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By Patricia Boccadoro

PARIS, 9 AUGUST 2016 — After Benjamin Millepied’s first season, dominated by abstract American choreography interspersed by contemporary creators including Jérome Bel, Boris Charmatz, Maguy Marin and Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, the Paris Opera Ballet, the world’s oldest classical company, returned to its roots with Giselle, the world’s oldest classical ballet, created for them in 1841.

The original libretto, attributed to Théophile Gautier and Vernoy de St Georges, was based on Gautier’s reading of Heinrich Heine’s story of the mysterious Wilis, those ghosts of young girls betrayed before their wedding day, who haunted the mountains and forests of Germany. Within two months, with the collaboration of choreographers Jean Coralli and Jules Perrot and set to a score by Adolphe Adam, the popular composer of ballet music and opera, Giselle was staged at the Royal Academy of Music in Paris, forerunner of the Palais Garnier. The current version at the Palais Garnier was updated in 1991 by Eugène Polyakov and Patrice Bart who adapted the original choreography of Coralli, Perrot and Petipa, (who had restaged the ballet in 1887), for the 150th anniversary of its creation.

Myriam Ould-braham in Giselle
Paris Opera Ballet
Photo: Svetlana Lobof

The story of the young village girl who fell in love with Loys, none other than Albrecht, Duke of Silesia disguised as a peasant, before discovering his true identity and dying of a broken heart has become one of the best-loved classical ballets. It is famous above all for its extremely beautiful "White act", which takes place at night in a mystical forest where the Wilis relentlessly track down and dance to death any man who crosses their path.

Giselle, a ballet which combines two distinct worlds, the natural spontaneity and freshness in the village scene of Act I followed by the other-worldly fantasy of Act II, is one of the jewels of the Paris Opera Ballet’s repertoire. The work is beloved so much by the dancers, the interpretation of the ballet at the Palais Garnier in June was stupendous. The company was on home ground and danced with its heart and soul.

As soon as the curtain rose, the original set design by Alexandre Benois, recreated by Claudie Gastine, swept the audience into a village where the peasants were celebrating the grape harvest. Loys, alias Albrecht, interpreted by Matthias Heymann who has changed places with his valet, arrives on stage, a smiling, boyish figure, happy to have escaped from the confines of the court and his loveless, impending marriage with the proud princess Bathilde. He’s eager to spend time with Giselle, a lovely young girl he has recently met. And as soon as Giselle, interpreted by étoile Myriam Ould-Braham, comes on stage, one immediately understands why. With her quiet, delicate charm, she is totally adorable. She’s gentle and loving, sunny-natured with a sense of fun and a passion for dancing despite the warnings of her mother because of her weak heart. She is different from the women Albrecht has known, natural and with not a thought in her head that Albrecht is any other than what he seems.

Matthias Heymann in Giselle
Paris Opera Ballet
Photo: Svetlana Lobof

Heymann, known for his virtuoso technique and musicality, is at the summit of his art. Able to convey his love for the young girl with a single glance, he’s oblivious of the consequences of his behaviour, teasing her playfully in the love me, love me not scene, dancing with a confident ease.  He’s not a heroic figure, just a boy who has found true love for the first time but fails to realise it until too late. His one, fatal mistake was his reaction upon the arrival of Bathilde and her father, the prince of Courlande, for instead of remaining at Giselle’s side, he averts his face, and hangs his head in shame, shame at being caught out in his unfaithfulness to Bathilde. His betrayal breaks Giselle’s heart as she knows noblemen do not marry peasants. She loses her sanity and dies in his arms. Albrecht, devastated, is overcome by his own thoughtless irresponsibility.

There is also the presence of Hilarion, a solid village boy also in love with Giselle, albeit an unrequited love, who, by blowing a hunting horn to bring the noble party to Giselle’s house and thus unmasking Loys/Albrecht, brings about a tragedy rather than averting one. He had suspected that Loys was a nobleman amusing himself with no intention of marrying Giselle. His one thought was to protect the girl he cared so much about from being hurt but his actions backfired.

Hilarion was intelligently interpreted by premier danseur François Alu, a superb technician and strong character dancer, who brought both dignity and pathos to his role. He did not act as a bitter, jealous lover, but as a sincere young man whose only wish was for Giselle’s happiness and whose early demise by the Wilis, who danced him to death, was most unfair.

Corps de ballet of the Paris Opera Ballet in Giselle
Photo: Svetlana Lobof

Act II of the work touched greatness. The corps de ballet was simply fabulous. The beauty of the 26 Wilis led by Mrytha, their queen, brought tears to one’s eyes. Each girl, in her gorgeous long white tutu, haute couture, each costume requiring 48 metres of sheer tulle, danced in the bright moonlight as though it was the last performance she would ever give. In life, they had loved dancing so much that, become Wilis, they left their tombs each night to dance in their bridal outfits with flowers in their hair, and perversely take revenge on any man they find.

The Paris corps de ballet were dancing what they were born to dance, soft, yet impassive, and Hannah O’Neill as their Queen was magnificent. Her technique plus her sense of style was astonishing , yet even more so was the interpretation she gave,  neither venomous nor revengeful, but sad, oh so sad. She interpreted her role with a steely determination, not once wavering from what she had to do. But this Myrtha had suffered. She too had had a life before she was betrayed and that life taken from her. Beautiful but implacable, the spectators witnessed a star in the making.

Hannah O’Neill in Giselle
Paris Opera Ballet
Photo: Svetlana Lobof

Both Ould-Braham and Heymann rose to new heights. This was no longer a game, but the meeting of two souls. This was love after death, redemption through forgiveness, as Ould-Braham, light and ethereal, pleaded for Albrecht’s life, protecting and supporting him tenderly, defending him spiritually as well as physically.

With their brilliant footwork, the two dancers were technically sublime. Heymann’s relentless series of entrechats, introduced into the work by Rudolf Nureyev, which were performed repeatedly at the order of Myrtha who was determined to exhaust him, had the audience gasping in disbelief at the height.

As the coming of dawn robbed the Wilis of their victory, one could almost feel Giselle’s soft sigh, as released from her anxiety she slipped back into her grave, knowing she has saved Albrecht’s life.

One can only be grateful for the extraordinary accomplishment of Clothilde Vayer,  Maitre de Ballet associated to the dance director, (in theory Benjamin Millepied who has already left Paris*), who coached the corps de ballet, while the performances of all four ‘stars’ were exceptional. Adam’s score, played by the Orchestra of prizewinners from the Paris Conservatory sparkled under the Belgian conductor, Koen Kessels.

*Aurélie Dupont, appointed artistic director of the company will officially take up her function in August.

Patricia Boccadoro writes on dance in Europe. She has contributed to The Guardian, The Observer and Dancing Times and was dance consultant to the BBC Omnibus documentary on Rudolf Nureyev. Based in Paris,  Patricia Boccadoro is the dance editor for Culturekiosque.

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