At ‘Giselle,’ the view from on high

Before the fall: a joyous Haiyan Wu and Chauncey Parsons as Giselle and Albrecht at OBT. Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert.

By Bob Hicks

Seeking to rise above the weather under which he’s been submerged these past several days, Mr. Scatter elevated to the balcony of Keller Auditorium on Saturday evening so he could take in the grand sweep of Oregon Ballet Theatre’s new Giselle. The air was a little giddy up there – or maybe it was just the gyroscope wobbling inside Mr. Scatter’s overstuffed head – but the view was magnificent.

Mr. Scatter ordinarily sits on the orchestra level, closer to the stage, where the sounds of scraping slippers are more strenuous and the actorly expressions of the dancers are as revealing as they can get in a 3,000-seat hall. Upstairs, he missed some of the dramatic detail (how was the gifted Chauncey Parsons interpreting the two-timing rich dude Albrecht? – easy to tell choreographically, tough to tell psychologically) but had a better chance to appreciate the breadth and patterns of the dancing, which can unfold so much more fully from above. What he lost in intimacy he gained in scope: a sort of whole-picture Cinemascopic sweep of design; what the movie people call mise-en-scène.

And what a scène it was.

Sets were designed by the elite Italian artist Raffaele Del Savio and borrowed, with the costumes, from the Teatro del Maggio Musicale Fiorentino Foundation in Florence. They’re richly historic, as befits this most traditional of story ballets, and visually ravishing, which also befits this dark and lavish fairy tale. Matt Williams reports in his program essay that OBT artistic director Christopher Stowell and stager Lola de Avila liked the fact that the set is old. “It has a patina on it,” Stowell told him, “and it doesn’t look overly fresh and there’s nothing Disney about it all.”

Indeed not. Yet there’s little doubt that magic’s roaming in the land. The designs for acts one and two are day and night: as autumnal as Parsons’ orange hair in the first act, when Albrecht woos the pretty peasant girl Giselle; moonstruck-blue in the second act, when Giselle rises with the undead and the ghostly Wilis seek their revenge. Lighting is wedded seamlessly to the settings, as usual, by OBT’s resident designer Michael Mazzola.

With this production you know you’re in the theater. It’s very much a proscenium design, with delicate overhangs of woodland foliage softening the corners and a three-dimensional fade toward upstage, like pleated suggestions of an accordion. Concentrating on the full physical setting, which is so easy to do from the balcony, underscores the sense that Giselle, Albrecht, Hilarion and all the others are players in something larger than themselves: the village, the graveyard, the woods, the universe. The Wilis may be spirits, but they are subject to a greater spirit of place. Like so many old tales (in the ballet world alone, think of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Swan Lake, The Nutcracker, The Rite of Spring) Giselle is pantheistic at heart: a place of beauty where something lurks.

Pristine peasantry: three procelain figures for Meissen by Jacob Ungerer (1840-1920). Wikimedia Commons.Friends of Scatter Martha Ullman West (here, for The Oregonian) and Barry Johnson (here, for OPB’s Arts & Life) have reviewed this production well, and Mr. Scatter has little to add to what they have to say. Yes, the dancing’s enchanting. You can appreciate its brilliance clearly from the balcony, where the precision of its patterns and the astonishing lift of the jumps come clear with a fluidity that feels a little like the silent movies. Yes, the first act could use a little roughing-up to emphasize the deep class division between the highborn Albrecht and the peasant Giselle – a gulf that’s essential to both the sociology and the psychology of the tale. Martha mentioned in conversation that a friend had said the first-act mood seemed porcelain, and I’d been thinking Meissen, maybe because it’s from Germany: were ever country folk so delicately glasslike and pristine? Yet that sense of small precious things also feeds into the fact that, despite Petipa’s updatings and de Avila’s further streamlining, Giselle is an antique ballet, a piece of the deep past polished and remounted for contemporary audiences. Part of what carries Giselle into the future is that composer Adolphe Adam was such a savvy showman, and conductor Niel de Ponte and the OBT Orchestra interpret his melodies just that way: as show music; stuff of the theater. And while the theater may also be life, it is first and foremost the theater, a word that defines a certain kind of glorious artificiality.

The contemporary art world sometimes doesn’t know what to do with works that are elaborately detailed. Rococo? O no no! We live in an age as overstuffed with information as Mr. Scatter’s head is with … well, the stuff of colds, and we like art that cuts through the clutter right to the quick. One of the best theater companies the Pacific Northwest has seen in the past 30 or 40 years was called The Empty Space, and at its best it meant what it said. This Giselle, and Del Savio’s historically enlivened designs, are reminders that it can be pretty cool when theater folks know how to fill in the blanks, too.

In the dead of night: Wu and Parsons, reconciled beyond the grave. Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert.

ILLUSTRATIONS, from top:

  • Before the fall: a joyous Haiyan Wu and Chauncey Parsons as Giselle and Albrecht at OBT. Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert.
  • Pristine peasantry: three procelain figures for Meissen by Jacob Ungerer (1840-1920). Wikimedia Commons.
  • In the dead of night: Wu and Parsons, reconciled beyond the grave. Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert.

Leave a Reply

a Portland-centric arts and culture blog