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‘Giselle’

The Arizona Republic, by Richard Nilsen

There are two things to be said about dance and Ballet Arizona’s Giselle.

The first is that the current production is very well danced – one hardly expects less from the company – and that it’s well supported by great scenery, costumes, lighting and staging. If you love Giselle, you will be well pleased by this version.

But under that, there’s a lingering sense that the traditional story ballet, with its fairy-tale plot full of mime and melodrama, has lost its meaning in the 21st century. It is not just that the story is full of dancing maidens and slumming princes, but that the whole social underpinning of the 19th-century tradition no longer means anything to us. It is a relic of an extinct zeitgeist, one we are well rid of.

Watching ballerinas pretend to be peasants, happy in their village, and visited by the local prince on a hunting trip, well, it all smacks too obviously of Marie Antoinette dressing up as a shepherdess.

(Perhaps set in “quotes” as an ironic Postmodern reappraisal of those 19th century pieties, it might have something to say to us, but not in its straight retelling.)

So, Giselle, with its aristocratic sword at its side and its castle in the distance, with its humble peasants and goodhearted jilted lover, has an antiquated and superannuated feel that better art on similar subjects – for instance Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro – never suffers from.

But even if our modern sensibilities are offended by the anti-democratic bias of the ballet, the problem is not simply political but aesthetic: The conventions of mime that are used to tell the story part of the ballet – having gone through permutations of stage and theater and winding up, eventually, as the gestural syntax of silent cinema, means that we cannot see those gestures with the fresh eyes we would need to take them seriously. Instead, they are Edna Purviance expressing her broken heart to Charlie Chaplin.

It has degraded into sentimental piffle, when what we want from so serious and stylized an art form is substance. The dance – as all art forms – ultimately derives its importance from its ability to express the experience of being alive through the metaphor and means of its technique. Whether it’s painting or the novel or opera, it only justifies its expense and effort if it has value for its audience: at least for the audience that is paying attention and cares.

Dance and ballet is the primary metaphor of our experience in our bodies. Mime is an outmoded convention. Dance will never outlive its meaning. Mime did long ago. If ballet continues to be relevant – and I believe it has to be – it cannot do so through merely recreating the conventions “of a barbarous age.”

Luckily, if the first act of Giselle is deflated by its incessant mime, the second act takes flight with dance. There is less story to tell, more chance for chorus and soloists to profess terpsichorean joy. And with such principal dancers as Natalia Magnicaballi and Ross Clarke, dance fans can take flight with them. It’s a joy to watch them, not just for the large movements but for the tiny details of hand, finger, even fingertip, the expression of face, the tightness of an entrechat, the magical changing of pace in the midst of a larger gesture – all of which we can appreciate for its artistry.

The chorus of willis – the ghosts of Giselle’s second act – especially provide the kind of massed movement that make the whole stage into a vast canvas, sweeping like brushstrokes across it, painting counterpoint in movement.

Ballet Arizona remains perhaps the state’s best performing-arts organization. The company has many exceptional dancers that we love to watch – Paola Hartley, Astrit Zejnati, Joseph Cavanaugh, Tzu-Chia Huan, to name only a few of them – that even if they attempt to resurrect a ballet better left in its grave, they will do it with style and class.

But after seeing Giselle, one can only look forward with longing to this year’s mixed program, with a new dance choreographed by Ballet Arizona’s director, Ib Andersen, and to its almost annual Balanchine program, where we can watch ballet reinvented by a genius for a modern age.