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Giselle: Perfect Grace and Balance
April 2, 2019
Our dancers Yui Sugawara & Alessio Scognamiglio in rehearsal for Giselle

Giselle is a ballet about love and betrayal in love. It’s a tale about confronting truths and moving past them, leading to acceptance and forgiveness. If there’s an inspiring role that many ballerinas covet, it’s Giselle. It’s an acting challenge, with an extended mad scene that dancers long to do. Giselle’s pathos must stir audiences. Key to the success of the production is the character’s transformational arc: the depiction of heart, hurt, and passion and the final sacrifice to save the man who betrayed her.

Jennifer Homans, in Apollo’s Angels, recalls that at the turn-of-the-last-century Alexander Gorsky’s realism apparently removed any trace of Romanticism from the ballet: “He scribbled a note instructing his Giselle to ‘be a temperamental wench––don’t dance on pointe (too sugary). Jump like a young goat and really do go mad. Die with your legs apart, not placing one on the other.’”

Reworkings of Giselle have portrayed the character’s dramatic flare and virtuosity, or concentrated on her Romantic era innocence and purity. The classic role is special to many dancers because it demands that the dancer be skilful with their technique and able to use it expressively, as well as portray a storm of emotions, and not in a hackneyed way. Prima ballerina assoluta Alicia Alonso indicates, “Giselle’s own story is right there onstage. If her story is not told onstage, then you cannot believe any of the other Wilis… It’s about following the story logically, and basing the pantomime in reality.”

Giselle furnished Anik Bissonnette, former Les Grands Ballets prima ballerina, with a real triumph. The role, she recalls, “transcends technique.” As with all classical ballets, “you have to master the steps, but what distinguishes the role of Giselle is that the character really goes through the gamut of emotions… Giselle is a heroine, first transported by joy, who will experience sadness and melancholy, but, above all, will experience the pain of betrayal. Everyone has lived this humiliation, this rupture, one way or another. That's why this ballet touches so many people and is so rewarding for a dancer.”

“Everyone has lived this humiliation, this rupture, one way or another. That's why this ballet touches so many people and is so rewarding for a dancer.”

Many Giselle interpreters talk about achieving technically perfect poise and balance, but also the need to add richness to understand the part. Physical command, conviction and concentration reflect former prima ballerina Andrea Boardman’s perspective on the role. During her 21-year engagement with Les Grands Ballets, Boardman was fortunate to perform Giselle on four different occasions, “and with four different partners!” she relates. Ever since she saw her first live performance of Giselle in 1978 with Gelsey Kirkland and Mikhail Baryshnikov at Lincoln Centre in New York, she says she knew she had to dance this ballet. “There was something about the fragility, yet profound strength of Giselle that resonated with me.”

For Boardman, each opportunity was equally challenging with the technical and interpretive demands that the work required, but she “loved the process of reflection and immersing my heart and soul into developing the role. The transformation from an innocent peasant girl wounded by deception and driven to madness into an ethereal spirit able to find forgiveness in her heart was so compelling to explore.”

Boardman’s unique artistic talent is reflected in her “constantly going through the ballet in my mind long after rehearsals had ended—searching for a small detail or intention that would express the depth of this character.” Imagery and music were important sources of inspiration and ultimately guided her in finding meaning in each and every gesture or movement. “Discovering how to shape the musical phrasing helped to support the demanding technical control that was necessary. Every note of the music embodied the lyrical flow that simply transcended the physicality into an almost spiritual experience,” says Boardman. “What a contrast it was to delve into the mad scene, which demanded such deep emotional expression. Yet I found that by allowing myself to go there—to experience that place of vulnerability while remaining true to the character—the moment felt much more genuine as I searched for my own interpretation of this timeless classic.”

by Philip Szporer

Artistic Team
19, 2019