Nearly 30 years ago, Camille Paglia wrote in her landmark study Sexual Personae that “we still live in the age of Romanticism.” At the time I remember feeling validated by her words, since much of the music, art and performance work I witnessed then embodied clear aspects of romanticism or, at the very least, neo-romanticism.
Often my friends and colleagues gave me puzzled looks when I described contemporary work as “romantic,” but I would not back down. Paglia’s assertion crept back into my brain even last year, when I was at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, looking at David Bowie’s colorful costumes for Screaming Lord Byron, one of his many brazenly romantic personae. We are still in a romantic age.
It comes as no surprise to me, then, that the ballet Giselle has remained a mainstay of the repertory over the past few decades. It doesn’t matter that it premiered 175 years ago, since the story is still familiar. Phantoms and vampires dominate contemporary cable television. What are Giselle’s second-act Wilis, if not the distant relatives of eternal vampires? And how could the story of a thoughtless player who breaks a girl’s heart, only to seek refuge in her unconditional compassion, ever become stale?
What has changed greatly, of course, is the expressive language of ballet. The past two centuries hold the greatest developments in ballet history and since the original romantic period, ballet choreographers have moved through imperial classicism, modernism, neo-classicism, post-modernism, and whatever you’d like to call the amalgam known as contemporary ballet choreography.
Yes, I have seen numerous versions of Giselle, and they could be organized under two basic headings: traditional and wildly revisionist. Artistic director Stanton Welch’s new version for Houston Ballet is traditional. In fact, he has developed so little of what might be called “the collective memories” of Perrot and Coralli’s choreography that it is puzzling to consider why the company is bothering to present this seemingly “new” version.
Five years ago, after I saw Houston Ballet’s old production of Giselle, I wrote here, “The scenic design and costumes give a feeling of cheapness, as if Houston Ballet is merely the poor cousin of a greater company.” That is no longer true. This production is lavish. Roberta Guidi Di Bagno’s sets and costumes are lovely, if nondescript. They have a rather plain autumnal look, suggesting a narrative that occurs in the some-teenth century, somewhere in some part of Europe. In other words, it’s rather safe and easy on the eye, without idiosyncrasy. Albrecht’s gold velvet cape is sumptuous, but the image is fleeting. Lisa J. Pinkham’s lighting design is, unfortunately, almost always too dark.
At the Thursday opening night performance Connor Walsh was a confident, impressive Albrecht. What do I remember the most? His quietly fluttering, soft-landing cabriole crossovers in the second act. They were heroic when we needed some heroism. Walsh fits easily into this role, he is a smooth partner for Giselle, and he was dancing at the top of his game. The character, an empty-headed royal who becomes filled with remorse, is tricky to bring off. He should seem clueless in the first act and deeply introspective in the second. Walsh succeeded in achieving this nuanced portrayal.
Yuriko Kajiya in the title role did not make as strong an impression, with inconsistent technique and stilted acting. She has some strange habits on stage. When she leaps, for example, she reaches with her head, which is at odds with a light, floating romantic style. Her mad scene, in particular, seemed to go on forever. Was it her overwrought gestures, or the fact that Welch didn’t quite know what he wanted to do for her in this scene? It should have been the high point of the first act. Rather, it was cloying.
Kajiya’s phrasing is stop-and-go. Another way to say this is that she did not seem aware of the musical score, one of the most famous in the ballet repertory. At this point in her career, she should know it well. Was conductor Ermanno Florio following her, or was it the other way around? The end result was that the music and the Kajiya’s phrases only met occasionally, making her interpretation unsustainable, especially in the second-act pas de deux.
Brian Waldrep as Hilarion stood in at the last moment for Ian Casady, and he didn’t have to work too hard to get himself noticed. This is the character who is devoured by the Wilis in the second act, and Waldrep’s convincingly desperate attempt to escape made the episode quite memorable.
Katharine Precourt, as Myrtha, Queen of the Wilis, wasn’t having a great night. There was heaviness in her interpretation, which was only reinforced by the sound of her pointe shoes hitting the stage. Clomping, actually. She wasn’t the only one guilty of noisy dancing. The entire second act corps-de-ballet dancers were both noisy and disheveled, ruining the ethereal ballet blanc.
At times, Welch offers strange deviations. One might call them ruptures. By way of example, when the men enter from the hunt in the second act, Welch has them drop their props and suddenly leap randomly, at different times and in different places about the stage, as if to visually exclaim, “We caught rabbits! We’ve killed a boar!” It looks more like a big mess, as if they were warming up before class rather than returning from a hunt.
Welch has dispensed with much of the traditional pantomime, possibly because he doesn’t think that contemporary audiences would understand it. He could be right about that, but he doesn’t offer much in its place. The pantomime, nonetheless has music that once went along with it. When Peter Boal made his “historically correct” staging five years ago for Pacific Northwest Ballet, he did exactly the opposite, in part “…to refresh and rediscover this still great and beloved ballet,” as he explained. Some audience members thought it too studied, not spontaneous enough. Welch’s version, at the other end of the spectrum, is pretty and nondescript. It offers little inspiration to the company’s dancers, who appear to be treating it as an exercise.