Giselle Now & Then

Giselle Now 

We need to talk about Giselle! This ballet has recently been in the limelight in the UK, primarily because of Akram Khan’s imaginative and compelling 2016 reworking of the much-loved ballet for English National Ballet, quickly followed by the same Company’s restaging of their traditional Mary Skeaping production, first mounted in 1971, with all its beautiful attention to detail and period style. 

But in this post we’re going to focus on dancers rather than on productions.  Famously, Théophile Gautier, the Romantic ballet critic, poet and librettist of Giselle compared the two most celebrated ballerinas of the era, Marie Taglioni and Fanny Elssler in contrasting terms: Taglioni as spiritual, “Christian” and aerial, and Elssler as material, “pagan” and “voluptuous” (431, 433). It was thought by the creators of Giselle that the ballerina Carlotta Grisi who originated the role embodied both sets of qualities.  In the spirit and tradition of Gautier, some current critics also highlight contrasting qualities in the ballerinas’ portrayals of the character.  One of the most eloquent critics in this regard is Judith Mackrell, who in 2004 compared Alina Cojocaru with Tamara Rojo, and nine years later Olesya Novikova with Natalia Osipova.  Some of the contrasts she highlights are Cojocaru’s modesty and airiness pitted against Rojo’s “fizziness” in Act I and “radiant stillness” in Act II.  Similarly, Mackrell juxtaposes Novikova’s “fragility” “lightness” and “vulnerabilty” with Ospiova’s “terre à terre style”, “visceral portrait of pain” and “terrifying … supernatural force”.

For their run this season from 19th January to 9th March the Royal Ballet is offering no fewer than eight dancers in the role of Giselle, from established ballerinas Laura Morera and Marianela Núñez to the relative newcomers Francesca Hayward and Yasmine Naghdi, both making their debuts as Giselle this season.  Anton Dolin, who frequently danced Albrecht to Alicia Markova’s Giselle, describes the role of Giselle as “the supreme test for the classical ballerina” (A Portrait of Giselle).  So it’s exciting to anticipate which particular qualities Hayward and Naghdi will bring to the part.

Both young ballerinas have danced the Girl in Kenneth MacMillan’s The Invitation, as well as his eponymous heroine in Romeo and Juliet, to critical acclaim, so we know that they are capable of conveying youthful love, desire, longing and tragedy through their dancing and of making their own mark on a role through their individual interpretations and the way in which they articulate movement in accordance with the personal movement styles that they have developed.

Yasmine Naghdi, who plays the piano, sings and composes her own music, is perhaps unsurprisingly known for the musicality of her dancing.  Kadeem Hosein  evocatively describes how she “gathered up the harp’s music and sent it spilling off the tips of her fingers” when dancing the Sugar Plum Fairy.  With her generous port de bras and luscious lines, she has an amplitude that seems to fill the stage, and the poses that she strikes etch themselves on the memory. 

The fleet-footed Francesca Hayward has also been noted for her musical sensitivity.  Her coach Lesley Collier, herself known for her musicality, declares “you can feel the music travelling through her” (qtd. in Mackrell).  Speed of footwork is combined with a wonderful continuity of movement as she barely reaches a position before moving on to the next, thereby creating a seamless flow.  This quality is enhanced by the pliancy of her upper body and “hands and arms as light and sensitive as butterflies” (Ismene Brown). 

Giselle Then

Giselle was created in 1841 by the two choreographers Jean Coralli and Jules Perrot to music by Adolphe Adam.  It was extremely successful and so was staged in various European cities and in America in the years immediately following the premier.  However, London’s first exposure to Giselle was in the form of a play based on the ballet, a mere two months after the first performance in Paris (Beaumont 126).  Although the ballet Giselle was staged in London as early as 1842, ballet as a national art form didn’t become established until the 20th century in this country, so the first British production wasn’t staged until New Year’s Day 1934.  The performance was by the Vic-Wells (later Royal) Ballet with Alicia Markova in the title role.  Since then Giselle has been performed by numerous British ballet companies, including Ballet Rambert, Festival (later English National) Ballet, International Ballet, the Markova-Dolin Company, Northern Ballet Theatre and Scottish Ballet.  Therefore, the ballet has become a staple of the repertoire in this country, and numerous ballerinas have moved audiences with their rendition of Giselle.

We have chosen to focus on three ballerinas from the past.  Although Alicia Markova is an obvious choice as the first British Giselle, Nadia Nerina and Eva Evdokimova may not seem such obvious choices.  However, these ballerinas all made their mark as Giselle with British ballet companies, and in their different approaches, temperaments and individual dancing styles reflect the richness of opportunity offered by the role.  These three ballerinas can all be seen dancing at least sections of Giselle online or on DVD.

Now, you may already have encountered the ballerina Alicia Markova on British Ballet Now and Then, as she featured in our very first post on The Nutcracker.  In Britain her name became practically synonymous with Giselle, as she was not only the first British ballerina to dance the role, but she continued to dance in this ballet until she was well into her 40s.  In recognition of the importance of this role for career she named her autobiography Giselle and I.  Anton Dolin describes her as “one of the greatest Giselles of all time” (A Portrait of Giselle).  Writing in 2006, the venerable ballet critic Clement Crisp still seemed to her as the standard set for the role, highlighting the “incomparable lightness and clarity in her dancing”, her “effortless” technical achievements and her dramatic “genius” (78).

Like Markova, Evdokimova was known for the otherworldliness that she conveyed in her dancing – she was one of those dancers who seemed to inhabit the ether by nature.  You may not be as familiar with this ballerina as with Markova or Nerina.  Evdokimova was an important ballerina in the 1970s and 1980s with London Festival Ballet.  Although half American and half Bulgarian, and trained in Copenhagen and St. Petersburg as well as in London, it was her idea to change the name of London Festival Ballet to English National Ballet in order to acknowledge the importance of the Company in bringing ballet to different regions of Britain at affordable prices. 

While Markova and Evdokimova were both known for the ethereal quality of their dancing, their ethereality was in no way identical.  Markova was tiny, quick and apparently weightless, like thistledown.  The lissom, willowy Evdokomova portrayed supernatural qualities perhaps more through her seemingly boneless body that appeared to glide through the air with no effort and without ever stopping.  Ballet writer Richard Austin encapsulates this continuity of movement when he refers to the “magical unfolding” of her arabesque (75), or her arms rippling like water (25). Even in Act 1 she appeared to belong more to another world than to the everyday reality of village life, her performance being imbued with “spiritual beauty” (Austin 50).

The South African Nerina, on the other hand, was known for her ebullient nature, virtuosic technique, speed and attack.  She excelled as Swanilda in Coppélia, and Frederick Ashton chose her to create the role of Lise in his La Fille mal gardée. Therefore, perhaps it comes as no surprise that Nerina’s spirited and exuberant Giselle in Act I accentuates the character’s physical energy and human corporeality, and her expansive dancing in Act II seems more like an elemental force of nature arising from the wildness of the forest than a translucent wraith drawn from the ether (Giselle). 

Galina Ulanova, Carla Fracci and Natalia Makarova, all celebrated and individual exponents of Giselle, explain how their interpretations of Giselle continued to develop over the years, never remaining fixed (A Portrait of Giselle).  More recently, Tamara Rojo has stated that after over one hundred performances, she always finds something new in the role (Giselle: Belle of the Ballet).

So, it will not only be fascinating to see how Francseca Hayward and Yasmine Naghdi approach the role Giselle with all its wonderful possibilities for interpretation, but also to see how they develop the role in years to come.

Next time on British Ballet Now and Then … in recognition of English National Ballet’s revival of  Aszure Barton’s Fantastic Beings, we will be thinking about female choreographers in British ballet companies. 

References

A Portrait of Giselle. Kultur, 1982.

Austin, Richard. The Ballerina. Vision, 1974.

Beaumont, Cyril W. The Ballet Called Giselle. C. W. Beaumont, 1944.

Brown, Ismene. “This Juliet Needs a New Romeo”. The Spectator,             http://www.spectator.co.uk/2015/10/this-juliet-needs-a-new-romeo/. Accessed 16 Jan. 2018.

Crisp, Clement. “Alicia Markova: a sketch for a portrait”. Dance Research, vol. 24, no. 2, 2006, pp. 75-86.  

Gautier, Théophile. “Fanny Elssler in “La Tempête””.What is Dance? Oxford UP, 1983, pp. 431-34.

Giselle. British Broadcasting Corporation, 23 Nov. 1958. ICA Classics, 2011.         

Giselle: Belle of the Ballet, directed by Dominic Best, British Broadcasting Corporation with English National Ballet, 2 Apr. 2017.

Hosein, Kadeem. “Yasmine Naghdi’s Sugar Plum Shines in the Royal Ballet’s Nutcracker”. Online River, 26 Nov. 2016, http://riveronline.co.uk/review-yasmine-naghdis-sugar-plum-shines-in-the-royal-ballets-nutcracker/. Accessed 16 Jan. 2018.

Mackrell, Judith. “Giselle”,The Guardian, 15 Jan. 2004, http://www.theguardian.com/stage/2004/jan/15/dance. Accessed 7 Jan. 2018.

—. “The Mikhailovsky Ballet and a Tale of Two Giselles”,The Guardian, 25 Mar. 2013, http://www.theguardian.com/stage/2013/mar/25/mikhailovsky-ballet-london-season-giselle. Accessed 7 Jan. 2018.

Markova, Alicia. Giselle and I. Barry and Rockliff, 1960.

 © Rosemarie Gerhard 2018

 

 

 

 

Kenneth MacMillan’s Choral Works Now & Then

The Choral Works Now

Kenneth MacMillan’s choral works Song of the Earth (1965), Requiem (1976) and Gloria (1980) must surely number amongst the choreographer’s most eloquent, moving and beautifully crafted ballets.  Ideally we would have preferred all three of these ballets to be staged during this season of celebrating MacMillan’s oeuvre.  Even though this was not to be, happily both Song of the Earth and Gloria were not only performed as part of the celebrations, but were staged for the first time by English National Ballet (ENB) and Northern Ballet Theatre (NBT) respectively.

ENB’s first performance of Song of the Earth took place in October in a double bill with La Sylphide in Manchester, while Gloria opened with NBT in Bradford in a triple bill of MacMillan’s work.  The companies also performed the ballets at the Royal Opera House as part of Kenneth MacMillan: a National Celebration, alongside performances by both Royal Ballet Companies and Scottish Ballet that spanned the decades of the choreographer’s creative life.  Fortunately there are still opportunities to see Song of the Earth at the London Coliseum (9th – 13th January) and Gloria at the Leeds Grand Theatre (16th – 17th March).

In case you’re not familiar with these ballets, here is a brief overview.  All three works are set to examples of iconic choral music that had lives of their own well before MacMillan created his choreography to them: Gustav Mahler’s Song of the Earth (1909), Gabriel Fauré’s Requiem (1890) and Benjamin Britten’s Gloria (1959).  All of them deal with existential themes, including the omnipresence of death in our lives, the unnecessary loss of life, especially young life, to war, and the laying to rest of the soul in death.

Unlike MacMillan’s famous evening-length works, such as Romeo and Juliet and Manon, these are not heavily narrative ballets and are relatively sparse in design.  In place of a narrative are intensely evocative images that arise from the themes, music score and lyrics.  An example is the famous image of eternity that closes Song of the Earth: to the elongated notes of the repeated word ewig, meaning forever, the three main figures (The Woman, The Man and The Eternal One or Messenger of Death) gradually move towards the audience, slowly rising and falling, rising and falling, rising and falling, with no break in the flow… Still rising and falling as the curtain falls.

Requiem was visually inspired by the drawings of William Blake.  Here the characters are more fluid than in Song of the Earth.  The central female character in white chiffon sometimes seems childlike, other times angelic (Parry 461-62); when she enfolds the male figure in a stylised embrace she appears maternal. Similarly, this male character can be interpreted in more than one way: in his loin cloth, is he a reference to Christ or to John the Baptist (462)?  Even the corps de ballet in Requiem can be perceived in contrasting ways, as both “mourners and blessed spirits” (462).

Gloria, inspired by Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth, clearly references the trench warfare of World War I.  Sacrifice and loss are suggested by the configuration of the dancers in the shape of crucifixes.  Towards the end of the ballet the lead female dancer is supported by the two main male characters in a similar pose; in her ethereality and with her elongated but soft arms draped along their arms, she is also reminiscent of Giselle in Act II protecting Albrecht by the cross on her grave.

In recent years the principal roles in these choral ballets have been performed by such Royal Ballet luminaries as Carlos Acosta, Leanne Benjamin, Nehemiah Kish, Sarah Lamb, Laura Morera, Marianela Núñez, Tamara Rojo, Thiago Soares and Edward Watson. In fact, Song of the Earth was chosen by Darcey Bussell for her farewell performance at the Royal Opera House in 2007.

But Song of the Earth did not always enjoy the status it has nowadays. In 1965 it was quite a different story …

 

The Choral Works Then

Song of the Earth, Requiem, and Gloria are without doubt compelling works due to the imaginative and expressive choreography and perhaps because they are so rich in symbolism and allusion. And their history is equally compelling.

MacMillan is celebrated as a choreographer who was eager to extend ballet where subject matter was concerned, for example through the portrayal of rape in The Invitation (1958) or the depiction of a Nazi concentration camp in Valley of Shadows (1983).  However, the themes explored in the choral works were hardly new to ballet.  What was new was the treatment of those themes, how they were expressed.

In the Romantic era, when ballet enjoyed a great flourishing, themes of death, love, loss, evil, the spirit world, the afterlife, and the human soul were integral to ballet. These themes were expressed through symbols and metaphors in the narratives and characters of the ballets, and are still clear to see today in the two most celebrated works of the era: La Sylphide created in 1832 by Filippo Taglioni, and Giselle choreographed by Jean Coralli and Jules Perrot in 1841. Nowadays we might perceive the treatment of those themes to be rather quaint or naïve, although if we use some historical imagination, facilitated by last year’s documentary Giselle: Belle of the Ballet introduced by Tamara Rojo, with contributors David Allen (historian) and Marina Warner (mythologist), we might gain some insight into the kind of unsettling impact those works may have made in their early years.

It seems that the Royal Opera House Board members were similarly unsettled when MacMillan approached them about choreographing a ballet to Mahler’s Song of the Earth, as they rejected the idea on the grounds that “great music addressing elevated subjects, such a Mahler’s Song of the Earth, was unsuitable for ballet” (Parry 459).  If they did not recognise the similar “elevated subjects” within the Romantic repertoire, you would think that they might have been aware of them in Frederick Ashton’s wartime ballets, most famously Dante Sonata (1940). Evidently neither did they perceive the ballet music of composers such as Tchaikovsky, Stravinsky or Ravel to be “great music”.

The rejection from the Board was the reason why MacMillan mounted Song of the Earth on Stuttgart Ballet, where his friend John Cranko, another British choreographer, and mentor to MacMillan, was Artistic Director.  In Stuttgart the work proved to be a success.  So, only six months after the premiere in Stuttgart, the Royal Ballet staged Song of the Earth at Covent Garden, where it was “hailed as a major achievement” (Parry 305).

It would seem logical therefore that when MacMillan approached the Board in the mid-70s as Director of the Royal Ballet and Principal Choreographer, about creating a ballet to Fauré’s Requiem, that the response would be more positive than the reaction to the proposed Song of the Earth ballet.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  Fearing that such a ballet might “offend the religious beliefs of the public at large” (MacMillan qtd. in Parry 459) the Board again refused to commission the work.   Again MacMillan staged the work in Stuttgart; and again the work entered the repertoire of the Royal Ballet, though not before he had staged his third choral work, Gloria, for the Royal Ballet, this time with no objection from the Board.  Interestingly, MacMillan had decided to give exclusive performance rights to Requiem to Stuttgart Ballet for six years, by which time Beryl Grey had requested it for London Festival Ballet (Parry 464), suggesting the growing significance of these choreographic works by the early 1980s.  In fact, in 1982, Gloria was recorded by Granada Television for transmission on Remembrance Sunday 1982 (556).

Currently the Royal Opera House website describes Song of the Earth in proud and glowing terms as “Kenneth MacMillan’s powerful exploration … of love, loss and renewal”; Requiem is described as “moving” and “boldly inventive” “with some striking pas de deux”.  In our opinion MacMillan’s persistence in following through his choral projects resulted in some of the most distinctive, innovative and expressive additions to the British ballet canon, and we are indeed fortunate not only in being given the opportunity to see two of these works, but also in benefitting from the ENB billing of  La Sylphide from the Romantic era juxtaposed with Song of the Earth – two works that demonstrate such contrasting approaches to themes of human frailty, love, loss and transcendence in the art form that we love.

This post is dedicated to Helen Boyle and Andrew Dilworth.

Next time on British Ballet Now and Then … to coincide with the young Royal Ballet principals Francesca Hayward and Yasmi Naghdi dancing the title role in Giselle, we will be thinking about celebrated Giselles of the past in British ballet companies.

References

Giselle: Belle of the Ballet, directed by Dominic Best, British Broadcasting Corporation with English National Ballet, 2 Apr. 2017.

Parry, Jan. Different Drummer: the life of Kenneth MacMillan. Faber and Faber, 2009.

Royal Opera House. “Requiem”, Royal Opera House, 2017, http://www.roh.org.uk/productions/song-of-the-earth-by-kenneth-macmillan. Accessed 4 Dec. 2017.

—. “Song of the Earth”, Royal Opera House, 2017, http://www.roh.org.uk/productions/song-of-the-earth-by-kenneth-macmillan. Accessed 4 Dec. 2017.

© Rosemarie Gerhard 2017