Posted on June 25, 2019
Back in April, I worked on Peter Wright’s version of the Romantic ballet Giselle. It’s a piece that continues to capture our imaginations because it examines both the euphoria, and the destructive capacity of love. Having the opportunity to be coached by Wright in the studio was fascinating, and working with several casts of principals as I played the role of Wilfred, Albrecht’s dutiful squire, gave me the opportunity to think about why the ballet resonates.
Wilfred is the one character who knows about Albrecht’s deception from the ballet’s opening, but he is powerless to act because of his social status. The key piece of coaching Wright gave me lay in the comment: “You’re anxious to get Albrecht back to the castle because you know there will be another scandal.” Here Wright makes the focus of the story, written by Théophile Gautier, the contrast between innocence and experience. Giselle, the young, Rhineland maiden who loves to dance, knows only the fresh rush of blood from first love. Albrecht, from a sophisticated social realm, seemingly has a wealth of understanding that far outstrips the simple villagers he’s decided to go and play amongst. Male dancers have an interesting interpretive choice to make. Is Albrecht a caddish flirt, or does he genuinely fall into a situation he hadn’t anticipated would mature into a real connection? We could ask if Albrecht has any understanding of true love because he comes from a world where political and financial gain is sought in marriage, not romantic fulfilment.
The ballet shows love as an equaliser, breaking down social order, which is interesting in context. Europe in the 19th century saw intellectual and social ideas in a state of flux. Romanticism represented an interest in the wilds of the human psyche: the forest, the perilous sea and the windswept moor became visual tools to begin exploring the darker aspects of human desire. We see a preoccupation with the idea of two realms: the natural and the supernatural. The first represents form and responsibility, the latter points towards transcendence; the passions of the mind and heart ungoverned by social rules.
In the ballet, these two different states are clearly defined in the rustic atmosphere of Act I contrasting with the gothic tone of Act II, set in a misty, moonlit forest filled with the unmarked graves of women betrayed by their lovers. Wright was clear these two worlds should have different types of dancing; he wasn’t so concerned about achieving an authentic Romantic style, in how we can academically assert particular characteristics that define the look of ballets like Giselle and La Sylphide, but rather that the village scenes should have a robustness that contrasts to the hyper-feminine, glamorous, but dangerous, dancing of the wilis in the second act. Wright’s choice of words on this point was compelling.
In 1841, the ballet’s outcome probably had more of a moral reverberation: a man pursues what he craves without thinking about duty and social responsibility, and ultimately is left bereft because of that desire. The big themes of betrayal, redemption and forgiveness on which Giselle pivots, consume our society today – just open any newspaper.
Personally, I believe Giselle’s central topic is love transcending death; the mystery of feelings larger than oneself overcoming that ultimate boundary. This is an idea embodied in gothic literature, showing how pervasive and intoxicating these thoughts were in western European culture. The protagonists of Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights talk of their love as being something all-consuming, and destructive to the self. Heathcliff declares after Cathy’s death: “I cannot live without my soul”. In her lifetime, Cathy asserts: “My love for Heathcliff resembles the eternal rocks beneath… I am Heathcliff.”
How does this interact with 21st century thought? Belgian psychotherapist Esther Perel has won popular appeal in recent years for work that explores the dual need for security and freedom in a relationship, reflecting the Romantic idea concerning two spheres of experience. Perel recognises the romantic hunger we have in our society, fed by centuries of poetry and art that asserts, “once you commit, you’re mine”, but “to desire is to want. To want requires a psychological distance, a bridge to cross, something or someone to visit on the other side”.
Giselle represented that distance for Albrecht in life because she was someone unattainably out of his norm. In death, she becomes even more consuming. Perel continues: “Part of desire is rooted in longing and in absence… there is something about not having that allows us to want more… we engage our imagination”, and we experience that “our partner doesn’t just exist in [our] own gaze. We never have the person who is next to us; they are free to go. This is intimacy. The choice to remain.” Giselle’s decision to stand by Albrecht’s side at his darkest hour, despite having lost her own life, confirms that intimacy we all seek.
Pictured: Sarasota Ballet’s production of Giselle, with Victoria Hulland as Giselle and Ricardo Graziano as Albrecht. Photographs by Frank Atura.