June 7, 2020
It was coincidental, but given recent events and the weekend’s Black Lives Matter protests, how incredibly appropriate that Dance Theatre of Harlem should choose now to stream the landmark Creole Giselle.
Reconceived by Arthur Mitchell and staged by Frederic Franklin, the ballet largely keeps the choreography that has been passed down from Jean Coralli and Jules Perrot’s original. The action transfers easily to 1841 Louisiana (the year of the original Giselle‘s premiere in Paris) and its free black people, not least because this was a society just as ridden with class division as was the traditional Rhineland setting; and if Giselle is about anything besides love and betrayal, it’s about class. So, here we have the wealthy, plantation owners of Plaquemines parish, where we find Albert Monet-Cloutier, and Bathilde de la Cour and her father Alexandre; and the poorer farmers of Nachitoches parish, from where hails Giselle Lanaux and her mother.
When it premiered in 1984, Creole Giselle was seen by some as provocative. While there are still undoubtedly issues regarding colour in ballet, thankfully we have moved past that. Watching the recording, it is something else that hits you right from the first few seconds. Even on this now 33-year-old recording, the ballet is so fresh. Gone is the terminal gloom of the forested German Rhineland. Instead we have blue skies and southern sunshine. You can almost feel the heat. The costumes come in all hues too.
Best of all, however, is that it is so convincing; more ‘real’ than most Giselles. I can’t help wondering if that’s because characters connect with the heritage of the dancers rather more than is the case with European-located productions.
The portrayals are superb and on film are frequently assisted by producer Thomas Grimm’s close-ups of faces. What must surely have helped too is that all the characters were given detailed biographies. We know, for example, that Albert has a degree from Lafayette College in Pennsylvania and has recently returned from Europe, and that Bathilde and her father had lived in Paris for many years.
Virginia Johnson, now company artistic director, borders on the naive as Giselle. She’s sweet and as bright as the weather, at least until the ‘mad scene’. As she runs herself through with Albert’s sword (none of that dying of a broken heart nonsense here), her face is racked with pain and anguish. It is incredibly powerful.
Eddie J. Shellman is attractive as Albert, solid in his solos, perfectly understated in his partnering. In Act I, he’s brash and confident, although in Act II, I found him a little remote but that could quite possibly be a consequence of watching on film.
Lowell Smith comes across as powerfully as the brooding Hilarion. You can see him boiling up inside as events unfold. As is so often the case, some of the best dancing of Act I comes in the Peasant Pas de Deux, in which Judy Tyrus and Augustus Van Heerden are sparkling without ever going over the top as some are wont to do these days.
Act II takes us to the Louisiana swamps, Giselle’s grave an above ground mausoleum given the impossibility of burial. The misty setting, which allows Albert to arrive on the scene in a flatboat with his squire doing the punting, is quite spooky.
As Myrta, Lorraine Graves is imperious, strong and solid, which counterbalances neatly the more soulful dancing of Johnson’s Giselle. There is a lovely moment of forgiveness at the end when Giselle tenderly pushes Albert’s head down.
The Wilis move as one and are beautifully fluent. I do very much like the fact that Carl Michel put them in pale mauve-grey silk dresses that can be equally read as either well past their best wedding gowns or shrouds. Giselle, of course, is in white, not yet having transitioned.
In Creole Giselle, Mitchell managed to retain tradition while making the ballet very relevant. That takes some doing. In some ways, it is ‘old school’. Very classical, it’s a million miles from some of today’s more creative re-imaginings. But there’s a lot to be said for that, especially when it’s as brim full of artistry as it is.
The recording is not without its issues. It does show its age in terms of film quality and some of Danish TV director Thomas Grimm’s special effects would have looked dubious thirty years ago let alone now. Worst of all is the way the camera too often doesn’t let us see the dancer’s feet, however.
But it is a remarkable film, a remarkable production that all ballet lovers should see at least once, and back with remarkable timing.
Dance Theatre of Harlem have extended the streaming time of Creole Giselle on their YouTube channel until 0459 (UK BST) on Thursday June 11, 2020.
Dance Theatre of Harlem’s DTH on Demand series continues to July 25, 2020.
Next up at 1am Sunday June 14 (UK), then available until early Monday morning June 15, is Vessels by Darell Grand Moultrie.
For the full programme and details of accompanying conversations and other documentary films, visit www.dancetheatreofharlem.org