Saturday night ushered in another magical night at the Royal Winnipeg Ballet. I’ve seen a number of memorable ballet productions in my life. The American Ballet Theatre’s Romeo and Juliet riveted me, and the same company’s Giselle was the first time tears invaded my eyes during a performance (except in my acting class at Sal Romeo’s studio in LA when a student performed a monologue from Don Nigro’s Seascape with Sharks and Dancer, but I’m not sure that counts as a performance). The RWB performance last season of Swan Lake was a pivotal ballet-going experience, climbing the ladder in my precious mental souvenirs of my life. Giselle was, in a word, exceptional.
The day did not bode well for me. I was suffering from laryngitis, and my ability to speak had fled me completely. I resorted to writing copiously on pads of paper. My face was twitching involuntarily, and again, the effort to muster the energy to change into theater clothes felt insurmountable. Andrew informed me that the RWB web page advertised a contest for women wearing white dresses to Giselle, which is a custom of Paris.
I have worn a white dress three times in my life out of tradition. None of these times was at my wedding, ironically, since I didn’t have a white dress in my possession at that time of my life. Once was at my Wellesley graduation; Wellesley is a college rife with beautiful traditions, one of which is to don white for graduation. The second time I wore white was for my McGill graduation out of respect for the Wellesley tradition. I wore a short white lacy, tiered dress, a dress bought in Montreal that I robed again for Giselle. Though this time instead of pairing it with my glittery butterfly heels, I wore knee-high brown boots and black bomber jacket to accompany the delicate white dress.
The evening started with a chat including the highly esteemed Evelyn Hart, a former principal ballerina with the RWB. She stated during the chat that Giselle is a ballet about love and forgiveness, such beautiful, stirring, and puissant ideals. Evelyn Hart expressed how the work and effort necessitated to become a classical ballet dancer is becoming lost, and that dancing a role in a ballet is to live the role. It is about becoming Giselle. I was touched by her sprightly energy, her articulateness about acting and true artistry, and her sense of humor. She discussed her evolution into a mentor, which is equivalent to assuming a motherly role. Although she was slight in frame and stature, Evelyn Hart struck me by her confident strength, and I’ve since ordered her biography, so I can learn more about this inspiring and extraordinary woman.
The music, provided by the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra, began, soon followed by the dancing. It occurred to me that ballet conveys stories through movement, expression, and mime, much as I have been doing the last few days without use of my voice. Although it is accompanied by music, in some ways it parallels an animated tableau; the dancers express themselves quietly, via their bodies and faces, as a silent movie.
Giselle is a ballet about despair, betrayal, madness, and heartbreak. Playful, innocent courtship dominates the early scenes. There exists a clear dichotomy between the early scene where Giselle plucks petals from a flower, “he loves me, he love me not,” with the mad scene when she repeats the action again but in deadly hysterics, clearly demonstrating her transformation from a playful maiden in love to a betrayed madwoman. Yayoi Ban, the soloist who performed in the production I saw, conveyed her unbearable agony with just her face; in moments it looked strained and aged from heartbreak.
The ballet technique in the performance was incomparable. The extended hops en pointe seemed to last an eternity. The gliding bourrées in the second act, especially by the queen of the wilis, danced by Sarah Davey, captured the very essence of gossamer vapor. The second act, the dance of the vampire-like wilis, expressed the cold, ethereal, hardness of women directed almost as puppets, contrasting the gracefulness of the first act. Giselle and her prince Albrecht, performed by Dmitri Dovgoselets, danced together, yet at first they seemed disconnected by the void of death that separated them. Finally later in the pas de deux, their souls converged, they were indeed together, and Giselle saves his life.
Ballet, the symphony, operas, plays: their intent is not just to entertain but to provoke us to consider the themes presented in the performances in life. The ballet ended with a crystalline souvenir of hope. In the ballet, Giselle and Albrecht save each other, though of course in death and not life. However, it leaves the audience with the precious jewel of hope, a quality I’ve struggled with, as it is in opposition to Buddhist philosophies in which I find great instructive value. However, at the end of the day, I think hope is invaluable. Giselle’s life did not go as planned and ended tragically soon, yet forgiveness flowered for Albrecht after her death. In the end there was a grain of hope for inner peace to reign.
The playfulness which prevailed in Giselle’s and Albrecht’s lives in the first act also merits thought. How often are you playful? How often do you get wrapped up in the daily ordeals that govern modern life and forget to play? It makes me think about the relationship between work and play. As children we might be inculcated to find work about which we are passionate. Yet somehow on the treadmill to success some of this playfulness peels off, leaving us with a core determined to win that award or finish that degree or complete that task. How often are you driven by prestige or success rather than playfulness? Somewhere in the grind we forget our true passions and what truly brings meaning to our lives. We get lost.
At the RWB performance of Giselle, I found a little of the playfulness and beauty of life that I had lost.