Sunday, August 21, 2016

Paris Opéra Ballet: Giselle

A Dancer Abroad marked its two-year anniversary in June, so we celebrated by taking in Giselle, our final performance of the 2015-2016 Paris Opéra Ballet season.

Marc Chagnall's great ceiling at Opera Garnier never gets old.
It’s the Classic of the Classics and is often touted as one of the great ballets of the Romantic era. Its use of mime throughout pays homage to the choreography of the great Marius Petipa, “the most influential ballet master and choreographer in ballet history” and it features one of the most demanding roles for a ballerina to perform, both in terms of technique and characterization.

Such history breeds high expectations and raises the stakes for the company who dares take on the mighty Giselle. Naturally, the Paris Opéra Ballet rose to the occasion and then delivered on every possible level: technique, character complexity, ensemble, music, costumes and emotional impact.

Giselle tells the story of a simple peasant girl who is wooed by a handsome stranger visiting her village. As they flirt and dance together, young Giselle falls in love with this dashing gentleman, much to the chagrin of her mother. Unbeknownst to her, the man is actually Prince Albrecht in disguise and he is already engaged to the lovely Lady Bathilde. Giselle does not heed the repeated warnings of her mother against the dangers of dancing and falling in love so quickly and is devastated to discover the true identity of her mystery man.

So acute is her shock and humiliation in front of the entire village and Lady Bathilde’s entourage, Giselle goes mad, tearing out her hair, threatening the crowd with the Prince’s sword and eventually collapsing in Albrecht’s arms, literally dead of a broken heart.

Act Two resumes in the nearby woods at twilight, where Giselle’s spirit joins the Wilis, the collective souls of women who have been betrayed and spurned by love. They are merciless in their torment of the men who cross their path and make them dance until they die of exhaustion. This is the fate that awaits Albrecht as he lays flowers on Giselle’s grave in an act of repentance for misleading her.

Myrtha,The Queen of the Wilis, is deaf to his pleas and sentences him to death. Giselle, being kind and pure of heart, forgives him and protects him until dawn. His remorse and love is found genuine and Giselle is released from the Wilis. As she and the Wilis disappear with the rising sun, she is finally at peace and the Prince is alone – exhausted and grief-stricken – but alive thanks to the forgiveness of his fallen love.

A story so rich and tragic demands performances of the highest caliber and Myriam Ould Braham’s Giselle hit all the right notes. She combined flawless technique with multifaceted characterization to capture Giselle’s innocence and vulnerability; a sweet, bright-eyed bird flitting joyfully across the stage, feather-light in her leaps and extensions, her expressions full of dreams and naiveté. Her descent into grief and madness was harrowing to witness because it was all too familiar; who hasn’t ever felt that same pain of a broken heart? Her spirit character contrasts her anguish with a soothing calmness in her forgiveness of Albrecht, giving her the courage to defy the Wilis and protect him. Braham’s performance was truly a feat of strength and grace.

Mathias Heymann’s Albrecht was dashing, brash, arrogant, yet tender and ultimately sincere in his heartache over Giselle. The sheer physical strength in his jumps and turns was astounding. His final series of leap after leap was mesmerizing and his exhaustion was palpable as he eventually collapsed, front and center, powerless to resist the wrath of the Wilis. Normally, male dancers are supposed to make it all look so effortless but Heymann’s character allowed the effort to show and the struggle to remain upright was real. He was tremendous.

And as for the Wilis, Hell hath no fury than a corps of women scorned.

They were at once ethereal, beautiful and terrifying. Clad in white, flowing tutus, the image of their long, laces veils suddenly being whisked away was haunting. With some billowing fog and eerie, shadowy lighting thrown in, the Wilis’ calm, calculating presence and perfect unison was deliciously chilling, just like a ghost story’s perfect villain should be.

Giselle was the whole package - romance, tragedy, mystery, drama, redemption – the perfect bow to wrap up our season with the Paris Opéra Ballet. This company’s range never ceases to amaze and inspire me. From contemporary ballet, to Rudolph Nureyev’s old-school classic, new choreographers Anne Teresa der Keersmaeker and Justin Peck, to the Grand Masters – Rudolph Nureyev, George Balanchine, Jerome Robbins – from the short, statement pieces, to the big, sweeping epics, we journeyed far and wide through passion, dance, music and this great city.

The journey continues next season and I can’t wait to see where we’ll be swept up to next.

Opera Garnier in Summer

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