"Giselle" is a demanding work for any dancer, but Ballet Chelsea’s students are thriving in it
Because of the weight of its subject matter and the demands of its production, Giselle is seldom tackled in student performance. Yet, here is Ballet Chelsea, a relatively new pre-professional company, mounting a full-length Giselle on March 11 and 12 at the CHS Performing Arts Complex.
Giselle is serious business -- and I mean that in a couple of ways.
First, there’s the matter of its plot. Giselle, a young peasant girl, falls in love with Albrecht, whom she meets when his hunting party passes near her village. He promises to marry her, but before Act I is over she has learned the extent of his deception: he is not just some hunter, he is a duke, and furthermore, he is already betrothed to Bathilde. Giselle goes mad and dies of a broken heart -- both literal and figurative (the idea that she has a weak heart and should not dance so much was planted early in the act).
In Act II, Giselle has become a Wili, the spirit of a young woman jilted at the altar. She is not alone; there’s a whole gang of Wilis and they are out for revenge on the men who betrayed them. Their queen orders Giselle to dance with Albrecht until he dies of exhaustion. Instead, Giselle stays with him until the dawn, when Wilis lose their power, thus saving his life. She returns to the grave and he, presumably, to a life of guilt and remorse.
So the story is a far cry from the fluffy stuff of, say, The Nutcracker. Furthermore, it is a formidable production to tackle.
Dating from 1841, it shares the Romantic-era interest in things wild and outside the realm of reason and, more specifically, in the duality of the real and the supernatural. The character of Giselle embodies both; she is a real peasant girl and a spirit from beyond the grave. This is a difficult role, awarded to ballerinas at the height of their powers. Not only must Giselle have considerable acting chops, she must have the controlled technique that allows her to float so freely and land so softly that we believe she is not of this world.
Then there’s the matter of the corps de ballet, that group of seemingly identical women -- the Wilis in Giselle, but swans or snowflakes or fairies in other ballets -- who move as one body. If they are not in perfect unison, their lines and formations absolutely pure, then the illusion of a host of spirits is fractured.
Ballet Chelsea Artistic Director Wendi DuBois acknowledged Giselle is an ambitious choice but explained that she wanted to challenge her dancers, to develop certain qualities and strengths in them. She wanted her students Stephanie Dehoorne and Lauren Yordanich to have the experience of dancing the role of Giselle (each will perform it one night), acknowledging that “this is something they will most likely never do again.”
When DuBois talked about her dancers -- both the younger ones and the select 10 who, as members of Ballet Chelsea’s Professional Training Program, take at least eight ballet classes a week in addition to their long hours of rehearsal on Saturday and Sunday -- her commitment to these students’ growth is obvious. Her desire to push their dancing abilities is equaled by her evident interest in developing their work ethic, their capacity for empathy, and their desire for excellence, regardless of whether they ultimately become professional dancers: “If you give 100% of yourself all the time to the endeavors you care about, you become a stronger person,” DuBois said. She emphasized that this Giselle is about the learning process for her students, not about a perfect, professional-level product.
DuBois’s talk impressed me; it made me thrilled for her students who have this generous, knowledgeable, articulate woman on their side, constructing experiences for them that will affect them so profoundly. What her talk didn’t do is prepare me for the extremely high quality of dancing I witness in rehearsal, two weeks before the first curtain goes up on Giselle. Their dancing was intensely satisfying.
I watched Dehoorne, a high school junior, and Patrick McCrae, a dance major at EMU, rehearse the Act II scenes in which they encounter each other at Giselle’s gravesite. (Yordanich, a senior, was at an audition for the Boston Ballet’s pre-professional program on the day I was there. Many of DuBois’s dancers go on to professional ballet companies and top college dance programs after high school.)
To be sure, Dubois and her Assistant Artistic Director Sarah Eckart gave their dancers plenty of notes, but they were of the nitpicky sort; all the big stuff is under control. The lines and placement of their bodies were pure and correct, the delicate footwork was precise, and when McCrae lifted Dehoorne or supported her in a turn, the actions were seamless.
Dubois told him, “You’re doing a good job putting her down. If I hear it at all, she’s human. And she’s not; she’s mist.”
As a watcher, I trusted them -- a different feeling from the anxiety and suspense I feel watching students who are struggling with something beyond their reach.
Even more impressive than their solid technique was the way they handled the expressive elements of this dancing. McCrae’s face was a shifting storm of apprehension and love. For Dehoorne, the character of Giselle resided in her body. I knew who she is and how she felt by watching her exquisitely articulated arms, shoulders, and upper body -- and her soft landings -- more than her facial expression.
Watching DuBois coach this aspect of the dancing was fascinating. She told them that when they are pleading -- hands clasped and moving forward and back in front of their chests -- that the motion must reverberate in their chests and torsos. It’s a movement from the heart, or maybe from the gut. DuBois’s explained to Dehoorne why an arm goes where it does: “You don’t want to leave him, you don’t want to leave him. You want to be with him.”
Although DuBois gave this type of pointed theatrical coaching and said that they have looked at the minute details of every scene, she also left some decisions up to the dancers. Famously, Giselle’s “mad scene” at the end of Act I is unique to each dancer who takes the role. In keeping with that tradition, both girls who will dance Giselle have been coached in certain aspects of how the peasant maiden goes crazy, but much is left to them.
DuBois has encouraged them to look at “every version of the mad scene under the sun” and make some of their own choices; their mad scenes will be their own. Similarly, when Dehoorne asked how high she should look in a particular moment, DuBois replied, “It’s up to you. You’re trying to reach, you’re trying to get out of your situation. You’re trying to cheat your own death.” Dehoorne’s understanding of these motivations will dictate how high she looks.
Although I did not attend rehearsals for the corps de ballet sections, I am confident that these scenes will be of a very high quality as well. Last year DuBois had her students perform Les Sylphides, a Romantic-style ballet (although choreographed early in the 20th century) that is full of exacting corps work. Rehearsing and performing in the corps de ballet of both Les Sylphides and Giselle necessarily imparts to these girls some of the most important skills of this type of dancing: subsuming self to the whole and breathing as one with 15 other people.
More prosaically, they must also learn to engage their peripheral vision like mad and develop a high tolerance for standing on one leg for a really long time; the corps de ballet frames the action of Giselle and Albrecht, standing motionless in pretty poses while the soloists dance. DuBois recounted how in the last rehearsal she told the corps dancers, “After Albrecht does his solo variation, you may take one step and be on the other leg. And they go, ‘Thank you!’”
DuBois’s efforts to push Ballet Chelsea forward is yielding results, not only in the quality of the company’s productions but also in its visibility. After a successful collaboration with the Jackson Symphony Orchestra last fall, the two organizations plan to present The Nutcracker together this December. Performing with a live symphony orchestra will be yet another unusually demanding and sophisticated experience for the company’s pre-professional dancers, and a boon for local dance audiences who usually have to travel much farther for this sort of full-scale production.
From 1993-2004, Veronica Dittman Stanich danced in New York and co-produced The Industrial Valley Celebrity Hour in Brooklyn. Now, PhD in hand, she writes about dance and other important matters.
Ballet Chelsea’s “Giselle” will be performed on March 11 at 7 pm and March 12 at 2 pm at the CHS Performing Arts Complex, 740 N Freer Rd., Chelsea, Michigan. For tickets and more information, visit balletchelsea.org.