Home / Culture  / Magical master class

Magical master class

The National’s haunting production of Giselle delivers on all the ballet’s supernatural promise

When performed by a large, disciplined company, Giselle offers a master class on the magical power of traditional ballet. As befitting its story of transformation — a young country girl turned into a pitiful ghost through heartbreak — the ballet quickly breaks free of its seemingly stodgy, presentational structure, clunky mime and pedestrian music, transmogrifying all of these 19th-century conventions into a stirring drama that grabs you and won’t let go. It’s an act of transubstantiation, an alchemical showcase for any company, like the National Ballet of Canada, steeped in the classical tradition. The National’s haunting production of Giselle currently onstage at the Four Seasons Centre delivers on all the ballet’s supernatural promise.

In her Dec 5 opening night performance as Giselle, Greta Hodgkinson exploits every ounce of experience from her 22-year-career at the National. Graceful, precise, expressive… her transformation from joyous naïf to despairing spectre is thrilling to behold.

Giselle’s presentational structure means that a large number of soloists get to strut their stuff. It’s a great opportunity for audiences to compare subtle differences in choreography and characterization, while contrasting the performances of different dancers. How does the well-rounded affecting performance of Guillaume Côté as the star-crossed lover Albrecht compare to one of Giselle’s friends as danced by Keiichi Hirano with his effortless, gravity-defying jumps — is there a leading man there? Then there’s the icy command of principal dancer Heather Ogden as Queen of the Wilis — she brooks no challenge from talented second-soloists Jenna Savella and Jordana Daumec as the queen’s attendants. Only Hodgkinson’s pained yearning and impeccable technique can upstage the queen. You don’t need to be a balletomane to benefit from and get excited by such juxtapositions.

And the corps gets to star in this ballet, too; there’s so much inventiveness and power in how the corps moves wholesale and in smaller groups. The corps goes from cheery peasant dances, all frilly and buoyant, to formal and severe lines of spectral Rockettes. The second-act entrance of the ghostly Wilis, covered in gauze, pitched forward, is pure Edward Gorey.

Giselle is the kind of ballet that exposes a company’s depth of talent (or lack thereof). Happily, the National has a deep bench; no wonder its dancers love to perform this ballet. It’s been a staple of the repertoire since 1970. My partner and I had a fit of the giggles from overhearing an elderly woman sitting in front of us tell her partner as the curtain went up, “We’ve seen this production so many times.” Designed by the legendary Desmond Heeley it’s still a treat to see both the lyrical realism of the peasant village in the first act and the brooding, über-Romantic forest glen in the second. It’s a marvel how the painted backdrop interacts with Gil Wechsler’s lighting. You swear the predawn light is coming through the ghostly forest — simple stagecraft done to perfection.

Something similar can be said about the near forgettable music by Adolphe Adam. It seems so obvious and banal at first and then, because it’s perfectly wedded to the drama, it begins to feel like the most sublime music ever (despite a boo-boo lip in the first trumpets), approaching the level of Tchaikovsky (who was a fan of Adam). But don’t ask me to hum any of it; it’s gone as soon as the action is over.

Persnickety aficionados might recognize which choreographic elements come from Sir Peter Wright, who first staged his Giselle in 1965 based on Marius Petipa’s 1884 Russian revival and which come from the 1841 French original by Jules Perrot and Jean Coralli. But most modern versions are heralded for hewing close to the original; this is one of the few ballets passed down directly through the generations. And so in one final magical transformtion Giselle lets you journey back 170-odd years to a gilded era of fantastical Romantic visions made heartbreakingly real by the National’s great dancers.

GISELLE $25-$180. Until Dec 9. Starring as Giselle: Greta Hodgkinson (7:30pm Dec 5 & 8), Jillian Vanstone (2pm, Dec 6), Sonia Rodriguez (7:30pm, Dec 6; 2pm, Dec 8) and Xiao Nan Yu (7:30pm, Dec 7; 2pm, Dec 9). Starring as Albrecht: Guillaume Côté (7:30pm Dec 5 & 8), Naoya Ebe (2pm, Dec 6), Zdenek Konvalina  (7:30pm, Dec 6; 2pm, Dec 8) and Evan McKie (7:30pm, Dec 7; 2pm, Dec 9). THE NUTCRACKER Opens Dec 19. Four Seasons Centre. 145 Queen St W. (416) 345-9595. national.ballet.ca.