Paris Opera Ballet’s ‘Giselle’ a Masterpiece

The Paris Opera Ballet in “Giselle”. Photo by Sébastien Mathé

Presented by the Harris Theater
Chicago, IL
June 28, 2012

Reviewed by Steve Sucato

Chicago in recent years has become a destination city for great dance. So it wasn’t a surprise when the Paris Opera Ballet launched its first U.S. tour in 15-years in The Windy City. What was surprising however, was that POB’s performances June 26- July 1 at the Harris Theater were the very first by the full company in Chicago’s history.

Regarded by many as the gold standard for ballet companies, it was fitting that the legendary troupe from the birthplace of the art form opened its performances with one of ballet’s gold standard works, Giselle.

Like many professional dance writers/critics, I have seen numerous productions of Giselle from regional ones to those of the Mariinsky Ballet (formerly the Kirov Ballet) and American Ballet Theatre, but none in my opinion comes close to matching the magnificence of POB’s for its wealth of dancing , great storytelling and unique look that harkens back to the days of the Ballets Russes. Top to bottom this production is a masterpiece.

Set to music by Adolphe Adam that was performed superbly by the Grant Park Orchestra under the direction of Koen Kessels, the production – adapted by Patrice Bart and Eugene Polyakov in 1991 from Jean Coralli and Jules Perrot’s 1841 original along with Marius Petipa’s 1887 production – had a uniquely traditional ambiance to it enhanced by reconstructed sets and costumes based on Ballets Russes designer Alexandre Benois’ (the genius behind the look of ballets like Petrouchka and Les Sylphides) 1924 designs and a choreographic look that at times appeared as if it were ripped from the pages of a ballet history book.

Conceived by poet and dance critic Théophile Gautier, Giselle tells the story of a young peasant girl (Giselle) who falls in love with a young man (Albrecht) and then dies of a broken heart when she finds out he has deceived her about his true identity that of a wealthy lord who is engaged to another. Her everlasting love for him however reaches beyond the grave to save him from peril at the hands of the ghostly willis (girls who have died before their wedding day) of which she is now one.

The 2-act production featured étoile’s Dorothée Gilbert as Giselle and Stéphane Bullion as Albrecht. In the ballet’s opening act set outside Giselle’s village home, the pair showed they had great chemistry together. Bullion’s Albrecht was a self-assured and dashing man, while Gilbert’s Giselle was a shy beauty with a radiant smile. The pair’s playful interactions together were full of innocence, charm and humor.

A solid technician with excellent footwork and control, Gilbert shone most brightly in her acting. Her depiction of Giselle gone crazy in the ballet’s “mad scene” frantically whirling around and dragging a sword was spot on. For his part, Bullion proved an excellent partner to Gilbert as well as an excellent dancer, although his trail leg in his leaps tended to sag behind him.

Disappointing however was the performance of premier danseur Vincent Chaillet in the main role of Hilarion, an unwanted suitor of Giselle’s. Chaillet’s performance had all the flavor of dry toast. His characterization of Hilarion lacked expressiveness and his dancing was uninspired. Only in his mourning Giselle’s death later in the act did Chaillet show some life in his own performance.

Pleasantly surprising however were coryphée dancer Améile Lamoureux in a beefed up role as Berthe, Giselle’s mother. Lamoureux impressed with her expressive dancing and acting skills, and sujet Amandine Albisson in the peasant pas de deux who very nearly stole the spotlight from Gilbert with her potent combination of superior technique, extension, line, great feet and winning personality. Albisson’s partner in the pas, sujet Daniel Stokes, unfortunately floundered especially in his solo work looking visibly overcome with nerves.

While Gilbert, Bullion and Lamoureux were standouts, the actual star of the ballet turned out to be POB’s corps de ballet, more specifically the women of the corps de ballet whose uniformity of physical appearance, uncanny synchronization with one another and adroit dancing was stunning. They are quite possibly the best corps de ballet in the world and fortunately in this production we got to see a lot them. They were particularly brilliant in Act II as the willis who haunted the forest graveyard where Giselle was buried. Dressed in long white tulle dresses adorned in the back with two small wings and wearing matching black wigs crowned by a band of flowers, the 26 of them including demi-soloists Eloïsz Bourdon and Charline Giezendanner danced with grace and purpose forming well-spaced uniform lines and expertly executing one of the ballet’s most famous scenes of the willis hopping on one-foot across the stage in opposing horizontal lines of dancers.

Étoile Emile Cozette was marvelous as Myrtha, queen of the willis. Her cold demeanor, while a bit reserved, still left one with the impression she was not a woman to be trifled with and had little sympathy for the men like Hilarion she and the other willis forced to dance until dead.

The second act also showed more clearly why Gilbert and Bullion are étoiles in the company. Both danced with grace and feeling as mourner and spector reaching out for one another across the veil that separates life and death.

Gilbert’s dancing had power and attack especially prevalent in a rapid succession of backward bourrées that took her off the stage eliciting an audible gasp from the audience.

The ballet ended with Bullion staring out into the distance and letting fall from his arms a bouquet of lilies a few at a time symbolizing the final loss of his beloved Giselle.

This review also appears on – Copyright 2012 Steve Sucato 

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