Gielgud's choreography captures the heart of 'Giselle'
Maina Gielgud's production of "Giselle," elegantly performed by the Boston Ballet, pares the mid-19th-century classic to its essence, revealing -- now in stark detail, now in shrouded mist -- the hollows of the human heart and its capacity for redemption.
The story of the two-act ballet -- originally choreographed by Jean Coralli and Jules Perrot, and with music by Adolphe Adam -- is at once grounded in the real world and preposterously surreal. Giselle, a young peasant girl with a weak heart, falls in love with a man disguised as a peasant who is in fact a prince named Albrecht. When Albrecht's deception is revealed, Giselle goes mad and dies. Yet this was the Romantic era of the ballet, and so Giselle rises from her grave, as the newest initiate into a cabal of Wilis -- the spirits of young women who have died before their wedding day. The Wilis are compelled, by their icy queen, Myrtha, to dance from midnight till dawn, forcing any man who wanders into their midst to dance to his death. When Albrecht comes to lay flowers on her grave, he too becomes subject to this fate.
Gielgud goes not for an overhaul in her restaging but for clarity of expression of the ballet's central themes: the strength of romantic love, the devastation of betrayal, the healing salve that is forgiveness. And Larissa Ponomarenko as Giselle gives a rare and powerful dimension to them all.
It is not so much the technique but the quality of Ponomarenko's dancing that carries the day. In Act I she is at first all insouciance and flounce, demurely pulling away from Albrecht (Roman Rykine) before tapping fingers with him, wet by kisses. When she learns of Albrecht's true identity -- and that he is engaged to Princess Bathilde (Karine Seneca) -- her collapse, both physical and mental, is complete. She is as fragile as spun glass. Off-kilter, she trips backward as pulled if by magnetic force. In Act II, as a Wili, she is at once ethereal and crisp, wispy as a vision -- which Albrecht takes her to be -- yet anchored by legs of steel.
Rykine for his part plays Albrecht not as a cad, as so many past dancers have done, but as a young man truly in love who has been trapped by the customs of his time and station. His beats are quick as hummingbird wings, and his legs -- slicing knife-like through the air -- seem to stretch forever. He exudes a gentleness and a rigor at once. Kathleen Breen Combes as Myrtha dances with a frosty panache. Her outstretched arms, crossed at the wrists declare an unequivocal "No!" to both Albrecht's and Giselle's entreaties to spare the prince's life.
The Wilis, two leaders and a corps of 16, shift the stage space with a kaleidoscopic magic, now with heads down and in arabesque they criss cross in lines, now frozen solid as Giselle dances till dawn with Albrecht in order to save him.
Gielgud has proved a superb acting coach for the Boston Ballet dancers. Much of the story is communicated via gestures -- not mime, in the hands of Gielgud, as there's no "play acting" or exaggerated flailing . Even tiny movements-- Albrecht's turning Giselle's face toward his, Giselle's plucking the petals from a flower, the woodcutter Hilarion's pounding his heart with his fists to show his love, too, of Giselle (he's played by Reyneris Reyes) -- read as authentic, natural.
This is a "Giselle" that stays with you long after you leave the theater. You'll be chilled to the bone, but also warmed to the heart.