American Repertory Ballet
New Brunswick Performing Arts Center
New Brunswick, New Jersey
March 3, 2023
Giselle (company premiere)
In February, 2020, American Repertory Ballet presented a new version of Giselle, and even though it was an interim period in the company’s history, the results were astonishingly good. Faithful in all pertinent respects to traditional versions based on Marius Petipa’s modifications to the 1841 Jean Coralli and Jules Perrot original, but with a Cuban accent based on the group of dancers/ choreographers/ teachers who oversaw it, the result was quite remarkable.
Times and circumstances change, and with it come new ways of seeing a story that seemed to have been settled.
Ethan Stiefel, a former Principal Dancer with American Ballet Theatre, assumed the Artistic Director position at ARB in July 2021 following a period as Artistic Director of Royal New Zealand Ballet. Since then, in addition to contributing to repertory programs, he choreographed a new evening-length A Midsummer Night’s Dream last year, and now, at ARB’s recent four-performance run at New Brunswick Performing Arts Center, he’s unveiled a different version of Giselle, which he co-choreographed (after Petipa), with Johan Kobborg, former Principal Dancer with the Royal Danish Ballet and The Royal Ballet, and former Artistic Director of Ballet Opera National Bucharest. Originally created in 2012 for Royal New Zealand Ballet, the production has now been restaged for ARB’s venue and its dancers. I saw its opening night performance.
This version retains the original’s basic story line (which, assuming the reader’s familiarity with it, I won’t repeat here), but includes some major modifications along the way. Most of the changes that are easily recognizable to ballet audience veterans occur in Act I. However, the most dramatic and significant change is a comprehensive one that brackets the ballet and ends the story in a startlingly unexpected way.
I’ll address this new conception initially, then the balance of Act II, returning to Act I thereafter.
There’s a literary genre that specializes in “what if?” recreations of history (e.g., what if the South had won the Civil War). The same thing, although to a lesser extent, exists in many story ballets. For example, alternative endings to Swan Lake (Odette and Siegfried survive, and presumably live happily ever after) now are not uncommon. [The Mariinsky happy ending is well-known; the most recent such version I’ve seen was a magnificent one, danced by ABT’s Sarah Lane and Cory Stearns as guest artists with the Richmond Ballet in February, 2020.] And, although I haven’t seen any, I understand that happy endings exist for Romeo and Juliet as well.
As for Giselle, however, I’m aware of only one alternate ending (Mats Ek’s version, created for Sweden’s Cullberg Ballet in 1982), but that’s not so much an alternate ending as a revisionist concept of the basic story (Dada Masilo’s Giselle, which I saw here in 2018, is revisionist as well in its focus on revenge winning out in the end, but it’s more in line with the basic story).
Like the alternate versions of Swan Lake referenced above, this Stiefel/ Kobborg version simply changes the nature of the ending. It’s still not a happy ending; just a different one.
This production creates a character called “Old Albrecht” who appears in the Prologue and Epilogue. At the outset, he’s seen as a somewhat weathered man holding a treasured yellow flower close to his heart and looking sorrowful as he recalls events from the past. Fast forward to the final scene in Act II: After Albrecht (the original) is saved from death, Giselle (the spirit) gives him the yellow flower (presumably intended to be a daisy to restate the Act I “he loves me, he loves me not” motif) that he had placed on Giselle’s tombstone when he first arrived at her grave. Segue to the Epilogue, where we again see Old Albrecht cradling the same flower. Then a scrim rises, and the dim night-time stage lighting reveals a bit of the stage foreground, and the audience first sees Old Albrecht audience-left holding the flower, but now on his knees with his arms outstretched. A second later, the light reveals Old Albrecht, in this same position, being confronted audience stage-right by the same Wilis, led by the same Myrtha, who had tortured him before, apparently inviting them to kill him to atone for the misdeed that has haunted him and put an end to his anguish, and to enable him, in death, to be reunited with his true love.
I’ve spent so much time detailing this scene for a reason: it’s the best idea in this version. It’s not executed with complete success (the next time it comes around, the staging needs to be reworked a bit so it all moves more smoothly – and after the Prologue, Old Albrecht has to thoroughly clear the stage before Act I begins) and it changes nothing (Albrecht is still, at that point, a sympathetic character mourning the loss of his real love), but at the same time it changes everything.
The rest of Act II, even with choreographic modifications, is quite well-conceived, and for such a relatively newly re-formed and youthful company with limited, if any, experience with Romantic ballet, it’s better than one reasonably might have hoped. I liked in particular the way Hilarion’s death was handled. As for the corps work, it’s scaled down from what experienced ballet-goers might be used to. But the smaller stage made the amended choreography look impressive – and the twelve young ballerinas’ collective execution was impressive as well. They did a great job – as did Lily Krisko as Moyna and Clara Pevel as Zulma.
I’ll discuss this program’s highly commendable Giselle and Albrecht later. But the surprise success of the night was Savannah Quiner (one of New Jersey’s ballet-dancing Quiner Sisters) in her debut as Myrtha. Only an Apprentice, her bourrees and jumps appeared flawless (or any errors were so minor as not to be worthy of comment), and she infused her portrayal with unexpected power. There was some evidence of normal nervousness, but nothing that interfered with her performance. [Her sister Michelle, a member of the company, was to dance Myrtha at one of the other three performances.]
Act II’s success is attributable not only to the dancers who presented it, but to those members of the ARB staff who prepared them.
Overall, Act I lacked the polish of Act II, and some changes were made that, at best, will take some getting used to. Most of them reflect an apparent effort to streamline the ballet, but Giselle is already one of the tightest of ballets, with no “dead spots” and nothing that’s not there for some purpose. To jettison any of it is risky … but then, risk-taking goes with revision territory.
By far the most interesting of the Act I revisions relates to the Peasant Pas de Deux, a fixture of traditional Giselle productions. Here the music for the pas de deux is separated into its several different component variations. And instead of being danced as entertainment for the nobles’ hunting party that struts through the village, it’s now a wedding dance/ celebration that’s interrupted with solos by Hilarion and Albrecht (to Peasant Pas music) designed to impress Giselle – even though it’s clear that Giselle has already made up her mind.
The Peasant Pas is a welcome reference point in traditional Giselle productions. It briefly slows the rapid-fire plot development allowing the production and the audience to breathe, introduces a second set of featured dancers who have their moment to shine, and it provides a quick change of musical and visual pace. This revision accomplishes part of each of these qualities, but in the process, dilutes them. The contest between Hilarion and Albrecht ratchets things up a bit, but not enough to compensate for the loss of a sense of musical and choreographic unity. Nevertheless, it represents a valiant effort to, at a minimum, shake things up.
I don’t know which came first, the chicken or the egg, but with the Peasant Pas no longer their entertainment, that entire segment of the nobles’ hunting party visit is gone, and the amount of time that the nobles remain on stage after first arriving is considerably, and somewhat awkwardly, reduced. They come, and almost as quickly, they go.
Another change is the elimination of any reference to a “Grape Harvest” and Giselle being named “Harvest Queen.” Instead, the harvest festival is here transformed into part of the wedding celebration, with the wedding bride and groom being honored and carried onto the village square. [Wedding vows may have taken place at that time, but, if so, I missed it.]
A further consequence of, or cause for, the revision to the Peasant Pas is that here Giselle has no underlying heart condition. It’s not referenced in the Act I exchange between Giselle and her mother, and, since there’s now no reason for Giselle to decline to dance for the nobles, it’s not given as a cause for the Peasant Pas dancers to take charge of the entertainment. It’s just not there. Ultimately this, too, may be a good thing – since there’s no evidence of it, Giselle’s heart disease cannot now be considered a contributing factor to Giselle’s madness and ultimate death. [And, as an incidental benefit, column inches by commentators analyzing this issue are no longer pertinent.]
The re-conception of the Peasant Pas and associated changes might look better once kinks in the production are worked out and it all runs more smoothly. They’re worthy, albeit curious, alternatives to traditional versions, particularly since the Peasant Pas was a late addition to the piece’s original choreography and the score for it is not part of the Adolphe Adam original score (according to a footnoted Wikipedia reference), so in a sense the Stiefel/ Kobborg revision is an acceptable revision to what already is something of a revision.
There are other plot and/ or execution changes not directly related to the Peasant Pas that are promising as well (e.g., Act II opens with some peasants, dressed in black, standing and mourning at Giselle’s grave – a nice touch).
But there also are many changes that make no sense – at least to me. There are so many of them, each of which ultimately has no consequence of any sort (except, perhaps and only in some cases, to adjust to the size of the stage and the company), that I’ll only mention a few.
Here, the name that Albrecht is known by the peasant community has been changed from “Loys” in traditional versions to “Lenz.” I’m aware of no reason for this, particularly since it’s a program-only reference, except perhaps that “Lenz” sounds more Germanic than “Loys.”
And in traditional versions, Bathilde, having been charmed by Giselle’s beauty and personal qualities, bestows the necklace she’s wearing on the underprivileged village maiden. Thereafter, Giselle throws it to the stage floor when it’s revealed that Albrecht / Lenz is already betrothed to Bathilde. The necklace is a simple plot device that adds to the story’s impact each of the two moments when it becomes a temporary focal point, and takes seconds of time on each occasion. Deleting it makes no apparent sense.
And in standard versions, after finding Albrecht’s sword and horn and ergo his true identity as a nobleman, and then revealing this to a disbelieving Giselle, Hilarion summons the nobles’ hunting party back to the village using Albrecht’s horn. But here, Hilarion sounds the horn twice: a first time, and after that fails to achieve a result, a second time. The two summoning musical phrases, as well as the hunting party’s response to the second one, are built into the pre-recorded score, not consequences of any “mistake” or lack of familiarity with horn-blowing by Hillarion the first time. But why bother?
Beyond these, there are choreographic and music changes in Act I that are far too numerous to individually identify (although the Act I absence of musical and choreographic foreshadowing of Act II is extremely unfortunate). And there have been characterization changes that appear either unnecessary (e.g., Wilfred, Albrecht’s aide, is here a co-conspirator – or at least willfully abets – Albrecht’s duplicity), or, with respect to Albrecht’s very obvious initial intention to deceive, that conflicts with the deep personal sense of anguish and loss that this production, via the Prologue and Epilogue, intends to convey. [I’ll grant, however, that another way to look at Albrecht’s obvious intentional deception is that it enhances, by contrast, the impact of his subsequently tortured soul.]
All in all, the many Act I changes may eventually gel and become less strange-looking; indeed staging kinks may have already been worked out in subsequent performances during this run. And the many viewers (including at this performance a plethora of young dancers who may be enrolled in the company’s affiliated Princeton Ballet School) unfamiliar with the traditional Giselle may not sense, or care, about any of these changes.
Although not at the level of execution that is apparent in dancers with larger ballet companies and more substantial funding, no such level is, yet, pretended here. Notwithstanding that observation, Ryoko Tanaka and Aldeir Monteiro, the evening’s Giselle and Albrecht, reprised their stellar performances in the same roles in ARB’s 2020 presentation. Tanaka appropriately sparkled in Act I, danced commendably (including those iconic diagonal hops en pointe), and was thoroughly credible as a victim of Albrecht’s deceit. And I thought I saw real tears in the course of her mad scene. Her Act II was especially sublime, presenting a capable and empathetic spirit in every respect, with softly rounded Romantic “spirit” arms that would rival the finest anywhere. Monteiro’s performance showed even more depth and credibility than it did in 2020, and, with Albrecht’s new “Peasant Pas” solo, he had significantly more dancing to do and delivered it in superior fashion.
Leandro Olcese, a tall and lanky company Apprentice, demonstrated his already substantial technical prowess as Hilarion, and his characterization, particularly in Act II, excelled as well. Erikka Reenstierna-Cates’s Lady Bathilde was delivered with a rare and top-level combination of grace and, at the appropriate time, righteous indignation; and Lord Courland, portrayed by company Rehearsal Director Ian Hussey, added a welcome touch of class. The Wedding Couple, danced by Krisko and Seth Koffler (both Apprentices), was admirably presented, and Anthony Pototsky’s Wilfred (Pototsky is a member of ARB 2) was a loyal friend and aide to his Albrecht. Madison Elizabeth Egyud was an appropriately concerned mother, and as Old Albrecht, Andrea Marini (who alternated with Monteiro as Albrecht in two of the four performances), clearly communicated his character’s pained remorse and continuing love for Giselle. And the ARB dancers generally executed their Act I roles well (I already recognized their high level of accomplishment in Act II), both with respect to characterization and execution.
It will be interesting to see how the changes made in this production continue to evolve over time. When it returns, and despite some of the concerns referenced above, it will be well worth seeing.