Clean, sleek, stylish: Badisches Staatsballett in David Dawson’s Giselle

Staatstheater, Karlsruhe
December 11, 2022

Created back in 2008, David Dawson’s Giselle liberates the story from its usual 19th-century setting. The location is indeterminate. Arne Walther’s minimal, modernist off-white set of Act I is full of sweeping curves that suggest a spiral hints at the future but more than anything it has a sense of timelessness, helped by Dawson’s clean, modern take on the classical ballet vocabulary.

Dawson simplifies and shortens the plot too. The cast is reduced, the usual corps of supporting villagers being replaced with a small wedding party, which has relevance to the narrative and keeps it moving along. Instead of being betrothed to Bathilde, Albrecht is one of her henchmen, clearly identifiable by the large black tattoo they wear on their chests.

It’s not only the setting and story that are different. Arranger David Coleman has stripped the score of many of the later additions by other composers, often added to provide ensemble or individual virtuoso moments rather than move the story along, thus putting Adam’s original score back at the centre. There are moments when his arrangement sounds somewhat different to expected.

Badisches Staatsballet in David Dawson’s Giselle
pictured: Sophie Martin (Giselle), Joan Ivars Ribes (Albrecht) and ensemble
Photo Yan Revazov

Despite all that, and while it may feature modern people with modern attitudes, what assuredly remains is Albrecht’s love for Giselle, however. Dawson’s Giselle is still a ballet driven by emotions and imperfect people who make wrong decisions with devastating consequences, and that in Act II especially, touches in all the right places.

In her simple primrose yellow dress, the beautifully expressive Lucia Solari gave us a Giselle full of hope and youthful freedom. When she and Pablo Octávio dance, you really feel they only have eyes for each other. When she leaps into his arms, she surrenders fully. Their feelings seem only to grow as they watch the wedding couple, although the wedding preparations do include a prescient joke about dying of marriage and becoming an unfortunate, lost spirit.

The wedding party comes with a lot of charm and easy-going grace. As the bride, Balkiya Zhanburchinova was very lyrical and musical in her solo. Her groom, Daniel Rittoles showed much élan in his jumps and turns.

Badisches Staatsballett in Act II of David Dawson’s Giselle
Photo Yan Revazov

But when Giselle catches the bride’s bouquet, she is filled with happiness. It doesn’t last. Shortly afterwards, Bathilde, a domiant, sleek, sexy but menacing Bridgett Zehr, sweeps on with her sidekicks. Their black dress is in stark contrast to the pale colours of everyone else. As she stands there, the stage is absolutely hers. The sense of unease is palpable. When Hilarion (Valentin Juteau in a role much reduced from even that of traditional versions) rips Albrecht’s shirt to reveal he too wears the latter’s identifying tattoo, his betrayal strikes hard. Whether Giselle deliberately walks into his knife in the ensuing melée or whether it is a tragic accident is unclear, although it does look like the latter.

Act II all takes place on an open stage of boundless space backed by the most magnificent, mist-covered moon, beautifully lit by Bert Dalhuysen. Now the ballet is very much Albrecht’s story as he tries to come to terms with his betrayal. It’s a journey into the darkest, tormented recesses of his mind.

A Federico García Lorca quotation in the programme fits perfectly: “Nothing is more alive than the memory.” Full of grief and guilt, Octávio’s dance in full of aching, yearning long lines before Albrecht sees blurry ghosts in the shape of Wilis. No neatly convened lines, though. Instead, and with their whole upper bodies covered by Yumiko Takeshima’s cobwebby long veils, they flit across the space at speed, appearing and disappearing like will o’ the wisps.

Absent from the scene is Hilarion. Far from being missed, his absence only serves to heighten the attention on Albrecht and his feelings.

David Dawson’s Giselle
pictured: Sophie Martin (Giselle) and Joan Ivars Ribes (Albrecht)
of Badisches Staatsballett
Photo Yan Revazov

When Giselle reveals herself, a final dance for Solari and Pablo Octávio is spellbinding. In Act I, and despite the super choreography, the stark setting does cause the ballet to lose much of the warmth that more regular stagings have. But here, the emptiness of the space somehow magnifies the ethereality and helps focus in on the couple. The intimate pas de deux ends with her slipping from his grasp, although with a powerful sense that their love remains eternal, the white cherry blossom that falls symbolising his finding peace and resolution.

Flowers have a special place elsewhere in the ballet too. Hilarion places a flower in front of Giselle’s door as a sign of his love. Cherry blossom flutters gently on the stage at the beginning. When Giselle meets her unfortunate death, the pale rose petals turn deep blood red. A lily given her by Bathilde in Act I is reflected in those held by the Wilis in Act II.

That second act is very simple in many ways, but deeply complex in others. It is extraordinary. David Dawson at his best. His Giselle may feature ordinary people but it still reminds us that love is very special, and love lost, however lost, can never be love forgotten.