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Milwaukee Ballet's 'Giselle' makes grand jeté into 1941

In 1841, composer Adolphe Adam wrote the music for Giselle, the consummate ballet of mid-19th-century Romanticism. The story of heartbreak, loss and forgiveness is timeless. A young peasant girl falls in love with a nobleman who encourages her affections but is betrothed to another. When she discovers this, she dies of heart failure, only to be resurrected by the Wilis, supernatural beings that dance men to death for betraying women. But in the end, Giselle forgives the nobleman, forcing him to live with his sins.

The theme was all in a day’s work for composers and choreographers of the day. But Milwaukee Ballet's Michael Pink has something unique in mind. 

In his version of Giselle, set to be remounted more than 10 years after its North American premiere in 2004, Pink gives the ballet an update. Instead of setting the scene in 1841, he jumps ahead to 1941 — when nothing in Europe was as it had ever been before.

The new time period forces a shift in details. Giselle’s village becomes a ghetto and its inhabitants prisoners, while the visiting nobles are transformed into an occupying military force whose nationality is not explicitly named but isn’t tough to figure out. A mixed-gender corps of Wilis, who are already-murdered victims of that army, rise from the grave to avenge not only Giselle’s death but also their own.

The Wilis also represent Pink’s most significant change to the choreography. Pink says he has armed them with an array of modern dance movements to counter the classical ballet steps of the principals and bring some contemporary fire to the 170-year-old work.

“We began thinking about this when I was still at the Northern Ballet (in Leeds, U.K.),” Pink says. “This treatment makes the whole production more contemporary and relevant for our time, just as it had relevance to its original 19th-century audience."

Pink is a stickler for making his productions more than eye candy, and on this ballet he worked with several collaborators to add gritty authenticity to the performance. With a score rearranged by Gavin Sutherland to give the performance more of “a Kurt Weill feel,” Pink set about trying to give the mood and atmosphere the right timbre for both the period and proceedings.

“In preparation I’ve been working with Jewish groups to find out what life was like in a ghetto,” Pink says. “It was very dark, but there also were moments of beauty.”

Pink tapped Jody Hirsh, director of education at Milwaukee’s Jewish Community Center, to get the period aspect of his production correct. He also turned to actor James Zager to be the show’s dramatic coach and help his dancers with character development.

“I wanted to make sure the performers were as competent as actors as they were as dancers,” Pink says.

Members of the occupying force will be uniformed but without the familiar Nazi insignia out of deference and respect to those who suffered under German occupation, according to Pink. But they will carry rifles, so there will be no doubt about their intentions.

“Nothing too graphic will happen, so there is no need for audience members to have any concerns,” Pink says. “But it will create a powerful image to which those audience members will relate.”

The other dramatic shift — the inclusion of Pink’s modern dance moves for the Wilis — makes an equally bold statement. Even though the ballet still has a historical context, the contemporary aspect is meant to remind audience members that ethnic cleansing continues in different corners of the world and it's something no one can afford to ignore.

Pink says the full company is put to work in this production, with Luz San Miguel dancing the role of Giselle and David Hovhannisyan dancing the role of Albrecht, her lover. Patrick Howell performs the part of Hilarion, a rival for Giselle’s love, and Valerie Harmon will play Giselle’s mother. There also will be five street musicians performing as part of the cast, bringing a little lightness to the lives of those living in the ghetto.

Giselle could serve as a good point of entry for ballet newbies because of the way its treatment enables audience members to benefit from a distinct narrative, Pink says.

“I think because it’s telling a story that people can relate to the history of, this would provide easy access for those unfamiliar with ballet,” Pink says. “This one offers enough reality that people will understand it, and the juxtaposition of neoclassical to contemporary dance is very visually engaging.”

ON STAGE

The Milwaukee Ballet’s production of Giselle runs March 26-29 at the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts, 929 N. Water St., Milwaukee. Performances are at 7:30 p.m. evenings and 1:30 p.m. Sunday. For tickets and more information, dial 414-273-7206 or visit milwaukeeballet.org.

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