Flowers in full bloom, thunderstorms, killer heat: For Washingtonians, the gentle and not-so-gentle facets of nature loom particularly large in summer. How fitting that the ballet “Giselle” will be on grand display here this week — nearly 171 years to the day after its premiere on June 28, 1841. Fitting because in its world, too, nature wields a zealous power.
On Thursday, the Paris Opera Ballet returns to the Kennedy Center for the first time in 19 years with this work, a quintessentially French creation made for the company by a crack team of Gallic romantics: poet Theophile Gautier, who was infatuated with ballerinas; composer Adolphe Adam, theater habitue and onetime vaudeville songwriter; and choreographers Jean Coralli and Jules Perrot.
What resulted is one of the romantic era’s most poignant expressions, the tale of a peasant girl who dies of a broken heart, then returns in spirit form to rescue and forgive her unfaithful lover. Its charms are well known. But let’s look at it from a new perspective. This ballet is more than a show of delicacy, death and tulle. “Giselle” is 19th-century eco-art.
Man and nature are in a constant pas de deux here. We first meet sweet Giselle in the Rhine countryside. (Gautier was inspired by Heinrich Heine’s writings on Rhineland folklore.) It’s a locavore's heaven, where the girl and her fellow grape-growers live simply and in harmony with the land. Life revolves around the seasons; it’s harvest time, so the first act is awash in sunny gaiety.
By contrast, the mystery man with whom Giselle is in love — Albrecht, or, as the French call him, Albert — is secretive and wary. He’s a nobleman in disguise, a city slicker, slumming with the natives before his marriage to a princess. His life is a lie, and the cosmos knows it, even before it unleashes a coven of phantom virgins to torture him.
Nature has strong feelings in this ballet. It’s almost another character, a creative element with a language all its own. Take the flower symbolism — which, come to think of it, feels especially French. You can imagine the original production being stocked with blossoms by a Parisian marche aux fleurs. First come wildflowers, stand-ins for simplicity: In the Paris Opera’s version, Hilarion, the local gamekeeper who’s trying to woo Giselle, leaves a bouquet of common blooms at her door (which is much more romantic than the dead birds or bloodied bunnies he offers in other companies’ productions). They are cheerful, rustic beauties, grown in the native soil, just like Giselle herself.
Out of that same earth grows the flower that figures in the next scene, where it will become a barometer of truth: As Albrecht flirts with Giselle outside her thatched-roof cottage, she picks a daisy and plucks its petals to reveal her suitor’s intentions. He loves me, he loves me not . . . . As surely as if she’d turned over the tarot death card, Giselle sees she’s in trouble when the petals stop at “not.”
Albrecht is busted by a flower.
Giselle herself is fairly covered in posies — buds are woven through in her hair and pinned to her bodice, and during the harvest celebration she wears a floral crown on her head. They hint at the fertility she’ll never enjoy, and the vitality she’s about to lose. Nature’s bounty clings to her even as she is shattered by Albrecht’s duplicity and draws her dying breath.
Hilarion deposits more daisies at Giselle’s grave in the moonlight of the second act, but lilies are the real stars here. When Albrecht arrives at the tombstone, he’s bearing — so theatrically — an armload of leggy white lilies, signifiers of Giselle’s undying purity.
As you’d expect from a national arts organization whose monarchy sent knights into battle under lily-festooned banners, the Paris Opera Ballet takes its lilies seriously.
In fact, while in some other troupes Albrecht carries plastic or silk fakes when he visits Giselle’s grave. . .
“Ah, non, non, non, non,” says Brigitte Lefevre, clucking her tongue. She is the artistic director of the French company and spoke by phone recently from Paris. “We use only natural flowers.”
Her staff pulls out the stamens so their reddish pollen doesn’t stain the costumes.
As for the winged Wilis that Albrecht and Hilarion encounter in the forest surrounding Giselle’s grave — these are the ghosts of girls who died before their wedding day, and their queen bears a single branch for a scepter. Fittingly, it’s less voluptuous than a blooming hothouse bulb, and more severe. According to Lefevre, the Paris Opera Ballet’s Wili queen carries flowering myrtle. It’s common in European bridal bouquets. (When she wed Britain’s Prince William last year, Kate Middleton carried stems from a myrtle planted by Queen Victoria in 1845.) I like to think its presence here is a bit of sardonic Wili wit, as in, “Groom or no groom, I'm carrying some @#!& myrtle.”
As Lefevre sees it, the Wilis are out to get Albrecht not just because he jilted Giselle, but because he’s no friend of nature. Albrecht is a hunter — a predator. (He’s unmasked to Giselle when the royal family swans through her village on a hunting trip, and wonders what the heck one of their own is doing messing around with commoners.)
“In a certain manner, he’s a predator of animals but also of this young girl,” says Lefevre.
The second act, she continues, “is the reconciliation of these two worlds,” the nature-loving and nature-controlling. The hunter becomes the hunted, trapped by the Wilis, beings that are part of the natural world but also predators in their own right. In Lefevre’s view, they represent the cataclysmic side of nature, “nature that turns on man when man tries to transform it.”
This was a common theme among the romantics — our soul mates in the current preoccupation with the environment.
As it happens, while Lefevre muses on the natural imagery in her company’s flagship ballet, she is standing in her own bit of paradise en plein air. She’s speaking by cellphone from the rose garden behind her home.
“It’s a very little garden,” she says, “but I enjoy being in nature, even if it’s a reduced nature. And in ‘Giselle,’ all that is present — how much better we feel when we are in nature.” The ballet’s message “is not at all didactic, but we feel it powerfully.”
This quietly potent ballet “is like a flower that just breathes, softly, and we are not aware of how marvelous it is.”
Like the heroine herself. After her battle for Albrecht’s safety is won, Giselle — the peasant turned savior — returns to the Rhineland’s fertile earth, sinking into her grave to rest in peace. If the past 171 years of her popularity are any measure, her eternal life is assured.
at the Kennedy Center Opera House from Thursday through July 8. www.kennedy-center.org