Of the ballet blancs or "white ballets" — story ballets from the Romantic period featuring corps dancers in identical white, ethereal costuming — "Giselle" is one of the most popular.
Since its successful debut at the Paris Opera in 1841, most classical companies have taken a crack at it at one time or another and rare is the classically trained ballerina who has not lusted after the title role. For the balletophile it offers both the comfort of familiarity and the eternal promise of a unique interpretation.
The rebroadcast of the Royal Ballet's "Giselle" from a January 2011 performance seen recently in the "Ballet in Cinema" series, offers another opportunity to revisit this steadfast classic. And while there is little to be faulted in this performance, which is both technically and artistically impressive, I think this is a ballet that doesn't translate well to the silver screen.
It's a simple story: Count Albrecht (Rupert Pennefather), disguised as a peasant, wins the heart of Giselle (Marienela Nuñez), who dies of shock when her former lover, Hilarion (Gary Avis), reveals the deception. Subsequently, each man encounters the Wilis, spirits of jilted women who seek revenge by dancing men to death; Hilarion succumbs, but Albrecht is saved by Giselle's interception and love.
Translating the ballet to film — particularly Act II, which takes place in the moonlit glade near Giselle's grave — is a little more complex.
While the camera allows glimpses of what one would never see without the use of opera glasses in a theater, the consistent zeroing in on a particular dancer or element detracted from the power of the whole. When, as a viewer, you become conscious of wanting to operate the camera yourself, you know it's become more of a hindrance than an asset.
I could certainly appreciate the focus on Nunez's face, made almost grotesque by unhinged laughter in the scene where she goes mad in Act I. But in Act II, the power lies in the evocation of the surreal scene and the visual impact of the Wilis, dancing their familiar hopping arabesques in unison, their faces obscured by sheer draped fabric.
I badly wanted to take everything in at once — the ghostly Wilis led by their queen, Myrtha (Helen Crawford), the smoke, the evocative lighting, the sets of fallen and rotting trees. But the camera made me feel like I was watching a movie, not a ballet that happened to be on film, with far too many edits and changes of perspective.
There was little to fault in what have come to be the expected impeccable performances by Royal dancers. Nuñez was magically musical, as was Yuhui Choe as the featured peasant in the Pas de Six.
If less moving, Pennefather still had the perfect looks and clean lines one expects of Albrecht and Avis made the most of Hilarion's limited stage time with an honest and convincing angst. As for Crawford, I wish she'd seemed more authoritative as Myrtha instead of just looking stoically sour, and her heavy makeup was overdone rather than merely severe.
Given the choice, I'd still rather see "Giselle' live, so my eye can wander where it chooses. That said, that so many who might otherwise never have the opportunity to see this iconic ballet performed by such high caliber professionals is reason enough to applaud this series, which will bring a new slate of offerings in the fall.
GISELLE, Royal Ballet. Part of the Ballet in Cinema series at the Royal Palm 20, 5125 26th St. East, Bradenton. Additional screening 7 p.m. May 21. $15. www.balletincinema.org.