In the Romantic ballet Giselle a flirtation goes terribly wrong but the ill-starred couple finds redemption through forgiveness and love. Giselle is at once an enormously popular ballet with audiences and the ultimate technical and emotional challenge for the dancers portraying the lovers, Giselle and Albrecht. When we learned that City Ballet of Cleveland* will be performing Giselle Act II as part of its annual spring repertory concert, we set up a phone interview with Guest Artists Diana Yohe and Joseph Parr. Yohe has been on our radar for some time as a local-dancer-making-good and her interviews have been straight forward and informative. She and her fiancé Parr provided a guide to watching and performing Giselle.
Victor Lucas: You’ll only be performing Giselle Act II with City Ballet on Saturday, but just to provide context, please give our readers a brief synopsis of what happens in Giselle Act I.
Diana Yohe: We just did this ballet so it’s pretty fresh for us. Giselle is a peasant girl who’s kind of the main girl in the village. Albrecht is actually royalty but he meets Giselle and falls in love.
Joseph Parr: He pretends he’s a peasant.
DY: Yes, there’s a big deal in the opening scene where the audience sees Albrecht hiding his sword so that Giselle doesn’t know that he’s royalty.
VL: Ok, Albrecht is not what he pretends to be. That’s the gist of Act I right there. Go ahead and explain what happens as Act I comes to an end.
DY: Giselle finds out that he’s actually betrothed to someone else and Albrecht – kind of the ultimate betrayal — pretends he doesn’t know who she is and she goes mad and dies.
JP: She asks him what’s up and he’s right to her face, “I don’t know you.” So it’s really, really cold.
VL: And when you say, “We just did this ballet,” you mean with your company, Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre? How many performances of Giselle did you do?
VL: What roles did you get to play?
DY: I did the Peasant Pas de Deux and I was Myrtha, Queen of the Willis.
VL: Unforgiving, merciless Myrtha. What about you, Joseph?
JP: I did Wilfrid for a couple of shows and also I was a peasant.
VL: Not a lot of roles for men in Giselle, but there’s Albrecht’s squire Wilfrid, who’s always offering good advice which Albrecht ignores. So, both of you have served your apprenticeships by dancing secondary roles in Giselle and now you’re taking on the principal roles of Giselle and Albrecht. Let’s talk about how you plan to portray your characters. Giselle is sweet and loving so it’s easy to make her a sympathetic character. But is she too innocent and trusting for her to be believable?
DY: I went kind of crazy buying DVDs of Giselle, researching how different dancers portrayed her, so I’ve seen a lot of Giselles. The thing to remember about Giselle is how young she is. There’s a scene in Act I where Giselle’s mom tries to warn her about the real world. What betrayal can do to a woman. But Giselle is oblivious. “I’m fine. Everything will be great.” Even when she ends up as a Willi, even among all those betrayed women, she still loves Albrecht and forgives him. So the only truth is real love for the person you’re dancing with, that your passion is true for the guy standing next to you.
VL: What about you, Joseph. It would be easy for Albrecht to lose the audience’s sympathy. Even if he really loves Giselle, he doesn’t think very far ahead.
JP: It’s a struggle to play Albrecht because there are so many layers. He falls in love with Giselle but then, “Oh no, I’m supposed to marry someone else.” At the end of Act I he’s surrounded by other royals and has to keep up appearances so he has to dismiss Giselle, but when he does that it’s impossible for him to come across as genuinely in love with her. Then, when it’s too late, he’s completely devastated. It’s that old classic, you don’t know what you have until it’s gone.
VL: So at the very end of Act I, Albrecht has lost the audience’s sympathy but, in your understanding of the character, he’s beginning to see the light.
JP: He realizes how much he messed up. He wishes he could go back. You can show that at the beginning of Act II.
VL: I know the moment you’re talking about. He’s visiting her grave, mourning, when he catches a glimpse of her spirit.
JP: He sees her and experiences a renewal of hope. Maybe she’s alive. Maybe it didn’t really happen. And he goes back and forth between believing she’s real and she’s not real. As I said, it’s a struggle to play Albrecht because he has so many layers. Dancing Act II, the steps are difficult but the emotional investment makes it all the more taxing.
DY: Albrecht never intended for what happened to happen. He had a bit of an innocent love as well. He couldn’t help but fall in love with Giselle but he didn’t anticipate having his true identity revealed and he never intended for her to die of a broken heart.
VL: Yes, I need to remind myself that nearly everyone, male or female, has behaved irresponsibly while under the influence of a romantic infatuation. But Joseph, you were talking about the challenges of dancing Act II. I have a little experience with Giselle from partnering classes. Some of the lifts are particularly difficult because you have to hold her just slightly off the ground in front of you. It creates the illusion that she’s is light as air, a disembodied spirit, but it’s punishing for the person doing the lifting.
JP: The hardest part, what you’re talking about, is right after Myrtha has told you that you are going to dance until you die. You do all the little jumps and all the big jumps and then it’s those lifts. They’re hard enough when you’re fresh, but when you’re completely exhausted it’s a whole different thing.
VL: How do you approach Act II, Diana? Giselle has come back as a spirit.
DY: The Willis and Myrtha have been dead for some time and so PBT’s costumes show that by being white but almost dirty. But Giselle has only recently died so she’s dressed in fresh white and she’s livelier than the others. She’s a spirit but she’s still Giselle. Even though she’s light as air, it’s still about portraying her love. So, you do her little jumps in Act II with a floaty feeling – that’s easy. She dances almost as much as Albrecht does in Act II, protecting him from Myrtha and the Willis.
VL: I’m impressed that Giselle forgives Albrecht.
DY: He does come to her grave to honor her. He could have just gone back to his life. Maybe she doesn’t forgive him immediately in Act II, but she does lead him away from danger, away from the Willis.
VL: It’s actually Hilarion who gets into trouble with the Willis first. When I told the story to friends, they found it extremely unfair that Hilarion dies at the hands of the Willis.
DY: I know. He was watching out for Giselle from the beginning.
VL: Hilarion’s death alerts the audience to the real danger that the Willis represent.
DY: (Laughs.) If a herd of betrayed women doesn’t scare you…
VL: What are you doing for costumes? Will you be able to borrow from PBT’s costume shop?
DY: Yes, they made all new costumes for this last production of Giselle. They’re really beautiful.
VL: Good costumes make such a difference.
City Ballet of Cleveland presents its annual spring repertory concert including Giselle Act II, a new ballet choreographed by Kent State Professor Jeffrey Rockland, and two re-staged works choreographed by Courtney Laves-Mearini and Sara Lawrence-Sucato. From 7 – 9 pm Saturday 5/12/2018 at Breen Center for Performing Arts, 2008 West 30th Street, Cleveland 44113. For tickets $10 – $35 go to (https://goo.gl/Kj96Lh).
*In the spirit of full disclosure, City Ballet of Cleveland is based at Cleveland City Dance, the studio where we used to take ballet classes. We invite other local dance studios to keep us informed of their activities.