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Giselle: Choreography Mats Ek
Paris Opéra Ballet

 

By Patricia Boccadoro

PARIS, 13 July 2004 - The Swedish choreographer, Mats Ek, made dance history in 1982 with his highly successful, essentially non-romantic re-interpretation of Giselle performed by the Ballet Cullberg.

While many choreographers had revisited ballet classics, no one had yet dared to stage such a radically different interpretation, particularly of Giselle, the most famous of all Romantic ballets, created in Paris one and a half century ago. The setting has been up-dated to a claustrophobic rural community on some distant island, and his Giselle is a solitary young girl who longs for true love and children of her own. Extremely vulnerable, she breaks down when the man of her dreams betrays her.

Marie-Agnès Gillot in Giselle
Marie-Agnès Gillot in Giselle
Photo: Icare

In 1993 Ek gave the work to the Paris Opéra Ballet, where it has become one of the most popular works in their repertory. Always well danced, the ballet this time round was stupendous, with not a weak link anywhere. The whole cast, sixteen dancers in all, surpassed themselves, and there was not a free seat to be had at the Palais Garnier for all nine performances.

I met Marie-Agnès Gillot, who made her debut as Giselle, on her return from Sweden where she had been working with the now legendary Ana Laguna, wife and muse of Mats Ek, who created the role over twenty years ago. "It was a most amazing experience," she told me. "Ana Laguna was so down-to-earth, and taught me how to express Giselle's feelings with every gesture. Of course there are no pointe shoes, and I had to almost forget about my classical training, going further forward with different gestures and staccato, angular almost brutal movements. It was very exciting, and she is so warm, honest and real." .


José Martinez in Giselle
Photo: Icare

Barefooted, and with a beret pulled down over her forehead, Marie-Agnès Gillot, recently nominated étoile, was a captivating and most moving Giselle. The transformation of Gillot, superb classical and contemporary ballerina, was total. More misfit than village idiot, she sees and hears things the others don't and although her fiancé, Hilarion, the spectacular José Martinez, loves her, he's unable to understand her, and keeps her attached with a rope as he would an animal..


The villagers, portrayed as a group of poverty-stricken workers on the verge of revolt, excelled. When they dance, it is neither for their own pleasure, nor because they are pleased to meet the aristocracy; these 'peasants' are out to earn money. .

Marie-Agnès Gillot and José Martinez in Giselle
Marie-Agnès Gillot and José Martinez in Giselle
Photo: Icare


While Adam's score remains untouched, Ek has invented new sequences of steps and totally original movements in this strictly contemporary work, as modern today as when it was created. His free approach to movement is ideally suited to Gillot whose large, ample gestures, rapid high jumps and fast spins reflect her love of life. Bewildered by disaster, her arms droop limply down, and her feet rub along the floor. She is pure, spontaneous and natural, revealing inner worlds to Albrecht, superb Nicolas Le Riche, the young man about town, who is fascinated by the richness of her imagination and her sweetness. His white suit reflects his innocence and inability to assume his love for her. When she is finally led to the lunatic asylum, he follows.

Act two takes place in the surrealistic setting of a mental hospital, where pieces of the human body decorate the walls. Myrtha, the Queen of the Wilis, admirably interpreted by the authoritative Stéphanie Romberg, has become the forbidding sister of the ward Giselle is led to after a lobotomy. The nurse serves as a defence against sexual attraction in this self-contained world where the inmates are condemned to frustration. The corps de ballet, and in particular, Caroline Bance, Geraldine Wiart, Muriel Zusperreguy and Laure Muret were outstanding throughout, especially in their straightjackets as they sank into their own world of madness.

Hilarion is one of José Martinez' favourite roles, and he revelled in the powerful leaps and vigorous spins, making the rough country yokel into a figure of compassion as he visits Giselle, hoping it is not too late to bring her to see sense. But, as in the traditional version, she is already in another world.

This is no mere fairy-tale; it's a story of real people. Love, betrayal, madness are all there, softened at the end by a reconciliation between Albrecht and Hilarion, who both love her, but both lose her.


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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