When ballet was still something new and strange in America, Giselle was as close to white-bread mainstream arts fare as you could find. Sixty years on, the ballet (celebrating its 170th anniversary this month) has become something of a rarity on American stages. Still just as loved by dance buffs and dancers alike, it's been crowded into the background a bit by later, showier full-length dance-dramas like Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty, as well as the astonishing proliferation of great works created on American soil in the later 20th Century.
As a result, any full-scale revival of the work is a novelty. But Pacific Northwest Ballet's revival is something unique: an attempt to produce a version as close as possible to the elusive essence of the work first seen the evening of June 28, 1841, triangulating three separate, partial sources to bring that essence into focus.
The point person in the team re-imagining Giselle is not a dancer or choreographer but a scholar: Doug Fullington, best known to Seattle as the artistic director of the Renaissance vocal ensemble the Tudor Choir. It was he who convinced PNB artistic director Peter Boal that returning to the sources of Giselle was worth the immense effort involved.
Why go to the trouble? Because Giselle, more than any other ballet, is where it all began — the work where the 200-year-old tradition of courtly dance, dramatic pantomime, and music fused for the first time into a freestanding conceptual whole.
Giselle's prime mover, the poet and critic Théophile Gautier, constructed his scenario around a hackneyed “romantic” plot element: the supernatural female who lures men to their destruction. But he adapted the figure, usually thought of as a water-nymph, to reflect his medium, and his ideas about what dance was all about.
Since the medium was danced drama, he made dance the modus operandi of destruction. And the ideas are anything but abstract. When Gautier watched dancers, he did so with the eye of those saturnine gents you see in the paintings of Degas and Toulouse-Lautrec. He focused on the female figure — not on steps or gestures but on the physical presence of a woman in a spotlight, her limbs exposed to the sensual gaze, an object of impossible desire.
But because Gautier was a profound thinker and a brilliant writer, his descriptions of dance as he saw it made ballet legible as art form; dance criticism was born. Every time a cavalier steps forward to offer his hand to his partner, we see re-enacted the central mystery Gautier was the first to illuminate.
But the Giselle familiar to 20th-century audiences is a long way from what first-nighters at Paris's Salle Pelletier saw. The piece was immediately popular; so much so that a year after its premiere it was set on the dancers of St. Petersburg's Imperial Russian Ballet by the repetiteur Antoine Titus. His version, based on notes he took on Jules Perrot's Paris staging, is lost; but we still have his record of the extensive passages of plot-driven pantomime dramatizing the unhappy love affair between the dance-mad peasant girl Giselle and her noble but unfaithful suitor Albrecht.
Pantomime is unfashionable in contemporary dance. But it was the breath of life in dance for 200 years, and when you see it done with conviction you can understand why: To watch Baryshnikov and Makarova in the 1977 American Ballet Theater staging of Giselle (still available as a VHS tape) is like seeing a film you know only in black and white suddenly rendered in living color.
Titus's notes on the pantomime have been incorporated as fully as possible in PNB's new staging. To judge from the rehearsal videos posted on the company's website, the dancers have fully absorbed Fullington's lessons: Instead of the hesitant, almost embarrassed execution one often sees in dance pantomime, they plunge full-out into rapturous gesture involving the whole body.
If Titus's notes on the original steps are lost, not all is lost. In the 1860s another ballet-master, Henri Justament, made his own “storyboard” of the ballet as he knew it, showing the performers at successive stages of the action. Most precious of all for the reconstruction is a bar-by-bar transcription of the work in so-called “Stepanov notation,” the medium whereby the steps of works in the Imperial Ballet repertory are recorded.
Fullington is trained in reading the notation; working with him and with Marian Smith, a world authority on Giselle and on Adolphe Adam's musical score, PNB's Boal has endeavored to get as close to the form and spirit of the ballet's original movement as we're likely ever to get.
PNB has not attempted to recreate the physical production seen in 1841; trying to emulate the elaborate wing-and-drop scenery, the machinery and special flying and transformation effects of a mid-19th-century Parisian stage could easily have doubled the project's budget. But no one could accuse the company of stinting in more up-to-date technology. The multimedia resources developed for its Giselle website are thoroughly entertaining as well as instructive, a perfect way of preparing to appreciate this extraordinary opportunity to see one of the seminal works of Western art rethought, refreshed, and brought back into focus.
For enlightening glimpses of PNB's Giselle in the making, a visit to this portion of the company's website is strongly recommended. Resources include video of an 80-minute lecture-demonstration PNB gave at New York's Guggenheim Museum on Jan. 9, previewing the production.
If you go: Giselle, June 3-12 at Marion McCaw Hall, Seattle Center, 321 Mercer St., Seattle. Tickets start at $27 and are available at the box office, by phone (206-441-2424), or online at online at pnb.org.