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A Lover's Heart

Do we watch the classics with a scholar’s brain or a lover’s heart? Pacific Northwest Ballet’s “Giselle” engages both, but a viewing of the company’s digital season stream leaves me feeling that the heart still has to triumph.

Performance

Pacific Northwest Ballet’s “Giselle”

Place

Digital stream of performance in McCaw Hall, Seattle, captured live on February 3, 2023

Words

Rachel Howard

Elle Macy as Myrtha, Queen of the Wilis, in Peter Boal's staging of “Giselle.” Photograph by Angela Stirling

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On the brainy side, this “Giselle,” first unveiled by artistic director Peter Boal in 2011, takes care with historicity. Dance scholars Marian Smith and Doug Fullington worked from three primary sources: rehearsal notes believed to have been written in 1842, a year after the ballet’s premiere in Paris; a complete notation of the ballet from the 1860s (discovered two decades ago in a flea market); and a Stepanov notation of the Marius Petipa production in Russia, made sometime between 1899 and 1903 (interestingly, the notation can be dated based on the roles that Anna Pavlova danced, and according to Smith and Fullington, Petipa kept a lot of the original Jean Coralli/Jules Perrot choreography).

What does all this scholarship lead to on the stage? Well, there are more comic interludes than seen in most contemporary productions during Act Two, as various drunk or elderly men stumble through the Wilis’ haunted forest. And there are subtler but more significant ramifications for the character of Giselle herself. She is saucier here, danced in accordance with those 1842 rehearsal notes—a frisky and self-possessed young woman rather than the shy, terrified girl we see in a lot of today’s interpretations. (Mathilde Froustey’s coy and glass-figurine-delicate take on the role at San Francisco Ballet stands out in memory as prime exemplar.)

Lesley Rausch and James Kirby Rogers with Pacific Northwest Ballet dancers in Peter Boal's “Giselle.” Photograph by Angela Stirling

As danced by PNB’s most experienced ballerina, Lesley Rausch, Giselle spreads her skirt out on the bench and then teases her suitor, saying with her eyes, “Oh, you want to sit here next to me? Oh well, fine then.” She doesn’t worry when they play “he loves me/he loves me not” with the flower petals, but gives a big laugh as she counts them and sees that this flirty guy’s game isn’t going to work out. She’s certifiably goofy in many moments, and full-blooded, even though her mother warns her about that little death-tempting problem she has of dancing too much.

In short, she’s gutsy and easily endearing. But does it make sense that she would be devastated to learn that Albrecht (who for some reason is called Albert in this production) is actually a noble engaged to another girl? Rausch delivers a mad scene to rival the best of them, getting good and ugly and at times reacting with anger to Albrecht, which keeps that appealing spark of defiance in her—but if Giselle was never that vulnerable, does it make sense that she’s crushed?

Of course, when a production engages the scholarly elements of our interest in this way, it becomes harder to know which effects of the interpretation to attribute to the dancer, and which to her instructions. One thing that’s clear: Rausch’s technique is as impeccable as her dancing is stylish. Her Act Two was especially beautiful, all crisp feet below soft floating arms. And the technique of her Albrecht, James Kirby Rogers, was impeccable, too—entrechats like a bouncing rubber ball, fluttery perfection.

Elle Macy as Myrtha, Queen of the Wilis in Peter Boal's “Giselle.” Photograph by Angela Stirling

But then—those heart questions again—do we believe in their epic love? I can’t say I sensed much chemistry. Rogers has been in the company just two years, whereas Rausch has been there two decades. Sometimes sparks fly between generations (Nureyev and Fonteyn, anyone?), but this pairing felt like an assignment.

Then too, Rogers is also working with some dramaturgically challenging particularities of this production. After Giselle saves him from the Wilis, as she sinks back into the grave, Bathilde his betrothed comes to him. Giselle points to her ring finger to mime that Albrecht most go ahead and marry Bathilde, an action evidently restored from the 1860s rehearsal notes, although the exact miming of this for PNB’s production was devised by Marian Smith. Historical though it may be, the moment took me out of the story, seeming as it did like authorial male wish fulfillment—not only does the man get saved by the self-sacrificing heroine, but he gets to go ahead and marry his original bird-in-hand. Does forgiveness move us if it magically removes all natural consequences?

This unresolvable interplay between source text and interpretation is part of what keeps us watching “Giselle,” though. And Myrtha’s role is so delicately changeable, too. In my favorite portrayal of Myrtha, by former San Francisco Ballet principal Muriel Maffre, the Wili Queen’s icy anger seemed a defense mechanism to protect herself from her true vulnerability beneath—her dissociative inner rift was so deep that it broke my heart. As Elle Macy plays Myrtha in PNB’s production, the Queen who dances men to death enjoys her revenge. This makes Act Two a great deal of fun as you cheer her on, and Macy’s performance was stylistically superb. Her two deputy Wilis, Clara Ruf Maldonado and Madison Rayn Abeo, were also outstanding, visions from a Romantic Era lithograph.

Pacific Northwest Ballet dancers as Wilis in “Giselle.” Photograph by Angela Stirling

One other especially notable historical feature of this production is the peasant pas de deux in Act One. Again working with Smith and Fullington from the sources, Boal staged a pas deux packed with petit allegro steps, familiar and not—funny little side-by-side bourrées are a curious highlight. The choreography here is more flattering to the woman than to the ever-gallant Kyle Davis, in knee-breeches and lederhosen; Sarah-Gabrielle Ryan was assured and vivacious, beautifully free in her shoulders and neck.

Other than those knee-breeches, the costumes, redesigned for this production by Jerome Kaplan in 2014, are mostly very winsome. The 18 Wilis in Act Two have bell-shaped skirts that fall in one layer rather than in piles of tulle, and their little wings flap in the breeze quite convincingly. As for the tug-of-war between head and heart in this production, the heart did not quite win here for me. But my head was wonderfully stimulated, the dancing was excellent, and just as interpretations of Shakespeare will never cease to fascinate, so too does “Giselle” live on.

Rachel Howard


Rachel Howard is the former lead dance critic of the San Francisco Chronicle. Her dance writing has also appeared in the New York Times, the Hudson Review, Ballet Review, San Francisco Magazine and Dance Magazine.

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