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Sylvie Guillem Tries to Make a Fairy Tale Real

Sylvie Guillem's controversial Giselle, performed by La Scala Ballet at the Lincoln Center Festival, is less a whole new ballet than a palimpsest. Through Guillem's carefully realistic view of a peasant society, familiar steps glint almost unexpectedly—somewhat transformed, but usually to the "right" passages in Adolphe Adam's edited score. Yes, Giselle plucks the petals off a daisy, joins Albrecht in rocking ballotées, spins furiously when first set in motion by the Wili queen in Act II. The Wilis still sail a version of their deadly arabesques voyagées across the stage.

Guillem has eschewed the misogynistic view of Wilis as betrayed spirits who dance men to death for revenge. In keeping with librettist Théophile Gautier's 1841 scheme, designer Paul Brown has clothed the Wilis in a variety of bridal outfits (very unethereal), and they destroy men simply because they're mad about dancing ("ogresses of the waltz," Gautier called them). Given all her changes, Guillem might as well have broken up Petipa's masterful choric patterns. If these ghosts love whirling about, and the presence of men makes the pastime even more fun, it seems odd that they never touch the ill-fated Hilarion or Albrecht, although they whisper about them like girls at a prom.

The choreographer originally planned her Giselle as a film, and her verismo and attention to detail may stem from that. Brown's huge, revolving stucco wall with its barn doors, ladder, stoop, and dwelling entrance limits the stage space, and within that Guillem deploys an individualized crowd out of Brueghel. They wear black, brown, and gray clothes. In addition to unloading baskets of grapes from an immense wagon, they have varying agendas. Their dances have a country lustiness, and one girl mockingly wraps herself in white cloth and pretends to be a Wili when Giselle's mother warns the crowd of these spectral beings and the perils of dancing.

Potri Ranka Manis in a Maranao wedding scene from Rajah Mangandiri, at Wave Hill
photo: Cary Conover
Potri Ranka Manis in a Maranao wedding scene from Rajah Mangandiri, at Wave Hill

As the heroine, Guillem wears a long, simply cut blue dress, her hair in a pigtail, and brings out the character's childlike impulsiveness. This Giselle would have made the "peasant pas de deux" a trio had her mother not intervened (remember your weak heart!). Intermittently during the duet (charmingly danced by Deborah Gismondi and Antonino Sutera), she echoes their steps on the sidelines. She has spunk, high-fiving a bunch of guys after bringing off her hops on point. But the wonderfully fluid and musical Guillem, known as a phenomenal technician, stresses Giselle's frailty, and her dancing seems surprisingly underpowered (a recent injury may also have contributed to this effect). Her Albrecht (Massimo Murru) is ardent only in a generalized way, more impressive for his agile and preternaturally long slender legs; Andrea Volpintesta makes Hilarion a more fully developed character. Overall, the level of dancing is vastly higher than it was when the company appeared in New York in 1981 in Nureyev's Romeo and Juliet.

This Giselle has wonderful moments, and, cavils aside, Guillem's sensitive dramaturgy might galvanize more tradition-minded choreographers to probe the ballet's scenario.


At Wave Hill, anyone could lie on the grass, call it a dance, and draw an appreciative audience. The former estate in Riverdale is one of New York's most magical parks. Interesting, then, that Zvi Gotheiner, in contributing Garden Path to "Dances at Wave Hill" (coproduced by Dancing in the Streets), chose to retreat from the sweeping lawns and terraces overlooking the Hudson. Ying-Ying Shau and Todd Allen begin sitting at the verge of a tree-bordered dirt path, staring down to where it curves out of sight. To a wonderfully spare and limpid, mostly piano score by Scott Killian, they explore that path until it becomes momentous. Many times, they race down it and return to sit. Once she looks over her shoulder as if at something ominous. Tender, bound ineffably together, they merge with the earth; he piles soil around her feet, they tumble and press their cheeks to the ground. By the end, the two marvelously sensitive performers are covered with dust and twigs. "I call that dirty dancing," said a man to his wife. I call it beautiful.

On the same program, Monica Bill Barnes emerges from behind a tree at the bottom of a larger sloping lawn. To begin her intriguing From My Mother's Tongue: A Coming of Age Fable, she enters wrapped in a white cloth and attached to three little girls—the tall twins Caitlin and Devin McDonough flanking the smaller Lydia F. Martin. Her young assistants are servile, creeping in and out, but also bold. They sing along with parts of Edward Ratliff's cleverly eccentric score, which includes oompah-pah music and what sounds like a Kabuki actor intoning after much too much sake. Barnes looks fetching in a stiff sari-cloth outfit by Kelly Hansen, and holds it up to show her white bloomers. Alternating between tentativeness and defiant confidence, she vibrates her knees like a Samoan dancer, swaggers and smacks her thighs, kicks out. Toward the end she sticks her head into a bush for a while.

Potri Ranka Manis sends the flower-bright young women of her Kinding Sindaw troupe gliding over another lawn in abbreviated scenes from the Rajah Mangandiri, an ancient version of the Indian epic The Ramayana preserved by the Maranao people of the Philippines. To introduce the tale of the kidnapped princess and her rescue, Manis performs an elegant solo on bamboo poles laid across the shoulders of two men—her smooth rising and sinking, her rotating shoulders and arms reminiscent of Balinese dancing. This is a small-scale production; those same servingmen also dance the hero and villain. I was particularly struck by the weighty power of Guro Frank Ortega as the evil Rajah Malawana. One lovely moment: The women, picking fruit, pretend to pluck the pods of Wave Hill's big-leaved magnolia tree, uniting an ancient sultanate with the local landscape.

 
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