Haunting Parisians: Paris Opera Ballet’s “Giselle”

As if I needed another reason to daydream about moving to Paris, the Paris Opera Ballet recently performed as part of the Lincoln Center Festival, their first New York appearance in sixteen years. I saw “Giselle” on Wednesday night, with a cast led by étoiles Dorothée Gilbert and Josua Hoffalt, and was enchanted by the entire company.

Dorothee Gilbert as Giselle
Photo credit: M. Lidvac

The scenery for the first act (designed by Alexandre Benois of the Ballets Russes) looked like cut-outs from a richly-illustrated storybook. The action begins with the entrance of the grape-pickers, and later Giselle’s friends, clad in yellow, pink and tan peasant costumes. The strength of the corps de ballet was immediately evident, as they danced the quick “peasant” choreography with ease and grace. Across the ranks of the company, I was enthralled by the women’s feet: beautiful arches and remarkable articulation in each step and jump.

In some productions, Hilarion is played as the meek boy-next-door passed over for Albrecht, but Yann Saiz was quite the opposite: brash, passionate, and indignant that Giselle was not interested in him. The peasant pas de deux was danced nobly by Héloïse Bourdon and Axel Ibot—both young and very full of promise.

Gilbert was technically stunning without being overtly showy. Her exquisite dancing added to, rather than distracted from, her portrayal of Giselle as a radiant, fun-loving young woman. Albrecht, danced by Hoffalt, does not have much dancing in the first act, but what we did see—long, elegant lines and jumps in which his legs beat with exquisite clarity—left me eager for his second act solos.

As Giselle begins to realize that her supposed lover is in fact, nobility, and engaged to one of his own class, there are two instances which might be called “freeze frames.” As everyone on the stage remains frozen in their place, Giselle breaks off, conveying to us the progression of her “madness.” These scenes make it clear that her consciousness is no longer operating on the same level as those around her. Time is slowing down for her, and she is having difficulty perceiving herself as part of world as others see it.

After Giselle collapses into Albrecht’s arms at the close of the mad scene, he attempts to blame her death on Hilarion and his insistence on revealing his identity. Hilarion and Giselle’s mother however, intimate that he is clearly the one responsible, a realization he contemplates for the first time as he looks around at a sea of unsympathetic faces.

The second act opens with a group of gamblers in the forest trying to tempt the mourning Hilarion, soon scared away by the entrance of a few threatening wilis. No mere white wisps bouréeing across the stage, these wilis were actually frightening, and you could believe these men would actually have felt impelled to run away. As they forcefully announce their presence, furiously echoing the pantomimed motion for dancing from the first act (in which hands held above the head circle each other), it is clear that these are spirits to contend with.

Every review I’ve read of the production has gushed about the corps de ballet of wilis in the second act, and with good reason. Their shared training at the Paris Opera Ballet School shines through in their perfect synchronicity and symmetry—each arabesque is the same height and shape as the one behind it. In this ballet, where the corps de ballet is at once ethereal and terrifying, their uniformity has a particularly strong effect—as when they reject Hilarion’s plea for his life with 24 outstretched palms and turned heads.

All of the women, from Gilbert through the corps, evoked the image of the Romantic ballerina to perfection: the slope of the shoulders, the forward lilt of the torso, and the demure position of the head.

Laura Hecquet as Myrtha was appropriately severe, although her large jumping passages were not as intimidating as they might have been. When I teach bourées to my young dancers, I say that if someone was looking only at your upper body, you should look like you are floating across the floor: Hecquet pulled this effect off enchantingly.

The “Two Wilis,” Ammandine Albisson and Sarah Kora Dayanova, were excellent, and the dancer in the second variation (the program did not identify Moyna and Zulma specifically) made a particularly strong impression, with haunting balances and authoritative renversés.

Gilbert had a number of breathtaking moments in this act, from the way she carried her arms into the crossed position of her sister wilis, to more virtuoso effects like lightning fast bourées and seemingly weightless jumps. Hoffalt was an impeccable partner, invisibly assisting Gilbert as she floated in and out of his arms. He was stoic during an impressive series of entrechat sixes (jumps in which the legs beat three times) and truly looked as if he were dancing for his life against exhaustion. In their variations and pas de deux, Gilbert and Hoffalt were so thrilling that the frequent applause was almost distracting, but the two never strayed from their intimate mood: she, resigned and yet determined to save him, he, desperate in his inability to hold on to the love he acknowledged too late.

This was a Giselle I won’t soon forget.