Ballets, Roland John Wiley writes of how Alexander Oblakov in the part of Benno relieved Pavel Gerdt of the more strenuous parts of his part as Siegfried. (He would have been 50 at the time.)

When Nikolai Legat replaced Gerdt as Siegfried in the late 1890s the pas de deux Ă  trois became a pas de deux.

As Wiley wrote: “By the time Swan Lake came to be notated the additional cavalier had been reinstated, but the rigours of partnering seem to have been more equally distributed than before.

“Benno walks on stage at the beginning of the harp cadenza before the love duet, and is the first in the ballerina’s path of entry: he supports her in an attitude.

“But then she moves immediately to Siegfried, and throughout the dance, even though Benno several times catches her in a fall, the ballerina is lifted by Siegfried at least six times”.

Benno has made several reappearances in the pas de deux Ă  trois since then, although, as you can see in the illustration to the left, clearly not at the time that the wonderful Edward Gorey was drawing cartoons of ballet inspired by his love of the New York City Ballet.

More from the pencil of Gorey in the video below.

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Gary Avis as Hilarion, photo © John Ross

Edward Gorey’s Benno from The Lavender Leotard

Wilfried Romoli as Hilarion, in the Paris Opera Ballet production