Estonia Opera House

5th April 2024

Stuart Sweeney


The romantic ballet Giselle has always been a favourite of mine with its strong narrative, emotional depth and much beautiful dance. Michael Pink and Christopher Gable, decided on a new approach in their mid-1990’s adaptation, changing the setting to a war time ghetto. However, they keep the score by Adolphe Adam and much of the original choreography by Jean Coralli and Jules Perrot, with later additions by Marius Petipa and others.  Pink revived the work for his Milwaukee Ballet and now here in Estonia. He deserves credit for including in the programme Gable’s short essay on the development of their Giselle, alongside giving full credit to his deceased co-creator.

Compared with the calm, rural opening of the classic version, this Giselle opens with a bang. Hilarion, Jevgeni Grib, has been outside the ghetto at night to collect flowers for Giselle. As he returns across the wall, he is caught in searchlights and guards run on, opening fire as he hides. The ghetto wakes up and the people go about their business, including newly displaced people from out of town carrying suitcases. Albrecht, played by William Newton, an officer in the occupation force, walks on and the crowd scatters. He changes to civilian clothes, hiding his uniform in a sack so he can pretend to be one of the newcomers. Then, we return to a variation of the traditional story of Albrecht courting Giselle to the anger of Hilarion.

Laura Maya in Michael Pink’s Giselle
Photo: Rünno Lahesoo

From her opening solo, Laura Maya is enchanting as the ingenuous Giselle, intrigued but initially modestly reluctant to engage with Albrecht. However, his present of a beautiful necklace wins her over. Hilarion returns and is shocked by the budding romance and a fight ensues, broken up by the return of the residents. In an enjoyable break from tradition, the townsfolk dance and sing to live music on-stage and Pink’s ensemble choreography displays interesting patterns.

The mood changes as soldiers enter and Hilarion hides. The residents are lined up and papers inspected. Bathilde is now the Commandant’s sister and is visiting the ghetto to pick up valuable items on the cheap. Giselle’s embroidery interests her and persuades Giselle to dance. Her solo takes on a new atmosphere, as Maya convincingly displays anxiety while performing the classical steps. At the end, when Bathilde haughtily exits after throwing down a few coins, Giselle needs to sit as her heart has been stressed.

With the soldiers gone, the residents again enjoy dancing, with a rickety old piano brought on. A series of attractive duets, trios and group dances display the spirit of the people, despite their harsh conditions.  But then three children march up and down wearing Albrecht’s military garb taken from the sack. Hilarion confronts Albrecht and then discovers his gun. In a tussle, a shot is fired, and the soldiers return.

The Commandant greets Albrecht warmly and Bathilde kisses him lovingly. Giselle is devastated and after fully realising Albrecht’s falsehood rushes to and fro. The drama is increased as the Commander grasps Albrecht’s betrayal of his sister and fiercely slaps and kicks him as Bathilde throws down the engagement ring, and they abandon him. Maya is exceptionally expressive in Giselle’s tragic final moments.  Vitali Nikolajev is excellent as the brutal Commander, finally commanding his troop to kill the residents. Much as I admire the traditional Act I of Giselle, the additional factors of the oppressed ghetto setting, Albrecht’s multiple losses, alongside the final tragedy of Giselle and the residents, generate a greater dramatic resonance in Pink’s version compared to the original.

The opening of Act II marks a sharp break with the original – no Myrtha and no Wilis. We see Albrecht sitting alone in despair as he remembers the community herded by the soldiers and forced to give up all their possessions. Stripped to long, white undergarments, in a blaze of light they are shot.  Under subdued lighting, and subtle side scenery changes, we are transported to a graveyard where the victims arise in their new existence between life and death.

Dancers of Estonian National Ballet in Michael Pink’s Giselle
Photo: Rünno Lahesoo

In awkward steps, sometimes clutching the backs of their necks, they painfully adjust to their new existence. Anna Roberta as Giselle’s Mother and Grib as Hilarion are the central figures in new choreography, mixing contemporary and balletic movement, full of anguish at their untimely fate with heads rolling to the side. While their movements eventually become more controlled and co-ordinated their despair at their inhumane treatment only increases.

They gather next to a funeral stone clapping their hands above their heads and Giselle is summoned, rising above them. Then we return to classical steps and Giselle’s solo, beautifully danced by Maya. I particularly enjoyed her pirouettes and grand jetés both in attitude. A distraught Albrecht, enters the empty stage, with a gun, perhaps to kill himself. He senses Giselle and seeks her, eventually making contact and lifting her powerfully over his head.

William Newton and Laura Maya in Michael Pink’s Giselle
Photo: Rünno Lahesoo

The townsfolk return, desperate for revenge against Albrecht, and we are back to contemporary dance. They attack him and eventually crawl across the stage like a pack of animals, until Giselle intervenes. In delicate, slow movement, she begs Hilarion and her Mother to forgive him. As Albrecht, Newton’s partnering is exemplary throughout, providing a firm base for Myer’s ethereal steps.

When Giselle leaves, the townsfolk attack again. But four o’clock strikes, and first light means the townsfolk must depart, and after a final farewell and embrace, Giselle returns to her grave. At the end, Albrecht is alone on the stage, he raises the gun towards his head, but the curtains close, leaving an unanswered question.

Productions of Giselle have had a range of endings. The most common is for Albrecht to be saddened but revitalised by the forgiveness of Giselle. The original, in accord with the class realities of the time saw Albrecht leave with Bathilde to resume their relationship. In Johan Kobborg’s recent version, after a period, Albrecht returns to the grave and is finally killed by the Wilis.

So, what of Pink’s version? It is understandable that Albrecht will kill himself. He has lost Giselle, Bathilde, his fiancé, his career and has been the cause of many deaths. He has nothing to live for. An unexpectedly dark ending, but one in keeping with the sombre nature of this production.

A special mention for designer Reili Evart, who created atmospheric sets, leaving plenty of space for the dancers. In Act II, there is a subtle shift from the town to the graveyard, with side elements of the set rotating, which I missed on a first viewing. These effects are enhanced by Rasmus Rembel’s skilful lighting.

Throughout, all the dancers show commitment to this innovative production, demanding greater acting ability than usual. Michael Pink’s adaptation merits its place in the Estonian repertoire, alongside the traditional version.