Ok let’s talk about Giselle.
It was not what I expected.
But first, before I explain that, here is pretty much what happens in Giselle in case you’ve never seen it before either:
There’s this guy named Albrecht who is a Count and is engaged, but he’s been disguising himself as a peasant and going down to the local village for some side-action.
Yeah, he’s a jerk.
So he pursues Giselle, who is described by the program as an innocent peasant girl with a weak heart who loves to dance and sew. Yes, the program notes really say she loves to sew. Not relevant to the story in any way. Just one of those wtf details.
Giselle is totally in love with Albrecht, and furthermore, she believes she is engaged to the big faker.
She has a big solo that says, “wheeee! Love!!!!!” that includes something I’ve read about in a few different interviews with ballerinas: the notorious hops en pointe.
Apparently the hops en pointe are one of the particular challenges of dancing Giselle. They are super difficult, physically. It’s a series of hops on one pointed foot with the knee bent and the other leg up in the air, hop hop hop hop hop down a diagonal, and now that I’ve seen it live, I gotta say, it is not pretty. So I don’t get the point of the hops en pointe. If they’re really hard to do and they look bad…..?
But anyway, then there’s this peasant guy who is in love with Giselle. His name is Hilarion. Which is such a ridiculous name that I can’t even make jokes because his name breaks my brain.
Giselle is not into Hilarion.
Because she’s in love with Albrecht, The Big Lying Liar.
Hilarion is pissed about being rejected by Giselle and goes into the gardening shed where Count Liar Pants has stashed his royal sword and horn, and finds them and brings them out and shows them to the whole village as proof that the Lying Count is a lying count, and Giselle sees this and then just to further twist the knife the fiancé shows up, and Giselle totally goes mad with the shock of Albrecht’s betrayal and her heart explodes and she dies.
In some versions she kills herself with Count Liar-Face’s sword, but in the Royal New Zealand Ballet it’s her heart.
Boom. Act I is over.
Act II is where all the good stuff is.
Which I think is a sad truth of story ballets: you need the first act to set up the story for the second act, but you spend the whole first act wishing they would hurrying up with the damned party (Nutcracker) and get out to the forest already (Swan Lake).
This is just a theory, clearly I need to see more story ballets to test this theory.
So in Act II we get to see the Wilis, who wear those gorgeous long romantic tutus with the soft tulle veils we’ve all seen in a million ballet photos. So beautiful. Like sad brides. Which they are, they are the spirits of maidens betrayed by love.
And the name Wili also breaks my brain so I can’t make any jokes about that either beyond the extremely feeble Gives Me The Willies Ha Ha.
Anyway, this is the part where the ballet went in a direction I didn’t expect.
After some excellently spooky business with Hilarion running in terror from Giselle’s grave, (dude, what are you doing out there at night in the first place?) Act II begins with Myrtha, queen of the Wilis, dancing by herself in the moonlight. And she doesn’t seem bone-chilling or ominous or hell-bent on retribution the way the program describes her. Likewise the Wilis don’t seem despondent or vengeful.
Seeing them dancing, alone, together, in the moonlight, the biggest feeling that came to me was Freedom.
Freedom from weak hearts, freedom from boyfriends that lie.
Freedom from ever having to take off that beautiful veil and put on an apron.
Freedom. To just dance.
It was the music was really throwing me here.
I expected spooky, frantic, tragic, angry, a minor key at very least, but as long as it was just the girls on stage the music was happy and light and lovely. And Vibrant. Like finally in death these girls were getting to live.
And for a minute I thought maybe composers just had a different feeling for what sounded heavy back in 1841 when the music for Giselle was written, but no, the music was audibly scary to my 21rst century ears when Hilarion runs in terror from Giselle’s grave, and later when the Wilis go after him and dance him to death.
Which – sidebar here- seemed really unfair. I mean, yes, Hilarion was kind of a dick, but on a scale of one to Albrecht he was barely a three.
So then I thought maybe the music didn’t have to be scary because maybe in 1841 the idea of young women hanging out unsupervised in the woods at night was already scary enough?
Act II is about Albrecht visiting Giselle’s grave, (also at night, wtf) and suddenly sensing her spirit. And sure enough, there she is, because Myrtha has summoned her to join the Wilis and seek vengeance on men. Or dance happily in the moonlight while looking pretty. Whichever.
Giselle and Albrecht dance together, then the Wilis show up and Myrtha commands them to kill Albrecht to death but Giselle’s pure spirit protects him and she manages to keep him alive until day breaks and the Wilis power is broken.
(I feel kind of bad about revealing what happens in the end! Which is silly! 1841 this thing came out! I don’t really need to post a spoiler alert!)
The pas de deux between Giselle and Albrecht was interesting technically because they don’t touch each other for the first little bit of it. This gives a lot of power to when he finally does touch her and lifts her overhead.
But emotionally I really didn’t like this pas de deux! I wanted to see Giselle punish Albrecht a little! It seemed so wrong for her to die of a broken heart and then receive him without the slightest pause. I mean, sure, he’s there because he’s sorry, but it’s not like he’s going to stay. After he cries on her grave a little he’s going on with his life, most likely going on with his marriage.
She’s still dead.
I wasn’t seeing pure love, more like her heart wasn’t the only thing about her that was weak.
I wanted to see her hesitate, mistrust him, be angry, punish him, make him understand what she lost when he lied, make him earn the forgiveness he came to her grave to find. And then, Then, when the Wilis show up, then her love bursts through her other complex feelings and she protects him because she can’t stand to see him hurt.
And also maybe she feels a little possessive. Maybe she’s like, “Hands off, bitches. If anyone deserves to kill this one it’s me, and I say he lives.”
It just, ugh, disappointed me emotionally.
But visually Act II is stunningly gorgeous, you get all kinds of fantastic moments like when the Wilis refuse to hear Giselle’s pleas for Albrecht’s life, and they turn their heads away and stop-sign their hands at her.
And when they bourré across stage, two rows weaving into each other, so magical.
The royal New Zealand Ballet adds a final moment, which is truly chilling,
And here I will say SPOILER ALERT in case you are going to see the show:
Albrecht is now an old man. He returns to Giselle’s grave, and as the curtain lowers the Wilis come for him, moving in time with distant church bells, one step with each toll.
The curtain lowers before they reach him. It is truly chilling and ominous and inevitable and terrifying, all the emotions I wasn’t getting from the rest of the show.
An excellent ending.
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