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Hartford Ballet restores a classic: journey with Giselle.

It was a Sunday morning in May. Kirk Peterson and I were having breakfast in a Hartford diner. Unaware of the animated family groups around us, we were deep into a discussion of Giselle. We were even arguing a bit.

This was not the first time since its Paris Opera premiere, June 28, 1841, that details of this most beloved of all Romantic ballets were being questioned. When Maryinsky ballerina Olga Spessivtseva, the twentieth century's definitive Giselle, danced the first-act solo, she introduced a version different from that of her older colleague, Tamara Karsavina; and Vaslav Nijinsky made changes in the second-act male solo.

Along with changing steps have come opposing critical viewpoints. When Serge Lifar partnered Spessivtseva at the Paris Opera in 1932, Franco-Russian critic Andre Levinson found him the ideal Albrecht: "[T]he insatiable Giselle whose eternal sleep is troubled by the gentle delirium of dance needs a companion who is transported by the same sublime madness . . . it was necessary that Serge Lifar be joined with Spessivtseva."

Levinson later added, "His brilliant debut in the role of Albrecht-Loys, the disguised prince [sic] and lovelorn traitor who becomes in the second act the gloomy one, the widower, the inconsolable one, dragging his black cloak among the graves, endowed the Opera's production with the protagonist it required in order to approach perfection."

Of this same protagonist American critic Edwin Denby penned a delicious bit of irony: "There was a piece of business in Lifar's Giselle, Act II, which was new to me. Mourning at her tomb, he seemed for some time unwilling to part with the flowers he had brought. He held them out, snatched them back, looked at them appreciatively. Mastering his emotion, he sacrificed them and fainted. But Giselle, dead as she was, rushed out from the wings with a much bigger bunch and pelted him with it headlong. So prompt, so sweet of her, so fitting. He lay drowned in flowers. If only the audience had given way to its impulse, had leapt to its feet in rapture and tossed hundreds of bouquets more, aiming them from all over the house, what a perfect moment of art it would have been for all of us to share with him!"

When Baryshnikov staged Giselle for American Ballet Theatre in 1977, he thinned out the drama of Act II, and he treated Myrtha more as a soloist than a ballerina. It was this act that Peterson and I disagreed about.

My interest in Peterson's staging of Giselle for Hartford Ballet's 1996 spring season began with his letter inviting me to a performance. The letter sounded almost autobiographical, as though Giselle had influenced stages in his own artistic growth. He wrote, "Giselle is certainly one of my favorite ballets, and upon seeing a performance by American Ballet Theatre with Lupe Serrano and Royes Fernandez (who was trained by my teacher, Lelia Haller), I was convinced that ballet as a career was to be my destiny." Farther on he added, "I do realize that there are some who question why I should assume so important a task as the staging of this remarkable classic, but my relationship to Giselle is not simply a dancer's love for a timeless masterpiece."

It is said that Giselle has been performed somewhere in the world every year since its premiere. During the past five years, American audiences have seen versions set on companies ranging from American Ballet Theatre and Dance Theatre of Harlem to Atlanta Ballet, Ballet Arizona, BalletMet, Ballet Oklahoma, Boston Ballet, Cincinnati Ballet, Cleveland San Jose Ballet, Colorado Ballet, Indianapolis Ballet Theatre, Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre, Richmond Ballet, Sacramento Ballet, and Tulsa Ballet Theatre. What promised to distinguish Peterson's approach was his awareness of the ballet's stylistic roots through his teacher.

Haller was one of a handful of early twentieth-century American dance teachers who had the taste, the intelligence, and, above all, the passion to search beyond their own fragmented early training. She was born in New Orleans in 1903. The city's performing life centered upon the French Opera House, and Haller studied with two of its dance adherents, Nina Piccolotte and Louis Ferrenbach.

Realizing the need to expand her horizons, she accepted a job teaching and performing in Kansas City, but the fact that she temporarily changed her name to Musette Hallier offers a clue to where her heart was.

As summer 1923 approached, she and her husband boarded a ship for France. There must have been something very special about this diminutive American woman--a harmony of talent and drive--that impelled Albert Aveline, premier danseur and maitre de ballet at the Paris Opera. to accept her into the school that he conducted outside of his classes at the Opera. He taught with his dancing partner, Paris Opera etoile Carlotta Zambelli.

Like Carlotta Grisi, for whom Giselle was created, Zambelli was Milanese, and, like Grisi, she was a product of the best Italian and French training. Giselle was not being performed at the Opera when she arrived in 1894, but in 1901 she was invited to St. Petersburg to learn and perform it with the Maryinsky Ballet. Grisi had also performed it in Russia, and Zambelli learned Grisi's version.

Zambelli was the ideal teacher of repertory for Haller. She was also petite and had what critic Maurice Brillant termed "feet like golden arrows." By the time Haller went home at the end of that first summer, her head whirled with all she had learned. The following summer she returned to France, this time determined to remain until she had absorbed everything she needed.

Aveline and Zambelli placed Haller at the head of the class, and Aveline eventually sponsored her at the Paris Opera ballet examination. She was accepted as a grand sujet or soloist and soon participated in the Opera's 1924 production of Giselle with Olga Spessivtseva as the doomed heroine. Levinson wrote, "This ballet, created at the Opera, improvised by a French poet for a Milanese danseuse, has since found itself incorporated into the spiritual domain of Russian theatre. A St. Petersburg etoile approaches Giselle with a sort of mystical fervor."

Of Spessivtseva he continued, "From her first appearance, Spessivtseva astonishes and charms. She is a singular and unique being and as such conforms to a certain type of choreographic beauty, that created by Taglioni. Even the elongated and vibrant proportions of Spessivtseva, her human form idealized in the extreme, exaggerate, if possible, the conformation of the seraphic Sylphide. The delicacy, the touching fragility of the new Giselle, reach the point of appearing sickly. But the morbidezza is for this elegiac one an additional attraction. The configuration of her legs, the contour of her instep, are admirable. A simple preparation in Fourth Position is clothed . . . in a very rare beauty . . . Her long, slim legs open with a splendid amplitude. Her delicate pointe easily supports the weight of her body in releves. And the star's arabesque penchee vibrates as long as the string of an Amati."

When Spessivtseva performed Giselle in London eight years later, Marie Rambert added, "Especially memorable were her ballottes in the first act when on each jump her exquisitely arched feet met point to point high in the air and on the slow, soft landing, each leg unfolded meltingly one after the other."

While she possessed the delicacy and subtlety of the French classical style, Spessivtseva epitomized the darker-toned Russian approach, which Haller greatly admired. When the Ballets Russes of Serge Diaghilev arrived in Paris the following year, she longed to study with their teacher, Nicholas Legat. Haller took leave of the Opera, auditioned for the Russian company, and spent a season touring and studying with its artists.

After a subsequent year at the Opera, she returned to the United States and eventually opened a fine school of her own in New Orleans. Kirk Peterson spent ten years under her tutelage, and when he left for New York City in 1968, he was already well versed in the styles that had enriched Giselle. In 1974 Peterson joined American Ballet Theatre, which consistently retained the charming old ballet in its repertory. During the six years he danced with ABT, he was to observe some of the most moving Giselle partnerships of all time: Carla Fracci and Erik Bruhn, Natalia Makarova and Mikhail Baryshnikov, Gelsey Kirkland and Baryshnikov. Peterson often danced in the first act Peasant Pas de Deux, and in 1979 performed Albrecht to Marianna Tcherkassky's Giselle.

The story of Giselle has a simplicity that enables both performers and audiences to read much of themselves into it. During the eleven years that Igor Youskevitch and Alicia Alonso so memorably performed the principal roles, they never stopped experimenting with emotional shadings. Whether Albrecht should take hold of Giselle by the hand or by the wrist during their initial encounter became a typical subject for discussion.

The ballet itself was born of a great infatuation. The Romantic poet and dance critic Theophile Gautier, he of the rose-colored vest when he attended the Opera and the red bathing suit when he swam in the Seine, was in love with Carlotta Grisi. He wanted to find a vehicle for her to dance at the Paris Opera. Like most Romantics, he truly believed in the supernatural creatures--the sylphs, naiads, ondines, and forbidding wilis who inhabited forests and woodlands.

Collaborating with librettist Vernoy de Saint-Georges, Gautier wrote of a gentle country girl in love with Loys, a young farmer. How much more refined he was than the gamekeeper Hilarion, who was also her suitor. As Makarova explained, "She is special. She must be in love with somebody who is not of her world." Loys is Count Albrecht pretending to be a peasant.

A hunting party led by the Duke of Courland and his daughter Bathilde (Albrecht's fiancee) arrives to rest at the modest abode of Giselle and her mother, Berthe. Hilarion, who has learned Albrecht's true identity, reveals it to Giselle. The betrayal is too much for her. After the crucial mad scene, she falls to the ground, dead.

True to Romantic tradition, the first act depicts the real world, albeit idealized, and then takes wing into the supernatural of the second act. Here the remorseful Albrecht comes to place flowers on Giselle's grave and to beg her forgiveness. This gloomy place is also the abode of the wilis, shades of betrothed maidens deserted by their fiances. Led by their queen, the imperious Myrtha, the vengeful wraiths try to lure Albrecht to dance himself to death. Rising from her tomb, Giselle is torn between leading him on and begging Myrtha for his life. The clock in the steeple strikes four in the morning, and Giselle sinks out of sight, as do the wilis. The exhausted Albrecht has survived the witching hour.

Preparations for the first Giselle flew into place. While Jean Coralli, the Opera's maitre de ballet, was entrusted with the corps sections, the variations for Giselle were created by Grisi's gifted mentor, Jules Perrot. The lilting score, with its distinctive leitmotivs, was entrusted to Adolphe Adam, who finished it in a matter of weeks. The lovers were Grisi and the handsome Lucien Petipa, brother of Marius, who eventually reshaped Giselle for the Maryinsky Ballet in St. Petersburg. It was Petipa's version, with its French technique and Russian soul, that Maryinsky regisseur Nicholas Sergeyev introduced to the Paris Opera for Spessivtseva's debut.

When Peterson and I were having our Sunday morning discussion, I was trying to come to grips with his structuring, particularly of the glorious second act. For me, it has always been an extended pas de deux, a remarkable one that is so intimately expressive and flows so smoothly through the action that it cannot be performed separately as a display piece. Perhaps that is why it has never looked dated or merely quaint. It also links the two acts by allowing the lovers to expand upon emotions hinted at in the first act.

The pas de deux has probably evolved with time. In Perrot's day, when unblocked pointe shoes limited the ballerina's speed and elevation, the mime surrounding the pas de deux played a stronger role. Peterson has returned to this concept.

In most contemporary versions of the ballet, the stern conflict between Myrtha, accompanied by her wills, and the lovers has been reduced to a few key moments, the most crucial being that of Myrtha waving her wand of myrtle to command Giselle and Albrecht to dance. The wand breaks prophetically during the gesture.

In Peterson's version every encounter between the two factions is carefully spelled out and has its own electricity. The stormy scene during which the wilis banish Hilarion to a watery grave has also been extended, as have some of Myrtha's solos. A notable contradiction is the Wilis' Fugue. I first saw this passage when London Festival Ballet brought Mary Skeaping's scholarly version of the ballet to these shores in 1978. With its sudden burst of giddy music and equally giddy choreography, I found it an intrusion then and still do.

Even small mime details have been carefully thought out by Peterson. When the church bell signals Albrecht's reprieve, the wilis react before he does. They turn their heads in angry unison. In other words, Peterson has endowed Giselle with a richness of detail that extends beyond the dancing. And he has himself laid the basis for further enrichment.

While setting the ballet, he had the invaluable assistance of the company's ballet master, Raymond Lukens, and of Maria Youskevitch, who has staged it for several companies, and whose father, Igor Youskevitch, was a memorable Albrecht. The sets by Gianni Quaranta and costumes by Anna Anni were borrowed from American Ballet Theatre. Since live music is not yet in Hartford's budget, tapes, with their usual limitations, were used.

To his credit, Peterson did not engage guest artists as the principals, even though his present crop of dancers varies in its ability to add texture to structure. In the May 4 evening performance Cheryl Madeux and Carlos Molina were paired. The following afternoon was allocated to Jeanette Hanley and Timothy Melady. Both combinations were uneven, with the women more adventuresome than the men.

The first act Peasant Pas de Deux, which was in the ballet at its outset, has, over the years, come and gone as through a revolving door. With its interpolated music by Friedrich Burgmuller, Peterson used it to challenge his dancers technically. Melissa Wishinski gave the music full response, while her partner, Allen Warner, was in over his head. Robert Butay added a welcome touch of playfulness, while Evelina Ricci coped with nerves.

Peterson restored the descriptive mime passage for Berthe. The role was entrusted to former Kirov ballerina Alla Osipenko, who is currently teaching at the company school. One way to recognize a truly fine mime is to watch her when she is not the center of the action. I kept my eyes on Osipenko while Giselle was dancing and was later succumbing to madness. It was like watching a clear lake beginning to reflect a gathering storm.

The role of Myrtha has also been fleshed out so that it is again the province of a ballerina rather than of a soloist. In Denise Leetch, Hartford does not yet have that ballerina, although Leetch is a commanding performer.

Finally, Peterson has also restored the original ending, in which Bathilde appears to lead her fiance back to reality. In most subsequent versions, he languishes, alone.

In my first encounter with Kirk Peterson's Giselle, I missed the pace and sweep of productions that downplay the mime. A second viewing made me realize that such momentum is a twentieth-century phenomenon. What Peterson offers us is a more leisurely and more detailed nineteenth-century sensibility, influenced by Lelia Haller and lovingly shaped in the spirit of Grisi, Zambelli, and Spessivtseva.

Doris Hering is a Dance Magazine senior editor.
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Author:Hering, Doris
Publication:Dance Magazine
Date:Apr 1, 1997
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