Preview: Giselle at Sac Ballet and Harris Center
GiselleSac Ballet and Harris Center stage the epic tale of a woman wronged
When Ron Cunningham and Carinne Binda—the husband-and-wife team who’ve served as co-artistic directors of the Sacramento Ballet for decades—were choosing works for their 30th (and final) season as the company’s leaders, they decided to go out with several big classics, including Giselle, which Cunningham describes as “the ultimate Romantic ballet.” The Sacramento Ballet’s production will be performed February 16 to 18. Giselle—with its lush score (by Adolphe Adam) and landmark stagecraft and choreography (with dancers seemingly “floating in the mist” onstage)—premiered in Paris in 1841. The ballet’s theatricality, joined to an irresistible tale of doomed romance and the transformative power of a tragic lover’s forgiveness, was a sensation.
The story is set in the Middle Ages, during a festive grape harvest. Albrecht, a young nobleman disguised as a peasant boy, becomes attracted to a shy peasant girl (Giselle) and pursues romance, even though he is betrothed to another nobleman’s daughter. Giselle falls hard for the beautiful stranger but is heartbroken when she realizes she’s been deceived. Giselle collapses while dancing and dies in Albrecht’s arms. The two-timing Albrecht is then pursued by the supernatural Wilis—ghostly maidens who haunt the forest, taking revenge on unfaithful men (who are forced to dance until they die, exhausted). The spirit of Giselle intervenes and saves Albrecht—her love and forgiveness proving more powerful than the Wilis’ fateful retribution. (Some maintain that the modern phrase “this gives me the willies” traces back to Giselle.)
The ballet’s story has parallels to the life of a major Paris composer of that era. In the 1830s, Hector Berlioz watched Irish actress Harriet Smithson playing the jilted Ophelia in a production of Hamlet; he was so taken with her portrayal that he impulsively wooed and wed her. (Never mind that she didn’t speak French, nor he English.) Their union didn’t last long and ended tragically for her.
Cunningham describes the role of Giselle as the equivalent of “Hamlet for the female dancer, with a wide swing of emotional content that the ballerina has to portray.”
“And it couldn’t be more timely” in our present #MeToo era, Cunningham added. “An aristocratic gentleman comes to a peasant village, has a dalliance with a local girl, and she dies from the encounter—that’s abuse of power.”
Sac Ballet’s production is being largely supervised by Binda, who studied the ballet decades ago under the tutelage of French ballerina Violette Verdy (1933-2016) who was affiliated with the Paris Opera Ballet and later the Boston Ballet (where Cunningham and Binda came up as young dancers). Cunningham was in the Boston production, playing a nobleman. “I came onstage with two borzois, and the audience would applaud,” Cunningham recalled. “But I knew the applause was for the hunting dogs, not me,” he added modestly.
“Because Giselle is a slice of our personal history, and a slice of ballet history, we wanted to bring it back to the stage in our final season,” Cunningham said. “I think the last time Sac Ballet did it was 2004.”
As fate would have it, there is another production of Giselle in the area this month as well, with the Moscow Festival Ballet giving a single performance at the Harris Center in Folsom on February 8. (They will also perform Swan Lake twice on February 7.) The Moscow Festival Ballet is a relatively new group, founded in 1989 during the breakup of the Soviet Union, when several Russian artists launched new ventures, anxious to tour abroad after the long Cold War. (The Russian National Orchestra was likewise organized in 1990.)