As the artistic director of a major ballet company, one has to be ready to answer that invariable icebreaker question of journalists, board members and even guests at a dinner party: “What is your favorite ballet?”
“Giselle” has always been Adam Sklute’s answer, at least as far as story ballets are concerned. Now Ballet West’s artistic director gets to debut his own version of the 1840 ballet, which opens Nov. 7 at the Capitol Theatre.
It’s common practice for artistic directors to reproduce famous ballets with their own stamp — editing and adding while closely guarding all the hallmarks from the original work. So while the architecture remains largely the same, the ballet is constantly being reconceived.
Sometimes, however, there’s backlash.
Last spring, Moscow’s famous Bolshoi Ballet presented a “Giselle” that simply upped the bravado of a secondary male character, Hilarion. This was most likely done to add more male virtuosity into the female-heavy ballet. The New York Times accused the Bolshoi of muddying the plot.
“It’s always challenging,” Sklute said when asked how he decides what to keep, what to cut and what to make his own in a new production. “While preserving the classics is so important, it’s also important to ask, ‘How can I make this relatable to a 21st-century audience?’ ”
If toying around with Hilarion’s dancing is dicey, then Giselle’s immortal “mad scene” would seem absolutely untouchable. And yet that’s just what Sklute went for.
“Although Giselle is supposed to be physically weak, I didn’t see her as weak-minded. The depth of her actions in Act 2 warrant that,” he said. “So I decided to have her take her own life instead of die from shock as is the tradition.”
Sklute admits he’s always had a hard time buying her sudden collapse (even if she does have a weak heart), and he thinks modern audiences might agree — “might” being the operative word. But he can take comfort in knowing that the original version by Jean Coralli and Jules Perrot almost included the suicide — they chose death-from-shock instead to avoid controversy.
The original also used pantomime about 30 percent of the time to convey the story. Today, pantomime is a little out of fashion, so very little is used. Instead, facial expression, body language and movement do most of the talking. That can be tough with the complex storyline of “Giselle.”
Take the multilayered heroine. While she’s consistently saintly during the unfolding love story of the first act, there’s something unstable lurking beneath the surface. In Sklute’s version, we see suggestions of this long before the famous “mad scene” when the instability takes over as she learns of her lover's deceit.
Then there’s Albrecht, a prince who disguises himself as a commoner to woo Giselle even though his family has already selected his bride. His deceit is not exactly malicious, since it’s apparent he feels trapped by his station — but does he really love her, or is it just a game? The answer isn’t well defined, and each of the four dancers cast in the lead male role for different performances is allowed some artistic license.
For principal dancer Christopher Ruud, the role is not only technically challenging but also thought-provoking.
“Can we really blame Albrecht? His life is being arranged for him and Giselle offers him an escape, not to mention the fact that he’s been trained not to consider consequences,” Ruud said. “I don’t think the audience will be able to pin Albrecht down as a villain. He isn’t evil just young and careless.”
Act 2 follows Giselle into the supernatural realm, where she joins the other “Wilis,” beautiful brides who died before their wedding day, wearing their wedding dresses in various stages of decay. When a remorseful Albrecht stumbles upon their leader, the man-hating Myrthe, whose troupe takes pleasure in trapping young men in a forced dance until they die of exhaustion, the forgiving Giselle intervenes.
“Each of the four women cast as Giselle (Arolyn Williams, Jacqueline Straughan, Sayaka Ohtaki and Beckanne Sisk) is magnificent at taking on her complexity,” Sklute said. “If I could, I’d have everyone see all four casts.”
If you go ...
What: Ballet West’s “Giselle”
When: Nov. 7-8 and 12-15, 7:30 p.m.; and Nov. 8-9 and 15-16, 2 p.m.
Where: Capitol Theatre, 50 W. 200 South
How much: $30-$85
Phone: 801-869-6920 or 801-355-2787