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Back to Section One | Back to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, June 10, 2011 - Volume 39 Issue 23
International press praises PNB's Giselle
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International press praises PNB's Giselle

by Milton W. Hamlin - SGN A&E Writer

This incredible recreation- a restaging of Giselle, one of the oldest ballets still in performance - has brought national and international attention to Seattle's Pacific Northwest Ballet. Two major New York newspapers sent reviewers, national press coverage was expected to be 'record shattering' and European publications had reviewers scheduled for the opening weekend of the historic event. PNB's Giselle continues with performances through Sunday afternoon - for ballet fans of all description, it is truly the 'must-see' dance event of the year in the Emerald City.

PNB has spent the past 15 months readying the restaging of the world-famous Giselle. Before the current love of the undead - either in teen novels, Hollywood films, or television series - tales of tormented, eternal lives fascinated the Victorians. For Americans, Edgar Allan Poe thrilled readers with his short stories and poetry. For Europeans, Dracula and Frankenstein topped the best-seller lists. Premature burial was such a horrible fate that many Victorian graves had signal systems above ground to announce the sudden 'recovery' of the presumed dead. Into this era, Giselle was born. PNB is using a clever and timely tag line to help sell tickets: 'Before the Black Swan, there was Giselle.'

Giselle premiered in Paris in 1841 to great success. When it was staged in St. Petersburg in 1842, a carefully annotated journal was prepared in France to assist with the Russian premiere. Another historic document was prepared in the 1860s in Paris. Long feared lost, it recently surfaced in a private collection in Germany and has been published. Another important source was a Russian manuscript, using the Stepanov notation system, made in St. Petersburg, circa 1899-1903. While this turn-of-the-century document recorded Marius Petipa's Russian edition of the then-historic work, ballet tradition always incorporated earlier choreography, especially for the principal dancers in their key moments. Solos and other important moments were passed down from one prima ballerina to another. As dancers grew older, many became instructors to newer dancers. In French and Russian ballet companies of the era, it was not uncommon for a dancer who had created a particular role to teach into her 80s and instruct in exacting detail - hand positions, leg extensions, etc. - to young dancers in the company six decades later.

The story is typically gothic soap opera - the kind of tale Victorians loved. Giselle is a beautiful young lass 'in a small German village.' Giselle is secretly loved by the local gamekeeper, but she is attracted to another - a local peasant boy who is really a duke in disguise. Giselle lives to dance and has to be reminded that it is time to harvest the grapes. Her loving mother reminds her that she could (foreshadowing at its best) dance herself to death. The older woman tells the famous folk tale of the Wilis: ghosts of young women who died before their weddings. These living dead arise each night to kill any men who wander by - revenge can obviously last beyond a lifetime.

The village girls are terrified by the tale. Giselle laughs off the legend. When the loving gamekeeper reveals his rival to be a dastardly duke, Giselle realizes that she has been betrayed. Devastated, she goes mad. And then she dies.

Act Two finds the gamekeeper in despair at Giselle's tomb. He dismisses his friends, warning them that the undead Wilis will gather at night and destroy any men who wander by. They might lure the men into drowning, or force them to dance themselves to death as revenge for unrequited love. The queen of the Wilis appears to lead the undead maidens in a rapturous dance of death and to welcome a new spirit. The duke, realizing what he has lost, appears. The spirits destroy one of the men, while Giselle saves the other and guides him to a new love as the curtain falls. She then returns to her tomb.

It's easy to see why this ghost tale has remained popular for 170 years. The stunning entrance of the Wilis in Act Two - a seemingly endless diagonal formation - is a world-famous image of ballet in general. When it works (and it usually does), Giselle is a breathtaking combination of dance, music, and set, lighting, and costume design. The PNB version of the various historic choreographic moments blends well with newly constructed dance moments. The sets and costumes, from Houston Ballet, are fine. The music - one of the most famous original scores in ballet history - is beautifully performed by the PNB Orchestra under the baton of Emil de Cou, PNB's new music director.

As usual, PNB dancers are first-rate in every detail. On opening night, Carla Korbes was incredible as the young, spirited Giselle. Batkhurel Bold was a terrific gamekeeper, and Karel Cruz was memorable as the duke in disguise. Carrie Imler was the queen of the Wilis - a major role in Act Two. Strong support came from the other key characters and from the whole company.

Giselle is truly a milestone moment for PNB. Future revivals will undoubtedly find some polishing. The entrance of the Wilis, as noted earlier, is one of the most famous in all ballet. In this version, the veils of the undead brides are wired and fly off at the end of their famous entrance. This unexpected moment caused a brief moment of unsuitable laughter on opening night. Giselle's falling shroud likewise whipped into the air, causing another giggle. These momentary distractions would be wisely reconsidered for future stagings.

Giselle continues with matinees and evening performances through Sunday's matinee. Ticket information is available at (206) 441-2424. Sunday evening brings PNB's annual 'Season Encore Performance,' celebrating the past season and honoring the departing members of the company. Ticket information and details are available at the same number.

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