I got to watch the gorgeous ballet Giselle this last Friday night! One of my housemates is an astonishing sweetie, and has taken me to both concerts and ballets for the past two years as birthday/C-mas presents. I'll enthuse about the ballet, but first a quick plug, because I really, truly enjoy the performing arts and I know they're getting hit hard in the recession: the Ballet San Jose and the Symphony Silicon Valley are utterly fabulous, and you should please go see them!

The ballet will have both Swan Lake and Carmen later in its season — both ballets I adored as a child. The symphony season has already started, with two performances under their belts already. They have plenty more though — and they always have a fabulous speaker for the hour before each performance. Their music is wonderful; this year they'll have some Rossini, Mozart, Mendelssohn, Schubert, Wagner, Lizst, Rachmaninov, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, and more! I love these composers, and I especially love the thrill of hearing them live. They're well worth the trip.

Now to discuss the ballet — although let me give fair warning: I don't know the precise technical terms for the steps of ballet, so I will be simply describing them as best I can. Feel free to courteously enlighten me in the comments, if you wish. Also, I tend to ramble in happy train-of-thought, so don't be surprised if I jump from enthusing about the dancing to, say, analyzing the dialectics of class as expressed in ballet, to reminiscing about seeing the ballet as a child… and so on. ;)

The elegantly simple basics

Plot-wise, Giselle is unsurprisingly straightforward. Act One: nobleman disguises himself as a peasant to seduce a cute young peasant girl. They fall madly in love; her former swain is violently jealous. He reveals the nobleman's deceit in front of the nobleman's highborn fiancee; peasant girl dies of grief. Act Two: both men, at different times of the night, find peasant girl's grave to mourn. The peasant suitor is danced to death by the Wilis, vengeful ghostly spirits of dead young girls who have been jilted and liked to dance too much. The nobleman is caught by them as well, but his life is saved by the spirit of the peasant girl he betrayed.

That's it! The dance I saw was equally cleanly well performed, with the Symphony Silicon Valley turning in the stellar performance I've come to expect from them. I was fascinated to notice how often the action closely mirrored the music — there were a few points where the dancers were knocking on doors, or hammering on a piece of wood, where they were careful to strike at the same time as the percussion, for example. The music flowing very smoothly with the dancers themselves; I only saw one or two spots where a less experienced dancer had to recover quickly from a difficult step, and got momentarily a bit ahead of the music. I would not have noticed that at all, truth be told, had we not had simply fabulous seats right up front. We were close enough that we could see the expressions on the faces of the dancers — it was quite exciting!

That led to an interesting and unexpected addition to the play of the ballet, at least for me. The title character is Giselle, the girl who loved to dance. She was danced by a young woman named Karen Gabay, who has a beautiful, wide, brilliant smile. In the first act that sort of set my mental image of Giselle — her lovely, delighted smile. Consequently for me the dying scene was particularly poignant, as the smile was gone — and it made Act Two, where Giselle is one of the Wilis, unexpectedly and marvelously eerie.

Throughout that entire Act Gabay's face was either very coldly neutral, like all the other Wilis, or in pleading grief for the life of her former lover; after the huge smile in Act One, it was an almost alien seeming expression on her face. I was impressed by the skill of both Gabay and all the other dancers in holding appropriate expressions while in the midst of technically brilliant and physically demanding movement — especially since it would be easy for a dancer to assume the audience is too far away to actually see your face.

The staging was elegantly simple and set the mood perfectly without detracting from the dancers. There were only two sets, in fact, which must have been nice for the stage crew: the cheery little village and the dark, dank forest where Giselle was buried. The lighting helped the forest be even more creepy seeming, with a full moon floating in the misty background for part of the scene — although I found the dawn lighting a bit too reminiscent of impending fire. Was it a hint of the Wilis descending into hell? ;)

Glancing through some of the on-line websites discussing previous stagings of Giselle in different decades and countries, I see there were apparently some where the Wilis were lowered to stage on machinery — to give them that ethereal, floaty, ghostly look. Thinking about it now, I'm actually kind of glad they didn't do that here. The dance of the Wilis was just amazing; it didn't need mechanical enhancement to impress the heck out of me. Seeing all those graceful women identically dressed in drifting, ghostly white, performing the same languidly willowy gestures and steps, was astonishingly effective — and very beautiful.

One step in particular had me awed: nearly twenty Wilis all balanced on one of their feet with the other leg extended; arms gracefully outstretched and heads lowered in grief; all of the ballerinas arranged in long, even rows as they did that slow, rhythmic hop-step forward — all in unison, all with the music, all without a bobble — across the entire stage! Wow. Just breathtaking.

Language of symbol & emotion

Ballet loves symbolism, from what I can tell. Not only was there some beautiful gestural pantomime within the dance that really helped tell the story, but there was also a lovely bit of use of the language of flowers. In the first act, when Loys (the assumed name of the disguised nobleman Albrecht) and Giselle are in love and all is well with the world, she uses a daisy to perform the old 'he loves me / he loves me not' routine — and hastily decides not to finish it when she realizes the daisy's petals will have her ending up on 'loves me not.' Loys picks up the cast-aside daisy and yanks a petal while she's not looking, then hopefully offers the flower to her again. She surreptitiously checks, counting the petals — then delightedly accepts it again from him.

Daisies are symbolic of innocence, loyal love, purity, faith, cheer, and simplicity — an eminently appropriate flower for Albrecht to bring to her grave on a later night. Her ghostly self returns mingled daisies and calla lilies to him, which he lays on her grave. Lilies are symbolic of purity, virginity, chastity. Is she hoping her beloved will remain true to her even after her death?

Later the Queen of the Wilis, Myrtha, uses rosemary wands to command her subjects; rosemary is for remembrance. From the Queen's unremittingly cold demeanor, she has certainly not forgotten whomever sent her grieving to her grave. The ballerina dancing Myrtha, Amy Marie Briones, was particularly striking — all her gestures were marvelously commanding, powerful, aristocratic. You truly believed she was an unearthly Queen.

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