The Paris Opera Ballet brought to New York a program and style that clearly said, "This is who we are." Compare that to the recent visit by the Australian Ballet which brought a program and style that mostly said, "This is sort of how we hope to be viewed." Compare that to the non-identity of American Ballet Theatre which currently cries out, "Whatever you're buyin', we're sellin'."
The moment the Paris Opera Ballet opened its first performance, it was evident just how serious the institution is about fashioning its art in the proper form. In this mix & match world where plaids, stripes, and polka dots can all randomly appear on the same sleeve, the Paris Opera Ballet has said, "Hold on a minute - not here. Are those seams straight? Are those stitches perfectly even? Is the fabric high quality? Does it fit properly?" Rarely have we in New York seen a ballet company that is so happily obsessed with the quality of what goes into its artistic product. The corps de ballet alone has spoiled Haglund for all other companies for eternity. Going forward, every time he sees a hometown dancer's feet strapped into a pair of Gaynor Minden clogs or a dancer who cowardly refuses to fully break the shanks sufficiently below the heel, he's going to remember the beautiful Paris Opera Ballet dancers whose perfectly arched feet were as identical as their Wili costumes. At the Paris Opera Ballet, there is a singular shape of tendu, one version of sous-sus in fifth, one courageous commitment to the French form.
For the first three performances of Giselle – three more to come next week – the Paris Opera Ballet presented Giselle as many here had not seen before. Some of the artistic choices within the production may have seemed at odds with what we have been accustomed to seeing, but the choices were not faults. They were artistic choices. It was the choice of the Paris Opera Ballet for Giselle's jumps to remain modest - more joyous than athletic. It was the choice of the Paris Opera Ballet to retain modesty in the speed of the chaine turns. Even in Giselle's solo in Act I, the rond de jambe from side to front that we are accustomed to seeing begin with a big battement was danced by the French as a very low rond de jambe.
Much of the New York audience has been treated of late to the McDonald's version of Giselle with its grandiose vaulting, and now the audience expects and wants the high fat content at every meal. Well, the reality is that McDonald's french fries are not really French food. The fact that this production of Giselle may not have been what one was accustomed to doesn't mean that it was bad or wrong. It was different. Maybe New York should diet away some of the Bolshoi fat so that it can appreciate the leanness of the French.
The Act I costumes were exquisitely beautiful and unfussy. Soft color palettes of pale pink and slightly stronger yellows with blue accents were used for the peasants and friends. Giselle's Act I dress was traditional blue. On the opening night, the naturally glamorous Aurelie Dupont wore her sleeves immodestly pulled down to completely bare her beautiful shoulders. In the second performance, Isabelle Ciaravola's sleeves were technically off the shoulders but not by very much. In the third performance, Clairemarie Osta's sleeves were modestly in place at all times. This might be used to characterize the performances themselves. Ms. Dupont was elegant and beautiful almost to a fault. Much of the time during Act I she seemed more royalty than peasant which may explain why her handsome Albrecht, Mathieu Ganio, was so attracted to her in the first place. Ms. Ciaravola's Giselle in Act I was more youthful, even playful to Karl Paquette's somewhat serious Albrecht. Ms. Osta's Giselle in Act I was fragile, innocent, delicate, modest while her Albrecht (and husband in real life) Nicolas Le Riche was a teaser who knew he could win the game at any time he wanted.
When Giselle initially bumped into Albrecht and then turned her back and slowly walked away, in two of the performances Albrecht walked up closely behind her and nudged Giselle's shoulder with his own as though he were initiating his play with her. It was an example of subtle artistry that made a big impact.
Another artistic choice which Haglund loved was when everyone's motion froze for several notes of music while Giselle contemplated and then came to the realization that what Hilarion had told her about Albrecht was true. You need only recall an instance in your own life when the trauma was so great that time stood still in order to understand what Giselle experienced in those moments.
In the three Giselle performances so far, the Act I scene where Giselle has a breakdown and dies of a broken heart has been played subtly and without histrionics. Clairemarie Osta's character mentally and physically crumbled before our eyes, breaking our hearts along the way. She didn't have to tear her hair out or run around with her mouth hanging open like Osipova does in order to convey the tragedy. Ms. Ciaravola's mad scene was slightly less touching while Ms. Dupont's was less than convincing. It's the beauty factor.
Act I was packed with more dancing by the corps de ballet than other versions with which we might be more familiar. When the ballet opened, the peasants didn't come strolling or running on to the stage; they came dancing. Duos and trios danced meaningful phrases of choreography that conveyed the spirit of the villagers through the formidable technique of the corps dancers. They also had significant and very fast ensemble work within the Peasant PdD which we don't generally see in versions of Giselle in New York. It enhanced the Act I significantly.
The Peasant PdD was the "advanced-professional" version with variations that were nearly as technically demanding as those of the principals: double tours with one leg in passe that immediately segued into a straight leg grand jete - done in a circle. Try it. Some of the men in the Peasant PdD fared better than others with this. The young Coryphée Axel Ibot, dark and handsome with a winning smile, eagerly grabbed onto the opportunity. He'll definitely be remembered the next time the Paris Opera Ballet comes to town. All three women in the Peasant PdD danced capably enough to step into the role of Giselle. The emboite to the knee/pirouette phrases that can be troublesome in the Peasant PdD were error free and embellished by beginning each phrase with an arabesque plie with the momentum moving backward.
Act II opened in the dead of night with five shadowy guys with lanterns engaged in a game of dice at the edge of the cemetery road across from Giselle's quite elaborate grave stone and cross. It was so great to see this theatrical moment which created an almost Dickensian atmosphere where one could clearly hear the dice being shaken and rolled.
Another lovely moment was when Albrecht initially arrived, he wrapped his cape around the foot of the cross as though he might wrap it around Giselle to keep her warm in the cold night.
Whereas so many traditional stagings of Giselle use the Wilis mostly in lines and in circles, this staging utilizes Romantic groupings of four or five Wilis around the stage throughout the act as well as the lines and circles. When Giselle first arrived, she didn't just come walking out from the wings as in several other productions. The Wilis were closely hunched over her grave and they then peeled away to reveal that she had risen up from that grave and was standing in front of her cross.
The PdD and variations were all very traditional and beautifully danced by all three couples. All three Albrechts lifted their Giselles over their heads with no trouble whatsoever. Why do the American principals who dance Albrecht have such trouble with this? Clairemarie Osta's variation seemed the most ghost-like of the three although all performed remarkably. Perhaps it was because her movements - entrechats quatre, sautes passe, bourrees – were not only very fast but also were very compacted. Aurelie Dupont's Act II Giselle was far superior to her Act I. Both she and Isabelle Ciaravola seemed better able to embody the spirit of Giselle rather than play her living character.
The Myrtha character was the greatest departure from what we usually see. The three dancers who performed the role did so nearly identically so one must assume that the character's rather slow bourrees and less than maximum height on many jumps were artistic choices. It was pretty thrilling, however, to see Marie Agnes Gillot suddenly rocket through the trees into the middle of the stage for her final variation.
Albrecht's Act II variations were traditional. On opening night we were treated to some squeaky-clean entrechat sixes from the most Romantic and physically blessed of the three Albrechts, Mathieu Ganio. At the second performance, Karl Paquette was well past 32 entrechat sixes before he finally collapsed from exhaustion. At the third performance, Nicolas Le Riche – 40 years young – wisely substituted some fantastic jetes down the diagonal while pleading for his life in front of Myrtha. He then topped those off with eight entrechat sixes instead of continuing with the more dramatic jetes. That was perhaps the only poor artistic choice of the evening because those entrechats six seemed obligatory.
Another artistic choice which was interesting to see came at the very end after Giselle had bourreed off. Albrecht lay down at the foot of the grave in the fog as if asleep and then suddenly woke up as if this had all been his dream. Nicolas Le Riche ended by unwrapping his cape from around the foot of the cross after which he walked to the front of the stage, peered out for a moment, turned, and walked back upstage with his head hung in sorrow. All three Albrechts were quite fine, but Le Riche touched the heart just a little bit more - as did his Giselle, Clairemarie Osta.
The orchestra sounded thin and chamber-like at times. The cellist was awful the first night, bad the second performance, and not so great at the third one.
The stage was slightly cramped. The scenery is by design much more into the middle of the stage than, say, ABT's is on the Met stage. We could actually see inside the house on the right. Also Giselle's grave and cross were more out from the wing which created some traffic issues for the Wilis. Their back line had to dance behind the cross, and when it came time for Hilarion to be tossed into the drink, he had to step carefully around the cross in order to get out.
Those Wilis were the most beautiful Haglund has ever seen. They are now the gold standard, and even though the principals were incredibly fine, the Wilis brought the production to its highest level and therefore are awarded the coveted Pump Bump Award, aptly entitled The Pain of Love: