In November 2011 the repertoire of the National Theatre ballet in Brno received a present – a gem of the romantic ballet era, Giselle. The piece, which is a charming recollection of the naivety of the 19th century and a great display of dance technique still untouched by a superficial postromantic virtuality. It is a remembrance of a time when ballet was indeed a theatre of action, yet lost nothing of its lyricism and sensitivity.
With a feeling of nostalgia the spectator in Brno can enjoy a traditionally conceived scene, costumes, choreography, actually the overall concept of the piece. Dramaturgical plan is certainly a success. The "classical" Giselle is a production that appropriately responds to the needs of society going through some form of crisis. It is a relaxing break from routine, after all, there is hardly anything more pleasant than being carried away by Adam’s melodies performed live by the Mahen Theatre Orchestra under the baton of Pavel Šnajdr and enjoy the dream of the tradition of classical dance.
Perhaps it would be appropriate now to mention the history of probably the most famous romantic ballet, the structure of which is still considered synonymous with what we call the basic composition of romantic ballet. The time of its premiere in Paris (1841) was the heyday of this era and Carlotta Grisi in the title role of Giselle was just at the beginning of her fairytale career of a world-class ballerina. Although similar productions were made like hotcakes back then, Gisellehas never become ordinary. It was a result of an exceptional constellation in cooperation and mutual inspiration of all who were involved: the composer Adolphe Charles Adam, librettist Théophile Gautier and both choreographers Jean Coralli and Jules Perrot, who worked with the abilities and charisma of ballerina CG, to the body of whom the role was tailor-made. Thus there is no need to change anything about this rare perfection and it would be futile to look for something new where everything has already been found, provided we do not strive for a completely different view on the matter.
Robert Strajner, director and choreographer of the new production in Brno respects the work of the abovementioned gentlemen as well,there is nothing about his concept that could offend a connoisseur of this ballet. This is really not the case. On the contrary, his choreographic imprint on the production can be consideredpositive too, although he stripped the soloists of their roles, the more he highlighted the abilities of the company as a groupof interesting personalities, especially in the men's part of the ensemble.
The curtain opens. The modest house, where a peasant girl Giselle dwells with her mother appears on the stage of Mahen Theatre rather tall than wide and looks even expressive compared to the empty, somewhat monochromatic horizon. Anyway, there is no need to pay too much attention to details that are a mere background to what happens on the stage. The story flows according to the given scheme and, actually, it is unnecessary to think about the timing of individual scenes that are not supported by dancers’ variations, but are rather built on their expressive abilities and through pantomime explain the behaviour of individual characters. In the 19th century pantomime was an inherent part of ballets and its importance to the overall impression of the performance is undeniable. Due to the fact that this review takes into consideration just the premiere cast of Friday, the 18th November 2011 it would be thus inappropriate to analyze the details of the sped-up fundamental scenes, such as "counting the petals", "Giselle meeting the Duchess" or perhaps the somewhat over-moved "scene of madness".
Still, the truth is that the role of Giselle demands of its interpreter not only a great dance technique, but most of all maturity of expression or, more precisely, acting skills. The first cast choice Maiko Abe is definitely a dancer possessing a great technique, which was obvious in her variations, however, her performance still lacked a confident expression. Yes, she was as much an utterly naive peasant girl as she could be, nevertheless, Giselle is not a rococo pastoral, but rather a romantic tragedy of despair, despair of lost faith and broken heart. Giselle will not do with just one type of smile and one face of sadness.
Anyway, Giselle performed in Brno is not a tragic ballet. Rather the opposite. Director paid great attention to corps de ballet scenes, which made especially the men stand out. Their precision and elevation in jumps and relaxed dancing were a pleasure to watch. Indeed, their excellence was such that the spectators did not even miss the Peasant Pas de deux. Variations from it have been adapted for the selected parts of men's and women's section of the company. Conservative audiences may find this inovation a bit controversial, on the other hand, it highlighted the quality of the ballet ensemble in Brno. And both Filip Veverka and Petr Kondler, who performed the title roles of Duke Albert and his rival Hilarion, respectively, confirmed it in both the first and second acts.
The scenographic approach to the second act is somewhat peculiar – there is no cross, no forest, the ruins resemble rather shores of a swan lake, duke is dressed in a splendid mantle, but nevermind ...
The costumes of wilis lack the wings, probably on the basis of thec orrect assumption that even muslin would not add anything to ephemeral movement, when the floor is not prepared well. Loudly squeaking ballet shoes can hardly make an impression of ethereality and evoke the flight of wilis, which somewhat impaired the performance of otherwise quite precise and skilled women's part of corps de ballet. However, the overall impression of dance qualities of Myrtha, Queen of Wilis (Ivona Jeličová) and her two sisters (Monika Pimková and Jana Přibylová) was not hampered by that, all three soloists were in their personification of strictness and elegance very convincing.
The content of the second part of the ballet once again referred to the traditional libretto with some details more (confrontation between Giselle and Myrtha over the fate of Albert) or less (the discovery of Hilarion, early sunrise in the morning) elaborate. The first-cast Giselle unveiled her skills in the small allegro and despite initial unease found her confidence in the end. While in the first act she was, due to the uniform colour of the costumes of peasant girls in shades of yellow often lost among corps de ballet, in the white part of the ballet despite far greater "uniformity of costumes" she excelled. However, the audiences applauded even more to the variations of Albert and Hilarion that somewhat suppressed a feeling of parochialism caused by technical deficiencies in the condition of the stage, material and props (blossoms of lilies and myrtle) or not that elaborate lighting design at the end of both acts and very informal final curtain calls. The ballet ensemble of the National Theatre in Brno certainly have big ambitions that are well-foundedand minor deficiencies like that just hamper them.
The ballet Giselle is like a virtuoso piece of music, studied by a great artist under the expert guidance of a master. When referring to the tradition one does not necessarily need a strong choreographic invention, but rathera knowledge of the conventions and context of the time back then and now and how to pass it down. After seeing just the opening night performance it is difficult to judge how the director managed to accomplish this task, but there is no doubt that a romantic dream took place in Brno. There is a production of remarkable quality in the company’s repertoire with an interesting potential both in dance and at the box-office.
From the opening night on 18th November 2011, the National Theatre Brno, Mahen Theatre.
Photo: Kristýna Šopíková (1) and Jana Hallová (2)
Translation: Tomáš Valníček