A Tale of Two Giselles

Two companies reinterpret the classic ballet for the contemporary stage – from very different angles

On The Town | Alec Kinnear | October 2011

Audiences love Giselle. Even after 150 years, the legendary ballet is, along with Swan Lake, one of the two obligatory repertoire pieces for every classical ballet company and ballerinas judge themselves on their performance in the title role. With La Sylphide, Giselle is also one of the world’s greatest romantic ballets. But it endures not because of Adolphe Adam’s somewhat saccharine score nor the usually drab peasant garb of the first act. Giselle reaches deep into our psyche like the great Greek tragedies. It deals not in anecdote, but in human archetypes that we instinctively recognize.

Giselle, quite literally, dies from love. Unlike Juliette and Romeo’s callow suicides, Giselle perishes from a broken heart. When it’s revealed that the man to whom she has given her heart is betrothed to a princess and is certain to leave her, Giselle expires on the stage after an emotionally wrenching dance of madness.

Two contemporary choreographers fell under the Giselle magic last year and reinterpreted it for the contemporary stage. One was Nikolaus Adler, one of the bright lights of the Vienna choreographic scene, who adapted the piece and the flexible Odeon in the 2nd District for an edgy, driving production last November. Adler’s sequel to Giselle is retitled to Jennifer: A more contemporary name, his subtitle "faster, louder, harder".

The second was Martin Dvořák, a Czech dancer who worked with Jochen Ulrich in Innsbruck and Linz for a decade. He takes a very different approach to reworking Giselle, subtitling it "Revenge because love is eternal."

For the sake of propriety, stage princes only flirt with Giselle, but from her death, it’s pretty clear that the prince has taken more than her heart. And while dying for lost virginity seems a remote prospect in 2011, the idea of dying for love remains part of nearly everyone’s experience.

Giselle offers one more proof of her sincere heart: forgiveness. In the second act the mourning prince is attacked by the Willis, merciless spurned wraith-maidens who dance men to death. Giselle returns from the dead herself to save him from her sisters, protecting him until dawn breaks, when she disappears again.

The prince does not get off quite scot-free. For the rest of his existence, he will know that he betrayed and killed the one being who loved him unconditionally. Schadenfreude for women. For all who gave their first love and received disdain, Giselle is the ultimate revenge story.

But this is not only a woman’s story; men thrill vicariously at the prince’s power to seduce and then kill a girl with just a few tender conversations. Men delight at seeing Giselle save the prince in the end, that their seductive power and true merit can bring a woman back from the grave to save their contemptible backsides.

How do Adler and Dvořák update Giselle’s 18th century story in the modern world?

Jennifer: Faster, Louder, Harder

Tanztheater Homunculus discovered Nikolaus Adler early, offering him the chance to create original evening-length dance works. Every piece Adler touches seems to turn to ironic gold, and he’s not afraid to reinterpret major works, like his Oedipus is Complex two years ago.

For Jennifer, Adler again pulled together an all-star cast of contemporary Austrian dance, including Elio Gervasi’s former muse Esther Koller and itinerant star Anna Hein and former Staatsoper dancer and choreographic wunderkind Dan Datcu. Taking full advantage of the enormous space of Odeon, Adler built a strip bar on the right, a talk show living room in the centre, and a huge dance space on the left.

Adler reconstructs Giselle as the story of five different women who become the Willis. Kenia Bernal Gonzalez leaps on top of her victim Kun-Chen Shih and strangles him to death. His crime? Ogling her. Celia Hickey turns the tables on serial killer Dan Datcu, and the Willis rip him limb from limb. After her lover abandons her, a pregnant Mia Larsson gets help from Kenia Bernal Gonzalez to smother Martin Dvořák with a pillow. Finally Anna Hein as Giselle is forced into sex by the man she loves.

In an Adler-esque ironic twist, ten-year-old Jasmin Eder holds hands with Simon Mayer at the end and winks diabolically at the audience. Adler’s Mirta never dies but is ever reincarnated.

Giselle, because love is eternal

For Dvořák, seeing Sonia Zejdova Hanzlovska dance the title role in Brno twenty years ago was a seminal moment in his artistic development. Since then he dreamed of making the ballet more contemporary.

Dvořák updated Giselle to the contemporary club scene, coke and alcohol fueled circles you could find anywhere in Paris, New York, Moscow – or Vienna. Dvořák sees Bathilde, fiancé and princess, as a "reckless hedonist". When Giselle discovers the Prince’s infidelity, it kills her. In the party scene in which she hangs out, Giselle snuffs herself out in a cloud of alcohol and pills.

Hard electronic club music plays as Dvořák let double love triangles of Bathilde-Prince-Giselle and Hilarion-Giselle-Prince play out. It’s a kind of soft-core modern version of Giselle. Hilarion and Prince dance an extended no holds barred fight over Giselle. Dvořák himself very capably takes the role of the Prince.

Fine design elements like the glass table/coffin through which the whole brigade mourns the dearly departed Giselle allow Dvořák’s minimalist aesthetic of necessity to work well.

But have we really fallen so far that the romantic tale of a girl who loses her heart must become a sordid ménage à quatre? Probably even from 1841, this has been the situation in decadent art circles, but Giselle was always a story for wide audiences, never narrow circles.

Dvořák benefits from an extraordinary Mirta in Austrian dancer Irene Bauer, who has headlined Jochen Ulrich’s ballets of the last ten years. An accomplished dancer and powerful performer, Bauer’s intensity breathed life into act two. Attired in black gauze and stockings, Mirta seduces first Giselle and then the Prince. Prince wakes up lying on the floor as Berthilde watches him. As dawn rises, the Prince remains tied up in his own lingerie after a hard night between Mirta and Giselle. Kinky.

For all its modern charm, Dvořák’s Giselle: Revenge because Love is Eternal makes the Giselle myth a banal story of swingers. It’s not easy to reconcile 18th century values with contemporary ones.

Yet both Adler’s and Dvořák’s reworking of Giselle remind us that love still brings unwanted pregnancies and betrayal. In both instances, women’s contemporary power to forgive seems weaker. Dvořák’s Giselle is unlikely to ever forgive him his dissolute lifestyle. Adler’s Jennifer reveals to us just how inured to violence we’ve become, when ten murders are all in a night’s entertainment. Adler’s warning to men echoes louder: Watch with whom you sleep if you don’t want to inadvertently end up in a slasher flick.

Not bad advice for the twenty-tens.


Tickets: In Bratislava’s SND you can see Giselle Nov. 24, Feb. 8, May 3 & Jun. 29, 2012.

Or treat yourself to a weekend in Budapest and the Hungarian State Opera’s version on Oct. 2, 5, 8, 11, 2011. There’s also a single performance of Giselle this season in Brno on Jun. 4, 2012.

Giselle isn’t in repertory at the Staatsoper this season, but the "sister" ballet La Sylphide will be danced on Oct. 26, 29, Nov. 5, 7, 12. and Jan. 15, 23, 29, 2012.

Nicolas Adler: tanztheater-homunculus.at

Martin Dvořák: proart-festival.cz

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