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Giselle at the Palais Garnier

 

By Patricia Boccadoro

PARIS, 10 March 2004It has been a most exciting time at the Paris Opéra Ballet, with an extraordinary run of outstanding performances of Giselle in the city where the ballet was originally created. People returned again and again, not only to see their favourite dancer, or even each of the different couples, including two guest artists, who possibly helped bring out the best of the company, but to see every performance, all sixteen of them in one case. Not in my memory has there been so many exceptional casts of dancers who differ completely in temperament, physique, maturity, and thus in interpretation. Planning to go three times, I found myself attending no less than six performances.

Giselle is the most perfect of the Romantic ballets because it is not only breathtaking visually, but deals with real people. Every woman can identify with Giselle and share her feelings, while most men sympathise either with Albrecht or Hilarion. They know what it is to fall deeply in love with someone you have no right to, or to flirt selfishly with a young girl and break her heart.

The first night cast was the one which best represented the French company. There was all-round excellence. Aurélie Dupont was a very classical, touching Giselle, with no airs or mannerisms, but with the sophistication and elegance that one associates with the Paris Opéra.

There were no excesses in her dancing as she dismissed the high leg extensions, six-o'clock style, adopted by many ballerinas today, and which are so misplaced in this work. Delicately flirtatious with Albrecht, a convincing Nicolas Le Riche, one wonders whether it is really the first time she has seen him. What is certain is that he had spotted her before and had fallen head over heels in love with the lovely peasant girl, only to back off as he realises, too late to avoid tragedy, what he was getting himself into. There was that awful realisation of the damage he had done.

Aurélie Dupont and Nicolas Le Riche in Giselle
Aurélie Dupont and Nicolas Le Riche in Giselle
Chorégraphie : J. Coralli, J Perrot
Remontée par Patrice Bart et Eugène Polyakov
© Photo: Icare

In act two, Dupont was sublime, with her beautiful line, and exquisite footwork. Weightless in act two, she is all tenderness and forgiveness. Both gave a most moving performance.

The peasant pas de deux was absolutely outstanding. Dorothée Gilbert enjoyed every minute of it, partnered by the extraordinary Emmanuel Thibault, who soared through the air, soft, floating, powerful and precise. Danced by this superb couple, this pas de deux, which often seems superfluous, found its rightful place.


Led by their queen, Delphine Moussin, the corps de ballet were flawless in the second act. The evening seemed to have been blessed from beginning to end.

Ballet de l'Opéra National de Paris
Ballet de l'Opéra National de Paris in Giselle
Chorégraphie : J. Coralli, J Perrot
Remontée par Patrice Bart et Eugène Polyakov
© Photo: Icare


Guest artist Alina Cojocaru, the twenty-three year old Rumanian born principal dancer from Covent Garden, partnered by Manuel Legris, led the second cast. Tiny and full of sweetness, she fulfilled everyone's dream of the fairytale Giselle. With her perfect proportions and pretty face, she was Giselle. And Manuel Legris, as Albrecht, had no choice but to fall helplessly in love with her. Cojocaru has an indefinable quality which melts your heart the moment she comes on stage. It's not only the lightness and speed of her movements, her technique is astounding, but her attention to small details which moves. She spontaneously rushes to kiss and thank the two peasants after their pas de deux, and cannot resist the urge to kneel and caress the fur on Bathilde's dress with her cheek, totally unaware of the faux pas she is committing.

Alina Cojocaru in Giselle
Alina Cojocaru in Giselle
Chorégraphie : J. Coralli, J Perrot
Remontée par Patrice Bart et Eugène Polyakov
© Photo: Icare


Legris is captivated, and has no thought for the future. The instant of betrayal is more an enormous error than a moment of deceit, and even after being so dreadfully hurt, Cojocaru is all forgiveness. Love has conquered death, and one leaves the theatre almost serene. Legris was a very sure, caring partner, and upon leaving the theatre, one even wondered whether he hadn't fallen in love with her for real.

Agnès Letestu and José Martinez brought totally different qualities to the lovers. Theirs was no nineteenth century fairy tale. Letestu's Giselle is a modern heroine, a girl full of spirit and intelligence. She has fallen in love with the attractive Martinez, macho to the ends of his fingertips, who has sneaked off to her village for a fling. He's bored not only with Bathilde, but with life in general.

As Letestu dismisses her childhood sweetheart, the tender Hilarion, movingly interpreted by Yann Bridard, one watches the unfolding drama of jealousy, deceit and betrayal. From the beginning, Letestu's Giselle is scarcely able to believe in her happiness, and there seems an awareness of impending doom. Her frozen incomprehension, and quick, automatic curtsey to Bathilde are heart breaking to see, and the mad scene which follows, quite frightening. It was as if the ballet had never been danced before.

Agnès Letestu and José Martinez in Giselle 2004
Agnès Letestu and José Martinez in Giselle
Chorégraphie : J. Coralli, J Perrot
Remontée par Patrice Bart et Eugène Polyakov
© Photo: Icare


In the first act, Letestu is a vivid flesh and blood woman, whereas in act two, the most beautiful in memory, surpassing her performance of two years ago, she actually became a spirit. Weightless, she touched greatness. She was ethereal, delicate, and her ghostly body, evanescent, floated in the air. When Martinez, repentant too late, lifted her, their bodies hardly touched. Her love for him had become raw pain. As Martinez fights for his own skin, the tension is unbearable, and in saving him, Giselle herself is destroyed.

Natural simplicity and a light, graceful charm characterised the Giselle of youngest étoile, Laetitia Pujol, whose openness and friendly disposition as she dances her peasant solos render her trust in Albrecht all the more convincing. She made us believe in the villagers, as she made us believe in ghosts. Her mad scene is more touching than melodramatic, and her distress is heart breaking, as Albrecht, Nicolas Le Riche, turns his head away.

Laëtitia Pujol and Nicolas Le Riche in Giselle at the Paris Opera Ballet in 2004
Laëtitia Pujol and Nicolas Le Riche in Giselle
Chorégraphie : J. Coralli, J Perrot
Remontée par Patrice Bart et Eugène Polyakov
© Photo: Icare

She's playful and innocent in act one, more mature in act two, where, with a softer line, she held her positions to emphasise her longing for Albrecht, rising above bitterness and any spirit of revenge to forgive him, and in doing so, saves herself. Le Riche danced superbly, with high, powerful jumps and impeccable spins in the air drawing gasps from the audience.

Was it then a mistake to go and see the Russian ballerina Svetlana Zakharova, currently the Bolshoi Ballet's much vaunted new star?

Strong, self-possessed, and very sure of herself, this Giselle was out to get her man. Number one among the peasant girls, she almost got the better of Princess Bathilde, the gentle Nathalie Quernet, and probably would have done so had the choreography allowed it. Every opportunity to show off was taken, and it was a most amazing performance, except that, by the time we came to the mad scene and this calculating woman suddenly died of a broken heart, it left the audience nonplussed. She even bossed her mother around. Because of the story and choreography, this interpretation was doomed to failure from the beginning. Act two was a coldly effective demonstration of technique. Fortunately her emptiness was offset by Albrecht, étoile Laurent Hilaire, whose performance was heart breaking, and by the brilliance of Marie-Agnès Gillot, one of the company's most outstanding Queen of the Wilis. Moreover, with Emmanuel Thibault cast in the peasant pas de deux, the audience had their fair share of fireworks.

Every performance of the corps de ballet, act one as in act two, lived up to the demands of ballet master Patrice Bart who, with colleague, Genia Polyakov, updated the traditional version of Giselle in 1991. They adapted the original choreography of Jean Coralli, Jules Perrot, and Marius Petipa, and from 1998 the production has been staged with the sets and costumes of Alexandre Benois, painter for Les Ballets Russes.

Patricia Boccadoro writes on dance in Europe. She contributes to The Observer and Dancing Times and was dance consultant to the BBC Omnibus documentary on Rudolf Nureyev. Ms. Boccadoro is the dance editor for Culturekiosque.com.

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