Restaging “Giselle,” a revealing, exciting adventure

A page from the choreographic notation of the ballet Giselle in the Stepanov notation system. Courtesy Harvard Theatre Collection.

By Philippa Kiraly

For the past year, Pacific Northwest Ballet’s artistic director, Peter Boal, dance historian Marian Smith, and Boal’s assistant and choreographic decipherer Doug Fullington, have been working on a restaging of the romantic ballet “Giselle” which goes back to the original score of composer Adolph Adam, original and extensive 1842 rehearsal notes, a detailed choreographic notation from 1860 and the Stepanov choreographic notation of 1899-1903.

“It’s a bit like cleaning the Sistine Chapel ceiling,” says Fullington, commenting that the ceiling was beautiful as was, but cleaning brought into the light bright colors and many areas not particularly noticeable before. “The ballet is more dense, secondary characters are fleshed out. Some of the work that has been simplified over time, we find is more complex.”

“Giselle,” a famous story ballet which has remained in the repertoire and performed all over the ballet world since its premiere in Paris in 1841, took a long time to establish itself in the U.S.

“It didn’t really fit into the neoclassical style of companies like New York City Ballet,” explains Fullington, because its dramatic story with mime was as important as the dance, where Balanchine was working on more abstract ideas. Until now “Giselle” has never been performed by PNB.

This restaging, however, is garnering interest around the ballet world. Dance magazines from Italy and England are writing articles, the New York papers are sending critics, the Dance Critics Association is holding its annual conference in connection with the production, and there are sure to be more.
The story has love, betrayal, death, the supernatural and vengeance, but with an echo of love as the final conqueror. What more could we want?

Giselle is a peasant girl who loves to dance but dies of a broken heart after her fiance Albrecht is revealed (by a jealous suitor) to be a nobleman in disguise. In death, she joins the Wilis, supernatural maidens who died before the wedding day and are doomed to take revenge on men for eternity. Any hapless men who come near them at night are compelled to dance to exhaustion and death, but Giselle manages to save Albrecht despite the machinations of the Wili Queen.

This is merely the bare bones of the story, which has much more detail. The libretto, written by Theophile Gautier and Jules-Henri Vernoy de Saint-Georges was the start. Adolph Adam wrote the music in the theater as the ballet was being choreographed by Jules Perrot and Jean Coralli, and the whole was put together in just a couple of months in 1841 to take advantage of the great popularity of ballerina Carlotta Grisi. It premiered at the Ballet du Theatre de l’Academie Royale de Musique in Paris. Grisi’s Albrecht was Lucien Petipa, whose brother Marius was one of those instrumental in keeping this ballet alive for the next sixty-plus years and whose restagings for the St. Petersburg Ballet are part and parcel of the restaging we will see here in June.

It’s our good fortune that St. Petersburg, which wanted this ballet immediately, sent a ballet master to Paris in 1842 to annotate the score making extensive notes on the production, and it is these directions and Adam’s score which have been the starting point for this restaging.

“We are using the score as our script,” says Fullington. “Most 19th century ballet scores were not published, maybe a piano reduction was made and sent with the ballet, for instance to St. Petersburg, and then someone there would orchestrate it. It’s so nice to have the original score from the Biblioteque Nationale de France. It’s so light and flavorful, where Russian orchestrations are much heavier.” It was another stroke of luck that a British cellist, Lars Payne, had been editing the Paris score, and completed it in time for PNB to use it.

About ten years ago, Fullington met Marian Smith, a dance historian who has made comprehensive studies of 19th century ballet opera and pantomime in France and how they were intertwined, using “Giselle” as a major example.

She has been on board with PNB to work on this restaging since last fall. During that early period in France, there were many mime moves which meant very specific things, so a ballet using those mimed movements could tell a story quite completely. We are familiar with some of them, for instance the pointing to a ring finger as a sign for marrying. The fount of gestures used in “Giselle” have been drawn by former PNB dancer Uko Gorter and will be in the program guide, though the meanings of many will be clear from the attitude or stance of the performer.

Smith has been helped by the recent resurfacing of another comprehensive notation of “Giselle,” made in Paris by ballet master Henri Justament in 1860, and published in 2008.

Lastly, there is the full choreographic notation of the ballet which was made in St. Petersburg between 1899 and 1903, devised by a Russian called Vladimir Ivanovitch Stepanov. It was only used for a couple of decades, but, again by serendipitous chance, Fullington got interested in this in college, and gradually taught himself how to read it. “It was just lucky that UW had a ttranslated copy of “Two Essays on Stepanov Dance Notation,” by Alexander Gorsky, from 1899, because I didn’t have a dance background,” he says.

When Boal decided to schedule “Giselle” for this season, it would have been easier to go with some other company’s production. Fullington had been hoping to collaborate with Smith for some time, and suggested this exacting restaging as an alternative. “Generously, Peter agreed to go this route,” he says. “This garners much more attention, but it’s also more risky. We feel accountable to do a good job and to explain what we’ve done, and we will be giving talks on that.”

Over the past eight month, in bursts of condensed work, Boal, Smith and Fullington have together with a few dancers in the studio been gradually building the restaging of the ballet. “Marian starts with a road map, I mark a score along with her. Pantomime is either prepared by her or Peter, plus checks on historical sources.”

One question is how to merge the changes in ballet over the past 170 years while still remaining true to the original. Dancers today are more flexible, even bodies are different. Full leg extension was considered in poor taste by Victorian sensibilities, turn out was far less. It’s not PNB’s design to present what would seem quaint, even tame dancing to our eyes, but to bring us the original with the upgraded technique of today. “We want our dancers to look natural to our audience,” says Fullington, “ “Giselle” has a continuous performance tradition with lots of documentation. In 19th century ballet, you’ll include some original choreography and some changes. Some companies do almost everything new. There are some traditional bits that are always unchanged. Anything ‘new’ that we are adding is actually old, parts that have been lost but we think are worth putting back.”

Rehearsals are now coming into full swing for the whole company.

There is much information on the PNB website about this production (pnb.org). The eight performances themselves run from June 3 until June 12.

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