The two-act ballet Giselle premiered in 1841. Today, this story of a peasant girl who falls in love with a nobleman in disguise is considered a classic. There’s a love triangle, a mad scene, and ghosts who dance men to death.
Giselle as a 'personal experience'
At the Bolender Center on a recent afternoon, Kansas City Ballet rehearsals were underway for Giselle. It's the first act when Giselle, a young peasant girl, falls in love with Albrecht, a nobleman disguised as a peasant. Here’s the problem – the village gamekeeper, Hilarion, is also in love with Giselle.
The Kansas City Ballet’s artistic director, Devon Carney, has a long history with this ballet.
"Giselle, for me, is quite a personal experience," says Carney. "It’s one of the first ballets I ever had the chance to perform and learn from my teacher, Harvey Hysell, and he talked a lot about the characterization of the roles."
Carney is a former principal dancer at Boston Ballet, and also danced at New Orleans Ballet. And he knows Giselle well – he’s danced in about 200 performances. Carney has played all the male roles, from nobleman to gamekeeper to peasant.
Dancer's own past shapes role
In 2006, Carney staged his own version at Cincinnati Ballet. He updated in 2011, and now, he’s directing performances at the Kansas City Ballet.
There are no lines of dialogue – so acting through pantomime is essential.
"For me, it means a lot that all the characters in the ballet – from the back person in the court to the lead role of Giselle, that they are all fully engaged," says Carney. "And that they’re running their own dialogue in their heads about who they are, and how they interact with each other."
It’s a demanding ballet – especially the title role of Giselle and Albrecht, the disguised nobleman. Four members of the Kansas City Ballet take turns in pairs. Carney says the dancers will shape the roles in their own way.
"It’s the exact same words, but the dialects are different," says Carney. "So what a dancer brings to the table in their past informs them as to how they will present and interpret their roles."
Readying for performance through research and rehearsal
Molly Wagner, in her third season with the ballet, is matched with new company dancer, Liang Fu, as Albrecht. Wagner says Giselle is a role she’s always wanted to perform.
"As far as approaching it, it’s just a matter of time," she says, "Doing outside research, trying to watch other famous ballerinas that have done it, and to try and embody some of their spirit in it."
Fu says he’s been watching recordings of other dancers – and his own performance at Cincinnati Ballet a few years ago. He says he's focused on creating chemistry and staying in character.
"You want to hold your character from the beginning to the end," says Fu. "You can see the whole story is connected."
Lamin Pereira, also in his first season with the company, developed his take on Albrecht by creating a back story. He’s practiced broad gestures, like blowing a kiss, or looking for someone in a crowd.
"If you do it well," he says, "They’re going to believe in what you’re telling them."
A difficult scene, from happiness to death
By the end of Act I, Albrecht’s deception is revealed. He’s not a peasant – but a Duke. And he’s engaged to another woman.
Tempe Ostergren has been with the company since 2010, and played the role of Giselle before. She says Giselle dies of a broken heart.
"She basically goes mad, her reality unravels as she knows it," says Ostergren. "So the culmination of that mental unraveling, and the weak heart, causes her to die in Albrecht’s arms."
This mad scene is one of the hardest scenes for a ballerina to perform, says Carney.
"It’s a slow descent from a very happy moment to death," he says. "And you have to do it in something like, hmm, 5 minutes."
Carney says it’s an important moment for all of the dancers on stage. For the scene to be convincing, you need "the backup," the reaction from the other characters.
"It gives you a fuller understanding of the ballet," he says. "Every time I come back to Giselle, I discover a new layers, a new innuendo, a new angle, a new facet that I didn’t quite really see."
Classic ballets, like Giselle, provide a link to the past. Despite its age – 174 years – Carney says for him, it’s new each time he sees it.
The Kansas City Ballet’s 'Giselle' continues through Sunday at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, 1601 Broadway Blvd., Kansas City, Mo. 816-931-8993.