Rising Ballarat dance star Callum Linnane will play the caddish and tormented Albrecht, the male lead in the ballet classic Giselle. Jewel Topsfield takes a look at the “holy ballet” in the age of #MeToo.
It’s tempting in this era of #MeToo and Time’s Up to see Giselle, one of the most loved romantic ballets, through a contemporary lens. Giselle is a naive, delicate peasant girl who falls in love with Albrecht, a duplicitous nobleman who behaves caddishly. He woos her despite being betrothed to someone from his own class.
When his deception is uncovered Giselle goes mad with grief and dies of a broken heart, either literally or figuratively, depending on the interpretation of the ballet. (Some believe Giselle killed herself with Albrecht’s sword because she is buried in unconsecrated ground in a forest and not a graveyard. But in the late 1800s in Russia suicide was not accepted on stage so it is generally suggested she has a weak heart.) So far, so 19th century. But it is the second act that could resonate with those fed up with being shabbily treated by men.
It is in this act the Wilis – the ghosts of jilted virgins – gain strength in numbers and avenge their collective betrayals by dancing men to death in the midnight forest. There is collateral damage (#notallmen anyone?) when the Wilis dispense with Hilarion, Giselle’s hapless suitor, who tips her off that Albrecht is a two-timing bounder. But in the ultimate act of love and forgiveness Giselle saves Albrecht from the vengeful Wilis by keeping him alive until dawn when the wrathful wraiths lose their power.
Guardian dance critic Judith Mackrell wrote that pivotal to Giselle’s plot is the ‘‘blatant transgression of class barriers, as an aristocrat and a peasant fall in love’’.
‘‘But there is an equally profound conflict at work between female and male loyalties, with the Wilis claiming Giselle as a warrior against faithless men and and forcing her to dither helplessly between her love for Albrecht and her duty to her sex.’’
Not surprisingly this ballet, first performed in Paris in 1841, is ripe for contemporary reworkings. Swedish choreographer Mats Ek’s 1982 version for the Cullberg Ballet, which website The Ballet Bag drolly described as ‘‘the most unromantic conception of the ballet’’, is set in an asylum.
Giselle is a village idiot, Albrecht goes mad, the Wilis are mental patients and Myrtha, their queen, is a nurse at the madhouse. In 1997, Christopher Gable, the former artistic director of the Northern Ballet in England, reimagined Giselle’s bucolic hamlet as a war ghetto.
Albrecht was a dastardly army officer who was complicit in genocide, Giselle an innocent refugee.
‘‘Those Nazi brutes have butchered our Giselle,’’ headlined a review in The Independent. ‘‘Poignant fantasy falls prey to docu-drama. Giselle in its original form has been popular – and perfectly accessible – for 150 years, so why meddle?’’
Ireland’s Fabulous Beast Dance Theatre went further to antagonise traditionalists; its production, which made its debut in Perth in 2009, starred Albrecht as a bisexual line dancer. There was bootscooting and men played the role of the Wilis in this gender-bending version.
‘‘I think there are quite strong themes of misogyny in Giselle,’’ director Michael Keegan Dolan told Perth Now at the time. ‘‘About how women are being treated by men, certainly in Giselle’s case, and then in Act II the Wilis are all women. Having men play women kind of inverted that and turned it on its head.’’
In April, South African dancer and choreographer Dada Masilo, whose previous works include feminist revisions ofCarmen, Romeo and Juliet and Swan Lake, brought to the US her Giselle, in which freedom awaits theWilis only when those who betrayed them die. ‘‘South African version of classic balletGiselle gives men the willies,’’ said one headline.
(The etymology of the informal expression ‘‘the willies’’, a strong feeling of nervous discomfort, is contested. Some believe it derives from Giselle, but The Oxford Dictionary says it is ‘‘late 19th century, originally US, of unknown origin’’.)
Writing in The New York Times, Gia Kourlas said, ‘‘to Ms Masilo’s credit, the Wilis do have a deeper purpose: they’re seeking freedom. Yet for all its forcefulness and #MeToo aura the production is more about look than sensation.’’ Purists will be relieved by Maina Gielgud’s internationally acclaimed production of Giselle for The Australian Ballet, which returns exclusively to Melbourne this month, after a sell-out season in 2015
‘‘Maina didn’t want to try and update it or make it relevant to our time, she really wanted it to be a production that was of its time and didn’t really make any comment about contemporary life,’’ says Australian Ballet artistic director David McAllister
‘‘Her production . . . [explores] thewhole romantic notion of howthe male person is flawed and through his flaw a tragedy happens, i.e Giselle’s death, and through that he is then transformed to be a better person.’’ Gielgud, who now stages ballets for companies around the world, created this production in 1986 during her time as the company’s artistic director
Does she consider Giselle a feminist ballet? ‘‘Oh God, I am not into feminism at all, so I don’t have any view,’’ Gielgud says, laughing. ‘‘This is a very traditional version but the Wilis get their revenge in many ways, they were probably the original #MeToos.’’ Senior artist Dimity Azoury,who will perform the career-making role of Giselle this season, says when thinking about contemporary readings of the Wilis her mind went immediately to the vigil in Princes Park for murdered Melbourne woman Eurydice Dixon
Azoury played Myrtha in 2015.Areviewin dancelines.com.au said she was ‘‘outstanding as a dangerous Queen of the Wilis, full of venom, using her arms like daggers and her legs like scissors as she bounded across the stage, commanding the opening of Act II and never failing to maintain the rage’’
The Wilis in Giselle were adapted from a 19thcentury novel by Heinrich Heine, who claimed to be borrowing from Slavic mythology. In De l’Allemagne he wrote of ghostly maidens who had died before their wedding day and, having risen from their graves at night, danced men to death
Wilis have also been defined as female vampires. Aversion exists in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. The Veela are inhumanly beautiful women with moon-bright skin (capable of suddenly turning ugly when angry),whose dance has the power to cloud men’s minds
‘‘[Giselle] is not necessarily a feminist ballet, but at the same time, as a Wili you find the strength in the group and being together,’’Azoury says
‘‘Dancing in the corps is being surrounded by strong, courageous women. You find those connections together and that is when everyone is transported to another place.’’ But Azoury believes Giselle finds her own strength in Act II. ‘‘To oppose Myrtha, who is this ferocious character, you have to find something within you to even be able to look someone like that in the eye. And then also that strength to be able to forgive someone who betrayed you.’’ The role of Giselle is coveted by dancers around the world. It is often regarded as the ballerina’s Hamlet, partly because of the famous mad scene
Russian dancer Olga Spessivtseva, one of the finest prima ballerinas of the 20th century, reportedly visited mental hospitals to help her understand the role
‘‘You do have such a character shift, a really obvious breakdown, a crumbling of character on stage,’’ says Madeleine Eastoe, a former principal artist with the Australian Ballet, who was lauded by critics for making the role of Giselle her own
‘‘For an artist that is a wonderful thing to be able to attempt.’’ But the role is also challenging because of the emotional range
‘‘In Act I [Giselle] is very human. She wants to dance and is in love and then all of a sudden she gets mistreated by a guy and she goes mental,’’ says Ako Kondo,who was promoted to The Australian Ballet’s highest rank – principal artist – after performing as Giselle in 2015
‘‘You have to show the difference. You are very happy and then all of a sudden you go crazy to the point you have a heart attack and die and then in Act II you are a ghost. That technically is very challenging, having no tension, looking like you are not dancing, you are just flying. That feeling is very hard to make.’’ Choreographer George Balanchine once said that audiences went to Giselle for the same reason they went to see new interpretations of Hamlet: ‘‘The work is such a good one that we always discover something in it we hadn’t seen before . . .’’ Balanchine also famously said that ‘‘ballet is woman’’
But Giselle is unusual in that there are meaty parts for female and male dancers, which are open to interpretation
‘‘Often the prince roles in ballets can be fairly two-dimensional,’’ says David McAllister, now artistic director for The Australian Ballet, who first played Albrecht in 1987 at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York
‘‘Whereas Albrecht really does have a lot going on.’’ Albrecht can be played in different ways: as a careless Casanova who is cavalier about Giselle’s feelings or as someone who genuinely falls in love with Giselle but is duty-bound to marry a noblewoman
‘‘Prince Charles and Diana, there is that element – ‘I know I have to do this’, but there is this other woman who captivates him,’’ McAllister says
The way McAllister interpreted the role of Albrecht changed over time as hematured as a person and a dancer
‘‘When I first started doing it Iwas relatively young, I was probably 24 or 25. Iwas very much the young prince who was out to have a good time and not really understanding the consequences of your actions. That sat really quite well with me when I first did it
‘‘By the time I did my last performance I was really very much that mature, older philanderer, who knew exactly what he was doing and still wasn’t taking responsibilities for his actions until it was too late. And so it did develop and change.’’ Madeleine Eastoe was promoted to principal dancer with The Australian Ballet after performing the role of Giselle in 2006 and ended her dancing career as Giselle in 2015
‘‘Her performance in Giselle is a stark reminder that the end of a ballerina’s career is often also its prime in terms of artistry, technical skill, and emotional endurance,’’ said a review in The Sydney Morning Herald
Eastoe recalls drifting into the grave at the end of Act II, leaving Albrecht to contemplate his betrayal
‘‘That last phrase of music he has before the curtain comes down is just the most pure, heart-wrenching of all the phrases,’’ she says. ‘‘I would lie in the wings not moving, just really being soaked in that sadness. Knowing that your partner is out there pouring the pain of his heart out
I used to love that, especially in my last season because I knew that was the final season I would just have that moment.’’ In Russia, Giselle is known as the holy ballet
‘‘It has always been held in tremendous reverence, perhaps because of Giselle forgiving Albrecht in the end,’’ Gielgud says. ‘‘It has almost religious connotations of forgiveness and redemption
‘‘I think Giselle has lasted as long as it has and will go on for as long as ballet exists because it is the epitome of romanticism. It is the love story of all time; people fall in love and it goes wrong.’’ And more than 170 years after Giselle was first performed (and considered a triumph) in Paris, it can’t hurt if men still get the willies. It might even make them think twice
Giselle is at Arts Centre Melbourne, August 30 to September 8
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