Is An Old Romantic Ballet Like “Giselle” Too Dated To Take Seriously Today?

Giselle with Natalia Osipova, photo by Brescia e Amisano, Teatro alla Scala

Matthew Paluch is left cold by a recent Giselle and asks if the work is the problem or the communication of it.

English National Ballet finished their Christmas season at the London Coliseum with 10 days of performances of the much-lauded Mary Skeaping (1971) version of Giselle.

The production is highly regarded by the majority of the industry, dance historians and critics alike. In my youth as a member of ENB I danced in the production and remember it as an enjoyable and vivid experience.

I was only able to… well, actually that’s not true: I chose to see just one performance as I didn’t want to overload, and also had interest in the specific cast in question. The house was full, which is something that always makes me happy, and things were running kind of smoothly until two, undeniable moments in Act 2.

Without stating the obvious, the second act of Giselle is meant to transport the audience to a place of otherworldly, escapist Romanticism, with a heavy dose of Gothic flavour. However, certain members of the London, 2024 audience audibly laughed when: Giselle’s spirit veil is magically whipped off by Myrtha (Queen of the Wilis) from a distance, and when the protagonist floats (as in carried by a company member in a black gimp suit) across the back of the stage behind the woodland festooned gauze. Spoiler alert: Myrtha, no matter how convincingly performed, doesn’t have actual supernatural powers, nor can Giselle fly.

These are of course elements of the work that require the observer to relinquish reality, and engage with the mysticism of the overall experience, but out loud laughter suggests this isn’t happening. Why?

I adore ballet, but also admit I probably don’t feel the need to watch four acts of The Sleeping Beauty or Swan Lake regularly. And if I do, it’s down to the right production being performed by the right prima ballerina.

The cast I saw didn’t do poor work, in fact for many it would be considered a very high level of accomplishment, which it was, but I don’t think I found myself transported at any point during the performance – it all came across as predictable and too safe.

When Natalia Osipova dances Giselle many traditionalists can’t cope, as they feel what she’s doing is too far removed from the original score. We must admit that Osipova can sometimes present herself, more than the role she’s embodying, but her Giselle is in a different league. Her Act 1 suggests a young person who verges on the unhinged in relation to emotional understanding and human interaction, and Act 2… well for me, it’s like seeing a new ballet. She’s truly possessed within the character and the associated movement – palpable grief, frenzied concern etc.

When dealing with existing classics one needs to respect the work itself, but if individualism isn’t part of the overall equation, things are going to read flat, and one-dimensionality all too easily translates into faux when dealing with 19th-century narrative ballets.

I’m aware of modern interpretations but want to focus on why the ‘original’ work is perhaps struggling to be perceived how it wants to be, rather than the ‘oh it’s not working so let’s drop it’ approach.

Did anyone else feel like they were in Camelot during Act 1? I understand it’s a period, stylised work, but surely there’s a happier medium.

In the cast I saw, Giselle offered a beautiful solo. It felt ‘in the moment’, and that her love of dance was the exclusive inspiration. But Giselle is fundamentally a love story, so if the lead couple doesn’t have the necessary sense of connection, where are we meant to go as invested audience members?

I also have concerns over Albrecht. Currently the image of the role seems more recognised than the potential depth of the character. Yes, he’s a bit of a fool, but someone in his position, acting the way he does, suggests serious internal trauma. Nowadays it feels like many who are a cast are just waiting for the velvet cape, white-lilies-photo-from-the-wings Instagrammable moment. More plastique than character excavation.

Mime is also a huge part of 19th-century works, and a lot of it feels like it’s gone down the overstylised route. Experienced work doesn’t need to feel formulaically skilled, in fact it shouldn’t – it needs naturalism seeping from its pores.

This would seriously help with the current disassociation evidently felt in the auditorium. If the characters were more believable, we’d believe them. Often the mime passages are too literally musical. Obviously don’t miss the ‘boom of death’, but if possible, aim for a more conversational execution rather than every gesture on a beat. It comes over as being too obvious and staged.

Elsewhere we find other predictable moments from all areas of the theatre. The Wilis perform the infamous hops across the stage en masse, and unless you’re a regular Giselle-r you wouldn’t know when this happens or what it means in the wider context of a technical feat. When first performed, this would have been groundbreaking in many ways, and still offers a demonstration of physical power and corps de ballet spacing skill. But at the performance I attended, a dedicated balletomane was waiting patiently and after, say, 3-4 hops, started clapping in admiration. I suppose why not… but also, maybe we should let the work do the talking rather than engaging in performative demonstrations.

So, what’s the bigger issue…

As someone who doesn’t need convincing of the value of ballet I wasn’t convinced during or after my one performance of Giselle this season. And I’m left asking – is the work the problem or the communication of it?

I don’t remember people laughing before, or elsewhere, so perhaps it’s these specific Skeaping moments that need addressing, though many propose it’s the most authentic version currently available in relation to the hallowed, original work (1841).

Or have 2024 audiences become too removed from being able to engage with this kind of historical work seriously? Has it all become too trivial? I fear it also has something to do with the medium – contemplating present-day artists performing period works with all the associated aesthetics and sensibilities. Tricky stuff.

On reflection, what’s truly scary is the fact that those laughing in the audience are the ones who actually bothered to buy a ticket and rock up to the theatre, yet they’re still ridiculing what they’re supposedly invested in. Will people have the same reaction to Balanchine’s Apollo in 2111? Or will the (timeless?) modernism save its position of respect?

Moving forward, I encourage everyone to keep analysing where the story is being told in a narrative ballet. Be less concerned with quaffed hair and that final pirouette, and more invested in how you enter and exit the stage with intention; keep questioning whether the stylised port de bras is coming from an internal instigation; and if all involved explore their dramatic capabilities as an artist, rather than approaching the whole event as a number of competition solos with some bits in between.

The bits are the ballet.

Giselle, we have a problem.

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