Les Grands Ballets Canadiens returns to the classics with Giselle

Les Grands Ballet Canadiens' Yui Sugawara as Giselle. Photo: Sasha Onyshchenko

Les Grands Ballets Canadiens is doing something it hasn’t done in 20 years. It’s staging a version of one of the very first ballets. The last time the Montreal company tackled Giselle was just before the turn of the millennium.

It’s about time, said artistic director Ivan Cavallari, who joined the company in the 2017-18 season.

“It is my intention to bring the classics back to the repertoire of the company.” (Ottawa audiences will get a chance to experience this classic in Southam Hall, April 4 to 6).

He has a couple of reasons for this development.

First, “if we want to secure the budget of the company, we need to have some classics, otherwise you end up relying on invited companies” to perform ballets like Giselle and Swan Lake.

“I don’t want to do that. Why should I should I always invite companies.” He believes that confuses an audience. It’s important, he said in an interview, that Les Grands Ballets be the ones performing these pieces.

Ivan Cavallari with dancer Yui Suagawara. Photo: Sasha Onyschenko

Before Cavallari took up his post, the company had focused more on contemporary works along with an annual performance of The Nutcracker.

“What I want is to build a versatile, classically based company” that does a lot of new work and also adapts the classics to the strengths of the dancers.

“I am very interested in giving opportunities to young choreographers,” but, he said, if you don’t have the underpinning of the box office and attention that the classics provide “you don’t have the freedom to be avant garde because that program is not going to sell tickets. … I believe you can do both.”

This is also a nod to young dancers who are being trained in classical technique.

“Dancers graduating from schools deserve to dance these works. I think it is important. If you want excellence in schools then they need to have a repertoire and the opportunity to show that.

“Why,” he asked, “would you want to break your feet for so many years if you can’t show what you have learned?”

Cavallari knows all about that life. As a young student at the Teatro alla Scala Ballet School in Milan he was invited to study at the Bolshoi Ballet Academy in Moscow.

His time with the Bolshoi is still memorable.

“I experienced heavy winters in Moscow when I was a student. I was born in the north of Italy and we know what snow and cold means.”

Ironically, Cavallari said, he wasn’t that keen to go to Moscow.

“At that time I was a student in Scala in Milan and we had some exchanges with the Bolshoi school.

“My teacher said ‘We would like to send you to Moscow’. I said, ‘I don’t want to go’.”

But in the end he thought he would give it a try for a year

“It was a very interesting period. I was lucky to see lots of beautiful dances. The working experience in the school was very good.

But it was communism. Leonid Brezhnev was in power and so “it was difficult time outside the school. You spent an hour in line just to buy milk and butter.”

But ballet has no words, he said.

“Communism, fascism, it doesn’t matter what period, ballet survives.

“I saw everything, danced by the most beautiful dancers of that period. Certainly the training stayed with me for a long, long time. I still appreciate the school, the discipline and what they taught me, and what they achieved and still achieve.”

Cavallari went on to dance with La Scala Theatre Ballet and then the Stuttgart Ballet as a principal and as a soloist before becoming artistic director of companies in Australia and Germany and then Montreal. He is also a choreographer in demand. 

His take on Giselle is tailored to Les Grands Ballets. The most noticeable change that audiences will see is the set which sounds more impressionistic and, Cavallari said, reflects the emotions of Giselle the young woman at the centre of the piece.

The ballet was first performed in 1841 and is a classic of the Romantic era of French ballet.

It is a “white” ballet.

It tells the story of a young woman who falls in love with a worldly duke who hides his betrothal to another woman. The deception sends Giselle into madness and into the world of the “wilis,” the spirits of maidens who die before their nuptials. She does get some of her own back on the duke by haunting his dreams. 

When Cavallari arrived in Montreal he immediately investigated the repertoire of the company and found that Giselle hadn’t been done in two decades.

“I found there was a Giselle but there was nothing that I could profit from.”

So, he decided to build it from the ground up with a new set and with a slight adaptation of the choreography helped by Marina Villanuava. 

“These kinds of dances are my dances. I wanted to spend some time and make some changes with all due respect to the style. The Giselle you will see in Ottawa will be a classical performance.”

He hopes the changes he has made will appeal to a younger audience with a very old ballet.

He thinks the story of Giselle will connect because “it’s a story that we find every day. He is in love with someone who is already engaged to another so he is not very honest. This is something we can find in relationships today. She is in love and he runs off with another woman.”

The danger of adapting the story would be in taking it too far down the road of modernization, so, Cavallari said, he was careful in his changes.

“Giselle is a girl from the Romantic period and this is the way it will be portrayed. I want to underline the fact that if we do the classics they will probably have a specific identity.”

In the end Cavallari says he was interested in giving Giselle “some fresh air and freedom.”

Les Grands Ballets Canadiens presents Giselle
Where: Southam Hall
When: April 4 – 6 at 8 p.m.
Tickets and information: nac-cna.ca

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.