I experienced ballet for the first time this summer when Mr S and I were given free tickets to Ballett am Rhein’s ‘Seven’, an abstract, modernist piece, choreographed by Martin Schläpfer to the music of Mahler’s Symphony Number 7. Although the physicality, precision and sheer stamina of the dancers was impressive, I have to confess that I didn’t really ‘get’ it. As we filed out of the theatre amongst a seasoned crowd, all nodding approvingly to each other, hands sore from the longest standing ovation I have ever been subjected to, I was convinced that I had done something wrong. I should have undertaken research, learnt the story in advance, been better equipped with the tools to interpret what I had seen.
The next day, whilst carrying out belated investigations, I came across a quote from the choreographer which made me feel instantly better:
“I don’t like to go to the theatre and know how one gets from A-Z. I like mystery, I like secrets – I like that sometimes it doesn’t make sense.”
Apparently, I had been right all along. Reassured that my analytical skills were still intact I resolved to try ballet again.
The opportunity came this week when the Royal New Zealand ballet’s production of Giselle came to town. A more perfect match for Halloween would be hard to find. Giselle was first staged in Paris in 1841 and it is one of the oldest ballets still performed. The tale is a Gothic Romance, set in the woods of Medieval Germany. Giselle, a young peasant girl is wooed by Albrecht, a Duke in disguise. Disapproving of the match are Hilarion, a rival for Giselle’s hand, and her mother, Berthe, concerned for the welfare of her daughter who was born with a weak heart. The first Act concentrates on life in the village and Albrecht’s courtship of Giselle. The corps de ballet, the equivalent of a play’s chorus, feature prominently with group routines based on folk-dances and wedding waltzes. The bucolic idyll is interrupted by a visit from a hunting party, local aristocracy who will recognise Albrecht. At their arrival he flees and, suspicious, Hilarion searches his possessions and discovers a sword and horn, the call of which makes the hunters return. Albrecht is unmasked but worse, one amongst the party is his betrothed, the Princess Bathilde. Distraught by his betrayal, Giselle’s heart gives out and, after a frenzied, maddened solo, she dies in the Duke’s arms.
Act two opens on a darkened stage. Gone is the village, the Grimm inspired wooden shacks, the flowers and the sunshine. We are now deep in the heart of the woods. Stark against the blackness, floating on pointe as though she were truly made of no more than air, comes an ethereal spirit, all in white, Myrtha, Queen of the Wilis. Her haunting dance conjures her followers, the unresting souls of women who have died at the hand of love, creatures taken from the poetry of Victor Hugo and Heinrich Heine, Germanic versions of the Slavic Vila, nymphs of the forest, of the wilderness. They arrive, veiled, in phenomenal, goosebump inducing synchronicity, barely looking at their sisters as they pass, sometimes backwards, displaying an inherent trust that each will be in time, in their place.
We cut to Albrecht, alone at Giselle’s tomb. It is dangerous for a man to be in the woods at night. If he strays across the Wilis’ path they will not let him leave. He will be danced to death in revenge for the wrongs they have suffered. But Giselle’s ghost has risen. Her love endures from beyond the grave and she will not allow Albrecht to come to harm. First they dance together, a pathos ridden echo of Act One. Their movements mirror each others but they cannot touch, separated by the void between their worlds. They linger too long.
Led by their Queen, the Wilis return. Albrecht will be their next victim. Giselle begs for his life but it is not enough. The dance must begin. The final minutes of the ballet are some of the best as Giselle battles to protect her love, partnering him through the dance until dawn begins to break and the spirits must fall back to the shadows, unsatisfied. For now. Traditionally, the ballet has a ‘happy’ ending, Albrecht is saved, Giselle’s ghost escapes Myrtha’s grasp and can slip in to sleep. Part of the power of this production was the choice not to vanquish the Wilis. As an opaque screen fell across the stage, spotlights revealed first, a man, head bowed dressed in black, then a figure in all in white. So beware the woods this Halloween, so long as there is heartbreak the Willis will not rest.