I really like ballet. Normally if I “like” something I’m completely obsessed with it for a while, then get over it. My interest in ballet seems to have developed in a way that I can only assume is how normal people get interested in things, gradually, rationally and over a lifetime. I’ve had the good luck to see some of the most wonderful productions at the Royal Opera House in London and recently saw Giselle as part of their latest season. Giselle is the ballet I’ve been dying to see in recent years. Giselle herself is a female character with more than a little of the Ophelia about her. We probably guess it’s not going to end well when she enters in Act I; innocently plucking at flowers but also frequently stifling a swoon to show us that she’s of delicate health. She’s seduced by a stranger to the village, who soon turns out to be not simply an anonymous neighbour but in fact an undercover prince, and an engaged one at that. The dramatic revelation when it finally comes is too much for Giselle, who, after losing the plot and dancing with invisible partners and picking some invisible flowers, succumbs to her weak heart and dies. In Act II her grave is visited by a group of female spirits, eternal jilted brides who died before they were married and now haunt the nighttime woods to wreak sinister revenge on unsuspecting wanderers. The spirits raise Giselle from her grave to join them, only to chance upon Giselle’s double-crossing prince, who is visiting her grave site to make amens for his wrongdoings. The group surround him in their somber white veils and enchant him into a dance to the death. Giselle though, forgiving her prince and determined that he should avoid this fate, helps him dance until it’s time for sunrise when the spirits disappear, taking with them their newest arrival, Giselle.
Ballet is completely ordered, it might often seem spontaneous and impulsive if done well, but the rigid hierarchy, choreography and symbolism behind these most traditional of dances mean that there’s never a toe out of place. The storyline usually involves a relationship between a man and a woman but it usually also features a community which one or both of the characters belongs to. The ballet company works like tiers of a wedding cake, groups will perform dances, usually in decreasing numbers and with increasing technical feats until all previous performance is distilled into the final dance between the two principles. Their final dance can be seen as the essence of the ballet.
Ballet is at its most beautiful when at its most sorrowful and I suppose that’s what makes Giselle such a great ballet. The dance as a lament is hardest to do, both from a technical point of view since it is often set to slower music and requires greater physical control and balance and also from an emotional performance point of view because technical genius is nothing if you can’t move people.
I don’t know any ballet dancers, in fact I don’t know anyone who knows any ballet dancers. Are there not many of them? What are they like? I just can’t fathom the mindset you’d need to train like the hardestcore athlete 80% of the time then spend the remaining 20% on stage acting like your heart is breaking with centuries-old orchestration as your soundtrack and magical landscapes as your surroundings.
Sidenote: I loved the 1948 film The Red Shoes when I was little. Its the kind of film that I was encouraged to watch and yet secretly thought they clearly had no idea of the contents of the film because it was so disturbing and insane.