As a High School student, I can remember being shocked at male ballet dancers in leotards. I had not much experience of watching dance, and it seemed to me that the men had little else on but spray paint. This did not bode well for my life as a balletomane, and I still will fight harder to hear Bach’s B Minor Mass than to go to most ballets. Yet having matured past the spray can, I attend dance performances happily.
Much of this had to do with being brave enough to venture to a modern dance version of Rashomōn in London when I first went up to Oxford. I found the performance oddly moving as each dancer’s different view of an assault in a forest was danced out. My interest culminated in seeing Nureyev dance the part of Death in his own Romeo and Juliet and watching Baryshnikov as Romeo set to Prokofiev from a box at Covent Garden. I even had a friend who heads a dance program arrange to have a ballet dedicated to my Mother for her one hundredth birthday. In short, I now consider myself a fan of dance, traditional and modern. I have even developed a taste for Indian classical dance, Bharatanatyam, by watching Parashwanath Upidye dance on YouTube.
I have seen more modern dance than ballet, though I like both. Decades ago, when the American Dance Festival moved to Duke, I saw almost all the major modern dance troupes as an usher. It was a great introduction to the art of dance.
So when I discovered I could see Giselle at the Vienna Staatsoper, I not only signed up myself, but I bought a ticket for a former student who teaches English in Vienna. Monica had endeared herself to me as an excellent student and a fine baker who used to bring me treats in class. Top-rate students always are of interest, but when they come cookies in hand, they are endearingly delicious.
I got Monica to go to Melk Abbey with the tour before the ballet, and as I had hoped, she baked me some splendid cookies. Her reward would not only be the Baroque splendor that is Melk Abbey, but one of the finest ballet performances I have ever seen.
Giselle is theologically dicey, with the Wilis, the souls of unmarried women, having the unfortunate habit of making men they encounter in the forest dance themselves to death as a revenge against the male species. It is therefore “wrong but wromantic,” in the words of 1066 and All That. Monica had not yet been to the Staatsoper, so this seemed like an ideal commencement.
I don’t know exactly why most males seem to eschew the ballet. It is as athletic as anything in sports and requires top physical shape and demanding practice. For that matter, it is well known that some football coaches require their teams to take ballet, not as punishment but as a form of training that helps them win games. You think there is a penalty for fumbling a football? Try dropping a prima ballerina!
What ballet does require is control. The ability to make the body move in precise and often difficult ways requires a great amount of work, not to mention talent. The Staatsoper performance demonstrated this training and skill to the highest degree.
The story, of a nobleman falling in love with a country girl, is now old toe shoes. The nobleman seeks to woo Giselle by hiding his symbols of rank as a sword (a dead giveaway that Albrecht is not a commoner and therefore not exactly a good marriage bet for a pleasant peasant). Hilarion, the huntsman, also loves Giselle and is a better match; he has no noble fiancée to get things muddled. He is, like Albrecht, also an accomplished dancer.
Things get wore when Hilarion unmasks Albrecht as an unsuitable suitor – at least from the perspective of the noble fiancée, who is taken enough with Giselle to give her a chain from her own neck. She might be less generous if she knew how besotted with Giselle Albrecht really is. Giselle, of course, dies of a broken heart, an unusual medical condition at the very best. Coopted by Myrtha, the leader of the ghostly Wilis, Giselle is to revenge herself on Albrecht, but her love proves too strong to want Albrecht dead. (This may be the most unbelievable thing of all as dying for love is not exactly the sort of thing one enjoys.) Hilarion, of course, dies dancing, but Albrecht manages to stay alive until morning chases the Wilis away.
One does not watch Giselle for the plot or even the music, which suits the ballet well enough, but it not exactly Tchaikovsky. The principal dancers, Olga Smirnova (Giselle) and Semyon Chudin (Duke Albrecht) were superb dancers from the Bolshoi. Both managed to float their leaps quite uncannily, and the height and number of Chudin’s etnrechats seemed almost inhuman. Eno Peci was also brilliant as Hilarion, the Huntsman, and Kiyoka Hashimoto, the Queen of the Wilis, moved offstage so fast en pointe that I would have had to run to beat her!
One of the most astounding things was the corps de ballet, the Wilis. They moved in such complete unison that they seemed to move as one. I do not know the term for “hopping on one foot with leg extended,” but the Wilis managed to do it elegantly. Hopping may not sound elegant, but when a couple of dozen women do it simultaneously, the effect is mesmerizing. But of course I suppose the Wilis ought to be pretty useless if they were not mesmerizing.
It was a memorable performance, showing the physical control that makes dance something to want to see again and again. The Wiener Stattsballett was a high point in my Viennese sojourn, and I hope to see such great classical dance again. I hope Monica agrees.