GETTING TO THE CORE of a 19th-century romantic ballet such as "Giselle" is as challenging for a choreographer as finding a fresh point of view for a new production of, say, Shakespeare's "Hamlet." So says Septime Webre, artistic director of the Washington Ballet, who has been doing just that for months now to prepare his company to dance the maudlin classic.
The company's first full-length rendering of the ballet, which opens at the Kennedy Center's Eisenhower Theater on Wednesday, signals a shift for the troupe, founded in 1976 as a chamber ensemble favoring contemporary and neoclassical works. But Webre doesn't see taking "Giselle" into the repertory as abandoning the company's bread-and-butter commissions of new choreography and contemporary classics. "I think of it as the Washington Ballet growing up," he says, acknowledging the maturity of both character and technique that this classic demands.
"Giselle," the apotheosis of romantic-era ballet, is awash in moonlight and yearning for love. The libretto's moody and supernatural undertones were suggested by French poet, novelist and balletomane Theophile Gautier, who read a German poem about Wilis, the vengeful spirits of jilted virgins who arise as white-skirted apparitions from their graves each evening to dance young men to their deaths. This scenario provided the basis for the aching story of "Giselle," which centers on nobleman Albrecht's search for love. The woman he falls for, Giselle, is socially below him -- a peasant girl, not a princess -- and his actions lead to her demise.
Fortunately, "Giselle" is among the few romantic-era ballets that have remained in active repertory with one company or another since its premiere. "The choreography has largely been passed along to us, so the steps have never been lost, like so many other 19th-century works," Webre explains. "It's cumulative knowledge, and most productions of 'Giselle' have the same steps in common." But steps remain only part of the equation in setting a ballet masterwork such as "Giselle."
"The stager is like a musical conductor who is working with a well-known score," Webre notes. "It's a bit like reenvisioning a great score of Beethoven's or Wagner's and having it ring true but remain distinct from other conductors' versions of the same score." But the bigger challenge in ballet arises because a standard notation of steps doesn't exist. All steps and stage directions have been passed on from dancer to dancer, generation to generation.
So when a question of point of view arises, Webre and ballet master Charla Genn have many choices to make. For example, when "Giselle" dies at the end of Act 1, at least two approaches come to mind.
"One traditional version has Giselle dying in Albrecht's arms," Webre says. "The villagers and Giselle's mother are behind them, at a bit of a distance because they're intimidated by Albrecht. This version emphasizes the love between the two, and it emphasizes Albrecht's heartbreak. It gives a huge amount of importance to the relationship between the two of them. Act 2 becomes solely about Albrecht's remorse and Giselle's forgiveness." Another option has Giselle die in her mother's arms as the villagers console her and look on. Albrecht is whisked off stage by his manservant.
Just two weeks before opening, ask Webre which he'll choose and he's undecided. "As a romantic, I find the former interpretation appealing: We really focus on this couple, and the audience can extrapolate the specifics of this couple's experience to their own lives or to universal themes." On the other hand, he muses, "Having Albrecht leave the village and return to his castle sends an interesting sociopolitical message. Albrecht has been this disguised lord, from an elite class. He falls in love with Giselle, but it was begun as a flight of fancy and whimsy. He can return to his fiancee, to a normal life, but he leaves behind a village wrecked by his actions."
There's a message, Webre finds, in both.
GISELLE -- Washington Ballet, Wednesday to Oct. 23 at 8 p.m., and Oct. 23-24 at 2:30 p.m. Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theatre. 202-467-4600.