Register Sunday | March 18 | 2018

Why Giselle Still Matters

Houston Ballet brings Maina Gielgud’s renowned production to Montreal

For a town like Montreal, so dominated by contemporary dance, the April visit of Houston Ballet-to perform Giselle, one of the most beloved ballets in dance history-is a delightfully relevant anachronism. The Texas troupe brings Maina Gielgud's celebrated staging of the work courtesy of Les Grands Ballets Canadiens, which no longer performs such classical fare itself.

If the promise of some tulle is not enough for the hungry, local balletomanes, this nineteenth-century classic also offers audiences nearly every Romantic-era cliché you can think of-picturesque peasants, apparitions, a mad scene and doomed love-thanks to the scenarist, French poet and critic Théophile Gautier. Add to that a charmingly quaint score by Adolphe Adam and some old-fashioned choreography by Jean Coralli and Jules Perrot, itself "updated" by the great Marius Petipa before the twentieth century even got started. How thoroughly un-modern. What could this 165-year-old ballet possibly have to say to us today?

The sad story of the ballet begins like this: Once upon a medieval time in a Rhine valley village, Albrecht, a nobleman, meets a lovely peasant girl named Giselle. This young woman has a penchant for dancing but, unluckily, a heart that is easily taxed. Finding her irresistible, Albrecht disguises himself as a peasant lad named Loys and pledges eternal love, much to the chagrin of another jealous suitor, Hilarion, a huntsman, and Giselle's concerned mother. Hilarion soon discovers and then exposes Albrecht's true identity to all. Upon learning her lover's deceit (and his betrothal to the Duke's daughter Bathilde), Giselle falls into madness and dies of a broken heart.

Later, a repentant Albrecht comes to his beloved's grave. Unbeknownst to him, Giselle is to be initiated that night into the "Wilis," a ghostly band of maidens who died before their wedding days and whose spirits force any unlucky man who crosses their path to dance to his death. Upon seeing Albrecht, Myrtha, the Wilis' pitiless queen, is determined to deliver him to this merciless fate but he is saved through Giselle's forgiving interference. As dawn approaches and the Wilis' power wanes, the two share a last goodbye.

If the fantastical setting of Giselle seems removed from us, what is not outmoded are the emotions of young love, a mother's fear, jealousy, betrayal and forgiveness. It isn't just the portrayal of these universal feelings that makes Giselle so enduring, but how well integrated they are into the work.

"The ballet is so wonderfully made," says Gielgud, who danced several roles in many productions of Giselle-including the lead-before staging the ballet herself. "I think that of all the classics it is the one in which the dramatics, stylistics, dance and mime are all in equal parts and all blend. They're not separate as they are often in the classical Petipa works [like Swan Lake and The Sleeping Beauty]."

Former artistic associate of the Houston Ballet, Gielgud has also staged Giselle for the Boston Ballet, Ballet du Rhin and the Australian Ballet (where, as artistic director, she first set the work). So cherished is Gielgud's production "down under," that this year the Australian Ballet has revived the twenty-year-old production as a "heritage" work. Indeed, Gielgud's vision of the old classic has earned enthusiastic praise from critics in every city, above and below the equator, in which the ballet has been performed. Most recently the editor-in-chief of Dance Magazine, Wendy Perron, after seeing two performances of Houston Ballet's production, said that she was moved to tears by the believability of Gielgud's staging and the fine performances the repetiteur wrought from Houston's dancers.

Hardly a surprise, perhaps, given that Gielgud is the niece of the great actor Sir John Gielgud. Born in London, Maina Gielgud cultivated a twenty-year career as a dancer, performing with Maurice Bejart's Ballet du 20ème siecle, London Festival Ballet, Sadler's Wells Royal Ballet and others. She directed the Australian Ballet from 1983 to 1996 and later the Royal Danish Ballet. Today she freelances as a teacher and coach, imparting her considerable experience of, and love for, classical ballet. Giselle is one of her great achievements.

One reason for Gielgud's success is her concern for the work's entire cast. While Giselle has often been called the "Hamlet" of ballets (it's the kind of work with dramatically challenging leads that both ballerinas and male danseurs crave), Gielgud cares as much for the casting and coaching of the ballet's minor characters-often treated as throwaway roles in other productions-as she does for those of the lead lovers. Nor do the ubiquitous peasants in Act I and the Wilis in Act II escape her attention. "The corps de ballet often think of themselves as blending into the scenery and just having to 'be together'-dance's lowest common denominator." But, in Act I for example, "The corps has a lot of leeway in individual interpretation"-like reacting to the Duke's entrance and Giselle's mad scene, for example. "It's very, very important," she stresses, "that all those characters are believable in their interpretation ... so that the audience is really brought into the story and emotionally involved." From Gielgud's point of view, even the greatest interpreters of Giselle and Albrecht can't carry the ballet alone-a finely attuned brigade of Wilis, she argues, can nearly steal the show.

One current interpreter of Albrecht, though, can outshine even the most determined troupe of Wilis. Houston Ballet's Zdenek Konvalina has earned kudos for his portrayal of Giselle's beloved. No stranger to Montreal audiences, the Czech native has performed at the Saint-Sauveur Festival as well as twice in the annual Gala des Étoiles. In 2001, Konvalina won the gold medal at the Helsinki International Ballet Competition and the same year was appointed principal dancer at the Houston Ballet. (Ed. note: after this story was filed, Konvalina launched a sexual harassment suit against the company. Despite this development, Konvalina says that he will finish out his contract for the current season. As of this writing, he is still scheduled to perform Giselle in Montreal.).

For Konvalina, the role of Albrecht offers a chance to be emotionally invested in way that is not found in other classical ballets. "When you do Don Quixote," he says, "it's a bright ballet and you can hardly create an intimate atmosphere." But in Giselle, especially the second act, "everything is darker," both literally and metaphorically. "The only thing I see are the Wilis, Giselle, and Myrtha-I don't even see the audience."

"Giselle," in Konvalina's case, is Leticia Oliveira, his frequent partner at Houston and a first soloist with the company who is garnering some attention of her own. Included in Dance Magazine's prestigious "25 to Watch" this year (incidentally sharing a page with Les Grands Ballets Canadiens' Mariko Kida), Oliveira will be teaming up again with Konvalina for one of the Montreal performances and Konvalina is certainly looking forward to a reprise of their Gisellepartnership. "It is one of my most memorable experiences working on a ballet, dedicating ourselves to Giselleand putting it onstage" he says of having the benefit of Gielgud's guidance.

Indeed, one of the charms of this ballet is the knowledge that the work has passed from generation to generation with love and care. In a time when countless dance works premiere every week, it is worth considering why this work has endured. A conservative bias for ballet and narrative does not wholly explain its success. Come and find out why.

Houston Ballet's performances of Giselle run April 27- 29 at Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier, Place des Arts.

Kena Herod is Maisonneuve's dance critic. Read more columns by Kena Herod. Or check out her blog, En Pointe.