Monday, February 6, 2023

PNB Gave Me The Wilis. Huzzah!


PNB Principal Dancer Elle Macy as Myrtha, Queen of the Wilis in the current production of Giselle
                                                                   photo @ Angela Sterling

Let me confess right from the start: I am not a huge fan of 19th century story ballets.


I love Giselle. Partly that’s because it features some amazing dancing. But mostly because the band of female ghosts who emerge in Act 2 have stolen my heart. And their queen, Myrtha? I think she’s my favorite character in all of story ballet-dom. They’re truly the reason you need to see Pacific Northwest Ballet’s current production before it closes on February 12th.

To be honest, I don’t love Giselle, the main character, although on opening night, principal dancer Lesley Rausch was close to perfection, sassy in Act I and ethereal in Act 2. Plus jumpin’ James Kirby Rogers as her true love Albert, danced gorgeously that night.

Giselle and Albert get cozy on a bench, before everything goes to hell
James Kirby Rogers, left, with the incandescent Lesley Rausch in this photo @ Angela Sterling

I guess I should back up and tell you more about this ballet. 

First off, it’s old, probably the oldest work in PNB’s repertoire. It debuted in Paris in 1841. PNB’s version was reconstructed in 2011 from three different 19th century sources, decoded by dance/music historians Doug Fullington and Marian Smith and staged by PNB artistic director Peter Boal.

Here's the plot in a nutshell. A beautiful young peasant woman named Giselle falls for the new guy in town. And he falls for her. Problem is, he says he’s a peasant, but in reality, Albert is slumming it. He’s actually a nobleman. AND he’s engaged to someone else, a noblewoman named Bathilde, the daughter of a prince. Uh oh...

Giselle finds out the truth about Albert from a fellow peasant named Hilarion, who’s in love with Giselle. She goes nuts and dies of a broken heart. Curtain down on Act I.

Now we get to the best part.

photo @ Angela Sterling

The action moves to a forest that’s haunted by the ghosts of women like Giselle whose lovers have done them wrong. If you’re a man who ventures into their territory at night, well, watch out, because these ghosts are bent on revenge. They’re called Wilis, they dress in white with little wings on their backs, and their leader is the all-powerful Myrtha.

Dancing in the moonlight, but nothing feels warm and right with the Wilis
photo @ Angela Sterling

The dancer who portrays Myrtha has to be fierce. Not only does she have to execute technically challenging choreography, leaping and spinning across the stage. She’s got to lead her Wilis in the charge against the men who, in my opinion, truly need to be held accountable for their actions. The Wilis don’t use weapons; they dance unsuspecting men to their deaths.

Elle Macy as Myrtha on opening night of PNB's 2023 production of Giselle
                                                                     photo @ Angela Sterling

There’s a lot of old-time mime in this ballet (don’t worry, PNB provides a “glossary” in the program); all you really need to know is the mime movement that conveys “dance.” It comes up repeatedly in the first act, when Giselle tells her mother she’d rather dance than go work in the vineyards. (Can you blame her?). Myrtha is all over the dance mime in Act 2.

In essence, the dancer who’s miming holds both arms in front of her torso. One arm at a time, she makes circular gestures, raising her arms up above her head. It looks a little like somebody gesturing you to get the ball rolling. Believe me, you’ll understand what I’m saying when you see the ballet.

PNB soloist Amanda Morgan looking regal as Myrtha
photo @ Angela Sterling

When Myrtha and her band encircle a man, Myrtha mimes “dance,” then she points at her captive’s feet. The meaning is pretty clear. It’s like one of those old Westerns, where the villain shoots bullets at the hero’s boots and tells them to “dance, sucker.”

When Albert wanders into the forest to lay flowers on Giselle’s grave, Myrtha and her posse nab him and he’s almost danced to death. Almost, because Giselle pleads with Myrtha to save him. Her efforts kill enough time that dawn arrives before the Wilis can finish off Albert. They disappear offstage, back to their tombs or wherever it is that Wilis hide out during daylight hours.

Yep, they’re like Zombies or werewolves, or whatever other creatures can’t function once the sun comes up. Once they’re gone, the audience is left to savor the memories of these dancers, their stern faces, and the way they first take the stage, in white veils, their bodies angled forward in two straight lines, like perfectly matched knives in a butcher’s block. Ooh, it’s something to behold!

photo @ Angela Sterling

I’ve embarked on a quest to see all three PNB Myrthas. Principal Elle Macy killed it on opening night; she shares Myrtha duties with fellow principal Cecilia Iliesiu and soloist Amanda Morgan. They’ll be performing in different shows this coming weekend, so check here for casting information.

PNB Principal Dancer Cecilia Iliesiu as Myrtha. Fierce, right?
photo @ Angela Sterling

I think I must be an outlier when it comes to Giselle. Some of my fellow ballet nerd pals call Myrtha the villain of the piece, and they’re saddened that Gisele and Albert can’t fulfill their love. At least while they're both alive. Frankly, I can’t work up a lot of sympathy for Albert when the Wilis are trying to dance him to death. Okay, maybe he doesn’t deserve to die, but he did break at least one woman’s heart (Bathilde also was  wronged, but she doesn’t do much except take Albert back). Shouldn’t Albert have to atone for his actions?

Giselle and Albert, aka Lesley Rausch and James Kirby Rogers
Does he really deserve her love??
photo @ Angela Sterling

Myrtha and the Wilis are there to mete out justice. Even in contemporary dance, we don’t often see resolute women like them. What am I saying? We rarely see tough women portrayed in any art form, which is one reason I like Giselle so much.

To me the Wilis are role models, standing firm in a world where their dreams of happiness don’t seem to count as much as their male counterparts’. Well, standing firm in the afterlife. They kick ass.

And the dancing isn't shabby either.

Pacific Northwest Ballet's production of Giselle is onstage at McCaw Hall Thursday, February 9-Sunday, February 12.


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