French-American relations or, how I fell in love with the Paris Opera Ballet’s “Giselle”

After French Masters, the opening program in the Lincoln Center Festival’s generous, three-program presentation of the acclaimed Paris Opera Ballet, I  thought, if these are the masters, what’s left for the apprentices to do? The night’s three ballets occupied a narrow range from silly (Bejart, “Bolero”) to simultaneously stolid and fussy (Lifar, “Suite en Blanc”) to hateful and inane (Petit, “L’Arlesienne”). 

To French music that deserved much better–particularly given the clarified drama that the New York City Opera orchestra under the baton of the POB’s Koen Kessels brought out– Bejart gave us token eroticism; Lifar, lifeless classicism; and Petit, a protracted tale of a brutish ingrate and his relentlessly clingy lover. That could work–two dislikable protagonists–if Petit only realized he had some explaining to do about our putative hero and his tantrums for freedom (danced with great force and feeling by Jeremie Belingard, the performance’s one virtue), and if the choreographer didn’t hate the petty and clueless woman almost as much as the hero does, who would rather die than be with her. I thought, if this is Frenchness, give me Kansasness, Belgianity: anything.  

But then the run of Giselles began.  

I still have issues with certain aspects of Paris Opera technique–for example, the fact that the jumping comes from the feet and stays with the feet, because of shallow plie; the dancers’ drag on the bright, textured music; and the timing of arms vis a vis legs so occasionally the dancers seem too concerned with comportment and not enough with truth. Less bothersome than curious is the modesty of the turnout. It is the chest that is open, the arms that are most eloquent. The legs are strong but not open, the pelvis a tight little knot, particularly in the men. But this Giselle–from the birthplace of the first, the original, Giselle–is incredible.

It has integrity: a dramatic throughline that all of the details support and nuance. O, the glorious, thoughtful, sensitive details. In American Ballet Theatre’s Giselle–the one I am most familiar with– the passages of mime and the dances of the villagers often feel like filler between the “real” dancing, the principals’ wowing, histrionic steps.  Here everything counted.   

Where to begin? Okay, at the beginning. Before Hilarion’s entrance, the peasants dance on in little swirling clusters so when the hapless lover does arrive we know who his people are. And in the second act, the presence of lowlife gamblers–it made me think of Dickens–in the churchyard where Hilarion goes to visit Giselle’s grave reinforces the danger and risk involved in his venturing there at night. The gamblers invite him to join their game. He exclaims with exasperation (the mime is so clear, I can quote it), “What do you think?!? I’m here to mourn!” They say, “Well, don’t mourn for long because this place is haunted”–and voila! the wilis whisk into view.  The production shows us everything it means, which doesn’t have the effect of obviousness; rather it adds to the relish of the storytelling–and suggests a faith in storytelling. 

For everything to count–every coupe, every grapepicker and his girl–Giselle has to exhibit a modicum of class consciousness, and of course the French are up to the task. With their history, they know to allow the peasants their dignity. Giselle’s mother (a wonderfully protective Amelie Lamoureux in all but one of the shows) does not bow and scrape before Bathilde et. al. When the aristocrats ask for a dance from Giselle, this French maman tells them, “No, sorry, Giselle cannot dance for you; her heart is bad.” No Tots and Tiaras for the French! Hilarion is not a brute (or at least not the tender and striking Vincent Chaillet on Friday); Giselle just doesn’t happen to love him. The peasant dances have the downward-driving rhythm of much folk dance but transferred to plucky ballet steps (many pas de chats, pas de bourrees). The peasant pas de deux doesn’t look like prima and primo virtuosity in thin disguise, as it does at ABT.  The peasants are granted their own dance forms and their autonomy. They have an orbit outside the aristocrats’ sphere of influence.

Giselle’s friends in Alexandre Benois’s beautiful designs. Courtesy of Lincoln Center Festival. 

Throughout the ballet, foreshadowing increases the emotional impact of key moments. The build up to the mad scene, for example, intensifies the tragedy. Giselle is showing her friends the necklace from Bathilde, Albrecht’s gentlewoman fiancee (unbenownst to Giselle), when Albrecht arrives. He recognizes the chain and freezes. Is he going to get caught? When Hilarion shows Giselle the sword–proof that Albrecht is an imposter–it takes her a while to understand what it means. And when she does she begins to unravel. The beatifically beautiful Aurelie Dupont and the extraordinarily handsome Mathieu Ganio were persuasive and compelling throughout, but the lesser known Isabelle Ciaravola, with the stirring Karl Paquette, made me fall in love with this production. 

Ciaravola’s Giselle is eccentric from the start–not meek and self-conscious, as Natalia Osipova and Alina Cojocaru played her at ABT, but strange, lost in her own fantasy world, from which she intermittently emerges. When C
iaravola falls apart, she isn’t pathetic, she’s sort of scary, laughing and weeping in quick succession. Paquette stands aside, to witness her derangement. He is stunned. (The whole stage freezes, so there is nothing to distract us from this tour de force.) In fact, her appeal from the start for him was not just her innocence but her mystery–not just the peculiarity of the “other half,” though that too, but something deeper.  Ciaravola and Paquette create this fascination together.  

Ciaravola and Paquette, with the Sylph-like sentinels behind. Look at those expressive chests and fingers! Photo by Stephanie Berger courtesy of the Lincoln Center Festival. 

The thing that takes the most getting used to for Americans, I suspect, is the dancing’s lack of speed and force. When Hilarion chainnes along the line of wilis, he does not accelerate. He proceeds evenly. Where’s the panic? Because of ABT and NYCB, we tend to associate velocity and speed–in turns– and height and ballon–in jumps–with passion, desperation, will. The French do not. And maybe, they are beginning to convince me, we lean too heavily on that equation.       

So, go. Treat yourself. Go twice if you can afford it. You have until Thursday July 19. 

Postscript: It’s two days since the Ciaravola/Paquette matinee and it is still inhabiting me–not a common occurrence, given how many shows I see.

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