In commenting on the Kansas City Ballet production of Giselle, I am out of my area of expertise. My interest in dance is only slightly lower than my interest in the design of Tupperware. However, when my six-year-old grandson was tapped to swell a few scenes in this production, I knew we had to use this as an excuse to make a first appearance at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts.
I knew nothing of the story of Giselle, an 1841 French creation. Before the performance, I learned that this is essentially a fairy tale. A prince (in disguise) falls in love with a peasant girl although he is promised to another, more suitable, woman. When his true identity is revealed, Giselle dies of a broken heart. As the prince, Albrecht, mourns for his lost love, a band of creepy ghost women not only pull Giselle from her grave but attempt to force Albrecht to dance himself to death. In the end, Giselle’s pure love allows Albrecht to survive the ordeal and frees her from joining this peculiar group.
Why has this ballet survived for over 170 years? The music is solid but unremarkable. Like most ballets, the story could be handled in about 15 minutes and serves as an excuse for protracted dance sequences. Any story, it seems, would do, so why has this one endured?
Like a Disney story told a century too early, Giselle presents young lovers with whom anyone would want to identify. I want to be Prince Albrecht. Anyone can understand his actions in falling for the peasant girl on the eve of his arranged wedding, right? Can you imagine the married Frenchman sitting next to the bride he sensibly married? “If only I could have married who I wanted,” he thinks. And what woman doesn’t want to see herself as Giselle? Like Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Giselle “shall but love thee better after death.” Giselle is utterly blameless. The wife to our Frenchman sits next to her husband and thinks, “Even though you’re a selfish scoundrel, I still love you. Mon dieu! I am certainly wonderful.”
The ballet was marvelous–and my grandson was inspired–but let’s not mistake this excuse for transcendent dance as anything like great literature. The story of Giselle is a 19th century counterpart to Dirty Dancing, pleasant but hardly transforming.