Real and of today: Pontus Lidberg’s Giselle

Ballett Basel, Theater Basel
December 7, 2022

The familiar nineteenth-century Romantic frame may have gone but no-one can ever accuse Swedish choreographer Pontus Lidberg of taking the heart out of Giselle. While his modern retelling may have updated the story, making it feel more real is the process, all the essentials are still there. It is very much a Giselle still full of powerful deep feelings that reach out and touch, especially when performed as superbly as by the dancers of Ballett Basel.

Contemporary themes and issues are never far away in a production originally created for the Ballet de Genève ten years ago. Lidberg’s Giselle is an immigrant who works as a cleaner for Albrecht’s rich family, the drama all taking place in his house. The contrast between upstairs, downstairs is emphasised by projections of a kitchen on screens that slide in and out. In Act II, those same screens carry giant images of a white lily.

Ballett Basel in Pontus Lidberg’s Giselle
Pictured: Celia Sandoya (Albrecht’s fiancée), Max Zachrisson (Albrecht)
and Serena Landriel (Giselle)
Photo Lucia Hunziker

The difference between the haves and have-nots, and ethnicity run throughout. Besides her mother, Giselle has two sisters. Amid the hoodies and streetwear, there are enough hints to tell us they are from Eastern Europe. Albrecht’s friends come in suits and expensive-looking beautiful dresses and heels, meanwhile.

When we first meet Giselle, she looks so small and insignificant as she dusts an image of a chandelier projected as an oversized photograph floating above the stage. In her work clothes and headscarf, she could hardly be more different than Albrecht in his 1950s tennis whites. But love makes light work of that.

Serena Landreil as Giselle and Daniel Rodriguez Domenech as Hilarion
Photo Lucia Hunziker

As Giselle, Serena Landriel is full of delicacy and detail. Her face speaks as much as her body. In that fateful first meeting, she surrenders wholeheartedly to her feelings of love. Max Zachrisson’s Albrecht is more subdued. Yet, as they fall for each other, his dance too becomes playful and free. Temporarily released from the restrictions of who they are, it is all close-up, hands on. They roll over each other. They lift and support each other. Kisses are tender. It’s simple in its way, but realistic and beautiful. You cannot fail to be touched, and later again when Giselle dances alone with Albrecht’s sweater.

Coming across them, the warnings of Hilarion, a security guard and Giselle’s uncle go unheeded, she pushing him away forcibly. Daniel Rodriguez Domenech cuts a very masculine figure but also comes with a deep tenderness and is seen as a man who cares very much for his niece.

All the time, Lidberg’s contemporary language with just a hint of the traditional, plus the occasional nod to tradition works well. More grating for the traditionalist is the way Adolphe Adam’s music is sometimes used in unusual ways and with unexpected characters dancing. While musical themes get diluted, it does largely work, though.

Serena Landreil as Giselle and Daniel Rodriguez Domenech as Hilarion
Photo Lucia Hunziker

Albrecht’s friends (effectively the hunting party) get a larger role than usual with the Peasant pas de deux (or trois, depending on your version) coming at a party and reimagined for two of his male friends. The contrast to Giselle and her family is stark. The men are a bit laddish and there’s something of a sense of entitlement. You certainly don’t warm to them.

When Giselle realises Albrecht is already engaged, she is distraught. For sword, read kitchen knife, its shiny blade seemingly hypnotising her as she dances with it. The death scene comes with a twist, however. Hilarion actually manages to snatch it away, only for her to seize his pistol in the same instant.

The second act sees Albrecht tormented by the memory of Giselle’s death. As they run on and fall around him, the white-veiled ghostly Wilis are not so much spirits of other women who have died, but multiple embodiments of Giselle. As they recreate the moment of her death, it has the effect of making it seem that wherever Albrecht looks, he cannot escape that fateful moment. It is very effective.

Ballet Basel in Pontus Lidberg’s Giselle
Photo Lucia Hunziker

But they haunt all concerned. Parts of the act are like flashbacks. Besides Albrecht, Giselle’s mother and Hilarion also come across her in their memories, the former searching frantically among the ghosts for her daughter. The reprising certain moves from earlier in the evening proves a very effective representation of trauma. There is no being danced to death, however.

Just as in tradition versions, Giselle and Albrecht find reconciliation. A final duet is extremely touching and sensitive, before it ends quietly, a panel descending for the last time, forever separating them from each other, leaving him with just his memories.

Looking ahead, artistic director Richard Wherlock steps down at the end of the season after 21 successful years at the company’s helm; two decades that has seen its reputation flourish. His replacement is Aldolphe Binder, previously responsible for Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch (where she was fired after just a year in charge, which led to much legal wrangling) and the dance company of Göteborg Opera. In what sounds suspiciously like a complete change of direction and ditching of the present, she talks of opening up the horizon of what is possible in dance and taking “both the public and the ensemble on an unforgettable aesthetic, physical and intellectual journey.” Dance should always evolve but that’s the sort of phraseology that I find worrisome. Great change is coming, I suspect.