Like every foundational work of performing art, Giselle is not easily described. It’s a kind of many-dimensional object traversing space-time presenting a new aspect every time we glimpse it.
When it was new, in Paris, in 1841, it was exotic, atmospheric, exhaling a mossy dark fragrance of olden times, a tale of a disguised prince, a dishonored maiden, and supernatural revenge; what we call “Gothick.”
But its own day saw it as medieval, Romantic: “mystical, mysterious, marvelous and ardent.” A disguised prince, a betrayed maiden, supernatural revenge. And we inevitably feel that it’s quaint, like the woodcuts which frame the PNB staging. We need an act of imagination to fill these outlines with emotional life.
As do the performers. As I recall the 2014 staging, they did. When Giselle realized her lover was a liar, a princeling got up as a peasant, when she hurled herself to the ground and out of life, something in me felt her torment. When the icy agent of destiny floated on a cloud of stage fog toward her prey, I felt the chill.
Saturday afternoon at McCaw Hall, I felt nothing. I watched attractive people dance prettily, but when they undertook to indicate their feelings and intentions through mime, the energy went out of them and their gestures were embarrassingly sketchy. Only Melisa Guillaums, as Giselle’s fretful mother, conveyed to me her frustration over her child’s lack of restraint.
The principal figures—the neglected local lover, the stonily impassive agent of nemesis—even the doomed heroine, indistinguishable in behavior until her final seconds of life from her cheerfully indistinguishable companions, all fail to find life in the intervals of dance.
I saw only one of at least three casts of principal performers, so perhaps it was only my severe bad luck to emerge with such a dim impression of this revival of one of the half dozen certified classics of Romantic ballet. But as none of the others is currently in the PNB repertory, I can only hope that other attendees will have better luck in the roll of the casting dice.