Review: Les Grands Ballets offers intriguing new take on Giselle

Les Grands Ballets Canadiens' Yui Sugawara danced as Giselle Thursday evening. Photo: Sasha Onyshchenko

As a city with no professional dance ensemble of its own, it isn’t often that Ottawa nabs the world premiere of a new ballet. So NAC Dance’s Cathy Levy scored a coup when she secured the very first performances of Les Grands Ballets Canadiens’ new Giselle, which Ottawa is getting even before Montreal.

Les Grands’ new artistic director, Ivan Cavallari, has created a Giselle adaptation that adheres to the beloved Petipa version while introducing some intriguing new choreographic elements.

The story remains the same: The nobleman Albrecht toys with Giselle, an innocent peasant girl who adores dancing, by pretending to be a peasant. When Giselle’s jealous beau Hilarion exposes Albrecht, revealing he is already engaged to his social equal Bathilde, Giselle loses her mind and dies of grief. She joins the #metoo sisterhood of Wilis, the vengeful ghosts of girls deceived by men. In the forest at midnight, the Willis attack Hilarion by trying to dance him to death. Their Queen Myrtha encourages Giselle to do the same to Albrecht. Giselle forgives him instead.

Cavallari’s new staging features huge, video-animation backdrops: fields of red and white flowers waving in the breeze, towering, gloomy Germanic forests. In Act I, the stage is dotted with flower-covered hillocks: pretty, but the corps scenes felt crowded and squashed between the botanical displays. Costumes are kept ultra-traditional.

Cavallari’s most innovative and successful idea is to bring in Myrtha, who usually doesn’t appear until Act II, in foreshadowing scenes in Act I. This suggests predestination, as if Myrtha and the spirit-world had already chosen Giselle and marked her as doomed. Introducing Hilarion and Albrecht, Giselle’s two rival suitors, via contrasting, virtuoso variations during the overture is another creative redesign.

Not all of Cavallari’s changes work so well. There’s no little Giselle house for Albrecht and Hilarion to visit, no little bench for Albrecht and Giselle’s meet-cute. Albrecht never changes into farmhand disguise, making his deception even less credible than in the original. And after all of Myrtha’s wild, witchy summoning, it’s anticlimactic when Giselle’s ghost simply pas de bourrées in quietly from stage right, instead of making her traditional spooky entrance (if you’ve never seen the ballet, she’s usually shown rising slowly out of her grave, wearing a white veil that flies off dramatically at Myrtha’s command).

It was also difficult to make sense of the decision to lower the entire overhead bank of stage lights, rigging and all, almost to the dancers’ heads during the final pas de deux. A metaphor for heaven? Who knows, but the sudden industrial accent was jarring, and distracted too much from the purity and emotion of the dancing.

At Thursday night’s premiere, Yui Sugawara was a luminous Giselle, dainty and innocent in Act I, wan and insubstantial in Act II. She’s very slight, yet all of her movements — her majestic developpé, her hummingbird-quick entrechats — have fantastic clarity and volume. Replacing Vanessa Montoya, Maude Sabourin was a severe, zealous Myrthe.

Tall, dark-haired Alessio Scognamiglio has legs for days and used them to carve out noble, formal lines and lofty jumps as Albrecht. Célestin Boutin is Scognamiglio’s physical opposite, compact and tawny, and his explosive athleticism and fiery temperament made for an exceptionally vivid Hilarion. Boutin weaponized Cavallari’s choreography, flicking his legs out at his rival like rapiers: come at me, bro.

There was a rare fumble from NACO in the pit at the start of Act II, when someone miscounted and the strings, harp and conductor Jean-Claude Picard got into a three-way tug of war over the beat (nobody won). The bungle was redeemed by some beautiful soloist work, notably flutist Joanna G’froerer, oboist Charles Hamann, and violist Jethro Marks, who delivered an eloquent Act II pas de deux.

Giselle will also be performed Friday and Saturday nights in Southam Hall.

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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.