Sunday, April 20, 2008

A night at the ballet

I saw the Butler Ballet's Giselle at Clowes Hall last night. The dancers did a great job. I've been impressed a few times recently by Butler's dancers, and Giselle was no exception. Laura designed lights (mostly; they hired in a consultant who had absolute control over the production), and I really liked the part of the design for which Laura had a vote. I would've liked to see what Laura would've done with act two, if she would have had the freedom to design it her way. Still, I found the show entertaining, for a storybook ballet.

Which is not my favorite genre of dance, to be honest. They're not content to just dance and let you pick it up as you go along. The stories are full of complexity that can't be shown on stage, so you're expected to go into the show with a complete knowledge of the story and the characters. In general, this is what irritates me about storybook ballets: they don't survive as independent works of art. The dance on stage can be pretty, but the storytelling comes to the audience less through the dancers, and more by reading the program.

Giselle is unique (at least in my experience) amongst ballets, in that you actually know, just from watching the show, the main character's name. It appears on her tombstone, which is onstage for all of act two (this isn't a spoiler, since the synopsis in your program tells you she dies at the end of act one; one of the nice things about storybook ballets is that they're spoiler-proof). Were it not for the tombstone, a person might assume that Giselle is the name of the dead girl's mother. Or the guy she's in love with. All storybook ballets are this way. The characters have names because you read them in your programs. And they have to have names. Giselle can't just be "the girl"; Albrecht can't just be "the prince". I think this is less about the performance, and more about the résumé credit for dancers. The names serve as shorthand for the roles you performed. It's easier to say you were Myrtha than queen of the ghost-things.

Side note: I play a mental game during the boring parts of storybook ballets. I work under the assumption that everyone on stage has a name, not just the main characters. So I name them. The third country maiden from the left? Barbara. The guy who takes Drosselmeyer's cloak when he enters the party in Nutcracker? Mack. Odette's second assistant deputy swan girl in Swan Lake? Candy. It keeps me interested in the show when the dance doesn't.

There are things about Giselle, as a story, that irritate me. If you're not familiar with the ballet, pop over and read the synopsis of Giselle to learn what the story's about before I issue my complaints. Go ahead -- read the synopsis. I'll wait.

Okay, now that we're on the same page here. My biggest problem is that every production of Giselle I've seen (both productions, that is!), Hilarion is cast as the villain for revealing Albrecht's deception, and his death is shown as somehow justified. Personally, I've always thought Hilarion was the hero. He's the local villager, the king's gamekeeper, who's been crushing on Giselle for years, bringing her gifts and leaving her flowers. Along comes the prince, who sneaks away from the castle (and, not insignificantly, his fiancé) to seduce the hot country girl Giselle. He pledges his love to her and gets her to fall for him. Hilarion thinks something fishy is happening and discovers Albrecht's sword. Albrecht says, "okay, so maybe I'm royalty. Ignore the fact that I've been deceiving you -- I love you, baby!" But when the royalty find him, he takes his fiancé's hand and turns his back on Giselle; he says, essentially, "oh, her? She's just some country girl I was dancing with at the harvest festival." Because of his betrayal, Giselle dies of a broken heart (or suicide, depending on the version you see). The prince is a two-timing jerk. And yet Giselle, showcasing her extremely poor taste in men, is still hopelessly in love with the prince. In act two, she saves him while letting Hilarion dance himself to death.

Which, incidentally, is one thing I find unintentionally amusing about Giselle. How do you credibly show a character being compelled to dance himself to exhaustion, in a ballet wherein all the characters ever do is dance? "Look, he's dancing around with the ghost-women for almost two minutes! This is obviously tiring -- completely unlike all the rest of the dancing he's been doing for the last two hours, for reasons which escape me at the moment!" And this is entirely because of the plot synopsis in the program. If I were only watching the dance, I'd assume that the Willis were draining his energy, sucking the life out of him until he collapses, and the dancing was the usual balletic movement while he was trying to escape. But because I've been told what's supposed to be happening, it ends up unintentionally funny.

I'm also amused that Giselle spends all of act two, essentially, undead. It's a sign that I watch too many of the wrong movies: I almost laughed out loud during what was otherwise a solemn moment, when she was bending over Albrecht's dance-weary form, and a voice in the back of my head said, "Braaaaiiiinns!!!" Yeah, I know -- ghosts, not zombies. Still, funny. I guess you had to be there.

One oddity of seeing a storybook ballet at Butler University is that they've got a huge dance department. The students all have parents who are paying $27k a year ($36k a year, if you include room and board) for their kids to study dance. I suspect the dance department is under some pressure to not exclude any of their students from the bigger productions. The result: I've never seen a ballet with a cast as huge as the ones at Butler. It seemed like there were a hundred dancers on stage for bows. It was crowded. Oddly, they don't end up with bad dancers onstage, detracting from the quality of the production; Butler is a selective school, and I don't know if they even have any bad dancers.

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