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Sylvie Guillem's Giselle:
Dead or Dying?

By Patricia Boccadoro

PARIS, 22 March 2001 - It is very difficult to be objective about a ballet like Giselle, the most beautiful and most human of all the classics where an innocent girl is wronged by a boy of noble birth who encounters love for the first time, but doesn't realise it until it is too late. At least, this was the interpretation given to the work the first time I saw it. It was at Covent Garden in the early 60's, and the performance of Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev marked me for life.

Since then, there have been countless enjoyable versions including that danced by Ekaterina Maximova and Vladimir Vasiliev in the courtyard of the Pope's Palace in Avignon, the enchanting production of Arthur Mitchell and Carl Michel for the Dance Theatre of Harlem, when Act 1 was set in Louisiana and the title role danced by a little unknown ballerina, and the wonderful adaptation in 1991 by Patrice Bart and Eugène Polyakov, with the decors and costumes of Alexandre Benois.

What is interesting in these 'traditional' versions, excluding the brilliant work of Mats Ek, where the story is re-thought out and Act 2 transposed into a lunatic asylum, is that the choreography remains pretty well just the same. The decor and setting varies, the costumes are changed, but the actual steps are not, perhaps because the choreographers know that they cannot improve on this particular masterpiece, where nothing is superfluous and everything is as clear today as yesterday.

It was then, rather a shock to read an interview given by Ms Guillem to Debra Caine in London where the ballerina states that the ballet Giselle was "dying by itself", and" becoming more and more stupid, without any sense". She described it as being empty and dead and in need of rejuvenation. Suspecting that this would be a version which particularly suited her own temperament, I confess I went to see it in Paris with a somewhat jaundiced eye. While I have always admired Sylvie Guillem, one of the few real stars of today, I have never thought her suited to the role of Giselle.

The first act began convincingly enough, although I was bothered by the large clanking blocks of cement which served as decor, and which were constantly being shifted across the stage to show us the various roads, houses, and squares in the village. In the first fifteen minutes they moved more than the dancers did. The setting was intended to represent anywhere, from the poverty of the North of England, to the ruins of Kosovo. Then there were pots of flowers reminiscent of a Greek village, before the washing was hung out as in Southern Italy, while the costumes were all from different periods in time, reflecting both past and present.

Some members of the company wore working-class pre war clothing, others Hungarian style peasant costumes, while Bathilde and the Duke seemed to be in Medieval garb, the former clad in jodhpurs under her red and gold brocaded gown. Giselle, when you could see her, and it wasn't very often, had on an old faded cotton print. In the crowds of people milling round the stage, from the village idiot, the local drunkard, the postman, the hordes of children cavorting around, the young washer-woman who was being seduced on the side by a courtier and even the local band, with bugle, pipes and drum in evidence, Sylvie / Giselle was simply lost in the mass.

Finnish National Ballet  - Sylvie Guillem - Giselle
Sylvie Guillem and the Finnish National Ballet in Giselle
Photo: Marie-Noelle Robert

Instead of showing us the heroine in her own background, which is perfectly clear in the conventional version, everything was very confused and it was impossible to see where Giselle and Albrecht (Jonathan Cope) had got to until suddenly there was a magnificent grand jeté, and then an exquisite foot in the air. Guillem, flawless, faultless, and superb. You do not admire the leg behind the ear, what you marvel at is the grace and ease with which it arrives there. Her technical prowess never fails to astound me, but sadly for her followers, dance in this production has been cut to make way for theatrical reality, for these are actors on stage. What is unsure was the name of the drama taking place, for as moving and effective as the mad scene was, this was not a vulnerable peasant girl who died of a heart attack.

Aesthetically, the overall impression was that of a Flemish painting with its tones of browns and greys, beige and black. Excepting that this was a traditional version of Giselle, where the first act of passion, gaiety and emotion, should pave the way for the second act, and these drab, neutral shades gave no message at all. Giselle could not see the sun sparkling through the trees. Instead, it was resolutely overcast.

As the curtain rose on act 2, and Myrtha (Minna Terramaki) arrived in a halo of light and fog, she was accompanied not by Wilis, the spirits of young girls betrayed before their wedding day, but by the brides themselves. There was no tombstone - Giselle had presumably been buried in a nearby cemetery, so what were Hilarion, a victim if ever there was one, and Albrecht doing there? Above all, why were these 26 robust young women roaming a forest of bamboo, at night? Wilis are by definition spirits of dance-loving brides whose role is to dance to death any human who gets in their way; it is their reason for being. Take the dance away, as in this version, and the whole act is robbed of meaning.

Sylvie Guillem and the Finnish National Ballet in Giselle
Sylvie Guillem and the Finnish National Ballet in Giselle
Photo: Marie-Noelle Robert

When all the poetry and emotion is eliminated, what is the point of Giselle and Albrecht being there at all? Guillem has removed all the beauty and spiritual qualities which should pervade. The audience applauded at the end, but for what?

As I left my seat, echoes of a conversation with Agnès Letestu, the Paris Opera étoile who danced Giselle for the first time last year came to mind. "Giselle is one of my favourite roles, and I identify totally with her", she had told me. "It's a timeless work which continues to evolve. I love the fluidity of the arm movements, and the feeling of each slow arabesque, because each movement has something to say, and nothing in the work is superfluous. It's exciting to dance, and very modern because you have to give it everything you've got and each time it's up to the interpreter to bring it up to date. The steps are there; it's the way they are danced that matters".

Outside the theatre a gentle rain was falling, and the magic and poetry which had eluded me all evening was in front of me. The glittering lights of the fairy-tale City Hall, its harsher outlines softened in the damp mist were reflected in the silvery pools of water in the deserted square. The ice-skaters had long gone home and the empty rink gleamed wetly, bordered by two merry-go-rounds shining like coloured jewels through the dusk. The silence was abruptly broken by the great bells of Notre- Dame.

Sylvie Guillem will perform Giselle with La Scala Ballet at the Lincoln Center Festival 2001, New York on 20, 21, 22 July 2001.

Related Article and photos: Paris Opera Ballet Revival of the Famous 1924 Version of Giselle

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

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