Reviving Giselle in the Pacific Northwest
Balletomanes everywhere know the story: A young peasant girl falls in love with a deceptive duke and dies of a broken heart. But Pacific Northwest Ballet will be the first American company to stage Giselle using primary sources that date back to the work’s 1841 Parisian premiere. Artistic Director Peter Boal, now in his sixth year with the Seattle-based company, is staging the Romantic ballet in collaboration with dance and music scholars. Doug Fullington, PNB’s assistant to the artistic director, is reconstructing choreography from Russian Stepanov notation circa 1900. Marian Smith, University of Oregon associate professor of musicology and author of Ballet and Opera in the Age of Giselle, is utilizing French sources from the 1840s and ’60s.
Boal, a former principal dancer with New York City Ballet and instructor for School of American Ballet, has seen his company perform The Nutcracker, The Sleeping Beauty, Swan Lake and Coppélia. However, introducing Giselle to PNB has presented Boal and his dancers with new challenges and opportunities. “We’re making this fresh,” he says. “Other versions can inspire, but at the end of the day, you have to come up with your own Albrecht or Giselle.” The work will premiere at McCaw Hall in Seattle on June 3.
Dance Teacher: Why did you decide to restage Giselle this season?
Peter Boal: To perform a Romantic era ballet will be a new and welcome challenge for our dancers. Giselle is one of the great chapters in the evolution of our artform and one that belongs in our repertoire. I decided to stage a new version for PNB because of Doug Fullington’s ability to read Stepanov notation and Marian Smith’s proximity to us in Portland. Doug had successfully reconstructed parts of Giselle for PNB School before we elected to mount the full production for the company.
DT: What were the challenges of interpreting the notation?
PB: The notation doesn’t include port de bras. It’s 98 percent legs and floor patterns. So I’ve focused on applying what I learned during a six-month leave of absence from City Ballet in 1988, when I took class with the Paris Opéra. The port de bras taught, with the elbow leading and the fingers arriving late, was sublime.
DT: What did the dancers find difficult when learning the choreography?
PB: Certain passages were challenging as far as speed and clarity are concerned. We determined that some of the leg heights that are used in today’s dancing weren’t there originally, so dancers in the 19th century could move more quickly. But, in most cases, our dancers were able to perform the notated steps at the speed required. I don’t have a female dancer’s sensibility since I’ve never danced on pointe. So the dancers have had input and dialogue.
Another challenge came with re-creating mime passages. Dancers today don’t often perform mime. Clarity and timing in their acting were areas that we had to develop. (There are 56 minutes of mime and 60 minutes of dancing, according to the 1841 score.) Pacing the mime correctly requires finishing a movement and allowing a stillness to happen.
DT: Do you view contemporary works differently as a result of this process?
PB: Balanchine, who saw versions of Giselle with the Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo, was beautifully respectful about his heritage. The women in his Serenade, in their long, tulle Romantic skirts, are reminiscent of the Wilis from Act II. Also, there is a moment in Giselle when she falls to the ground. That same movement occurs in Serenade.
Leslie Holleran holds an MA in dance history from the University of California, Riverside.
Photo by Angela Sterling, courtesy of PNB