We've a new production of 'Giselle' at the Vanemuine this season. The sets are by the Scotsman Charles Cusick-Smith, who devised the 1920's alpine resort setting (choreography by Derek Deane) for English National Ballet. It's back to a traditional medieval Rhineland locale, however, for Act I of the Tartu version. But wherever it is, those hills are not Estonia!
There is, however, an element of homecoming as 'Giselle' is set in Courland, now in West Latvia, colonised by the Germans in the 13c. The Tartu Courland connection is the elegant Princesses House, next to Jaani kirik (St John's church). It was acquired by Baroness Tscherkassova, nee Hedvig Elisabet Biron, Princess of Courland, in 1784. After her death in 1800 it became the Livland Pension for Elderly Gentlewomen and has been a school of some sort since 1804.
Our 'Giselle' is directed by Stanislas Feco, a Czech dancer who started with the National Theatre in Prague, has danced with the Bolshoi and Mariinski (Kirov), has given many a famous ballerina a twirl, won many prizes and who studied choreography at the Vagonova School in St Petes. „Postimees“/The Courier reports (in 'Producer demands the best from Tartu') that he's a stickler — 'I don't think that just because we are in Tartu we can make do with less — this attitude is not for the classics — they must be flawless', adding that the young dancers and the audience must grow with the challenge.
Our own Estonian prima ballerina (retired, alas) Kaie Kõrb was given leave from her teaching in Tallinn to oversee the rehearsals. Asked about Feco, Kaie replied that he's emotional — 'like all ballet people.'
Giselle was first presented at the Paris Opera in 1841 and is one of the few surviving Romantic ballets. The version we see today is that of the Russian Imperial Ballet master Marius Petipa from the late 19c. Village girl Giselle dies at the end of Act I after the cad Prince Albrecht has deceived her into thinking that he is a village lad and will marry her. Gautier, the writer, intended that Giselle stab herself with Albrecht's sword but in Petipa's Russia suicide was unsuitable. He devised death from shock and a weak heart and this version has stuck. Thus the role of Giselle is a demanding combination of technical expertise, lyricism and dramatic skill. In the first act Giselle has to convey the innocence and love of a country girl and the heartbreak of being betrayed. In the second act she must seem otherworldly, yet loving.
On the first night Natalia Sologub (one of Feco's partners from the Mariinski) danced Giselle and Dmitri Gudanov (Bolshoi), Albrecht and I have since seen Hayley-Jean Blackburn (UK) and Vladimirs Latisonoks (Latvia). Both couples were wonderful - I saw Hayley in the theatre café after the show and chatted to her. She's fresh from the Royal Ballet School and only 20 years old! Her friend Louise, also in the troupe, is also from the RBS. I congratulated her and asked her how she felt playing Giselle so young and she said, very sensibly, that that's about how old Giselle and Albrecht actually are. Just so. Shades of a great British tradition — Fonteyn, Doreen Wells, Lesley Collier, Sarah Wilder — flitted through my memory as I was watching young Hayley-Jean. The corps and soloists were great too - I especially liked the mean queen of the wilis (Lilian Sarapuu) who will insist that Giselle fulfil her wili-ish duty and dance Albrecht to death, even when he's grovellingly apologetic and Giselle forgives him. Hilarion, the gamekeeper rejected by Giselle in favour of the foolish Al, was also very good. I always feel rather sorry for him, as Giselle doesn't come to rescue him from the wilis, even though he's come to put flowers on her grave. She doesn't love him so I assume that's the dubious reason. A wili, for the uninitiated, is a ghost of a betrothed girl who has died before her wedding.
The production is very handsome - Cusick-Smith's vibrant, autumnal colours of Act I are replaced in Act II with lots of dry ice, flying wilis and menacing flashing lights in an ancient cemetery and if I had a sneaking suspicion that Act I was the highlands of Scotland with a German cottage plonked in the middle, Act II felt like an Edinburgh graveyard - Greyfriars Kirk, maybe. The eerie lighting is very atmospheric. A memorable production indeed.
Bird Droppings from Estonia: Giselle's local connections