as applied to works of literature, music or dance -- has always had a sacrosanct aura about it. Among the implications is that classics are inviolable -- you don't mess around with works of art enshrined as cultural monuments.
In fact, however, the classics -- from the Bible and the Greeks to Shakespeare and, yes, to the classics of ballet -- have been subject to endless "reinterpretation." The reason is simple. At bottom, classics become "classics" because there's something timeless and universal about them. Every age, however, strives to understand and apply these universals -- to keep the classics from atrophying by seeing them afresh through "modern" eyes.
Hence the Creole version of "Giselle" that the Dance Theatre of Harlem is bringing to the Kennedy Center Opera House Tuesday night as the centerpiece of its week-long engagement has ample precedent. Even "Giselle" itself has been tampered with -- for example, the satirical modern dance opus, "Giselle's Revenge," that Myra Kinch staged at Jacob's Pillow and in New York in 1953, featuring a Giselle who gleefully nailed Albrecht into her own coffin. The truth is, "Giselle" began to undergo revision almost from the time of its premiere in Paris in 1841. The "Giselle" familiar to most audiences today owes far more of its choreographic substance to Marius Petipa -- the Russian master who rechoreographed it several times between the 1840s and the 1880s -- than to its original creators, Jean Coralli and Jules Perrot.
Still, the DTH "Giselle" does represent a rather startling and certainly novel approach. It's not at all a "modernization." The production just transposes the action from the original setting in the medieval Rhineland to a Creole community in Louisiana at exactly the time of the ballet's premiere -- 1841.
The conception belongs to Arthur Mitchell, the first black American -- as a principal dancer with the New York City Ballet -- to win international fame in the field of classical ballet, and the founder of DTH in 1968. He talked about it last week in a telephone conversation from New York.
"I've been thinking about and working on this production for the last 10 years," he said, "and now it's finally come to fruition. I got involved in a tremendous amount of research, along with Carl Michel, who designed the production for us. We turned up so much exciting information and history that seemed tailor-made for transforming 'Giselle' into something relevant to Americans, and especially to blacks and black experience.
"We were able to give a lineage to every character in the story, based on real people, people who lived in a society of free blacks that flourished in Louisiana during the days of slavery. They lived in many respects as equals among whites, educated their children in the North or in Europe, and were very influenced by European ways, especially the French. It was a perfect parallel for the class structure in the original story of 'Giselle.' What all this does is to give the ballet an immediacy that had gone stale in all the years it had been treated reverentially as a classic. It makes it into an American ballet, and it restores the theatrical magic that so many productions have lost."
In the DTH "Giselle," the heroine is no longer a Silesian peasant, but a free-born black girl who lives with her mother, Berthe, on a Louisiana farm. The story outlines are the same as those concocted by the original librettists, Theophile Gautier and Vernoy de Saint-Georges, who based their tale on the German poet Heinrich Heine's report of the legend of the Wilis -- ghostly spirits of maidens abandoned by their lovers before their appointed wedding day, haunting the woods and causing all faithless males who come within their domain to dance themselves to death. In the DTH production, only the social and geographic location have been changed.
The season is harvest time, but it's sugar cane that's being harvested, instead of wine grapes. Giselle falls in love with Albert (called Albrecht in other versions but frenchified for the DTH ambiance), a wealthy Creole plantation owner who has disguised himself as a poor farmer to woo her. When Giselle's rejected suitor, Hilarion, reveals Albert's true identity -- as well as the fact that he's engaged to another woman, Bathilde, of his own caste -- Giselle's mind cracks and she dies.
The second act takes place not in the woods, but in the swamps of the Bayou, draped in Spanish moss and moonlight. The vengeance of the Wilis dovetails naturally with old local yarns about Bayou specters. Giselle is entombed in a stone mausoleum, and when Albert enters -- in a pirogue, a flat-bottomed, pole-powered boat used in the bayous -- to place flowers beside her resting place, he's commanded to dance without respite by Myrtha, the Wili queen, and her minions. Only the intercession of the forgiving Giselle -- now herself a Wili -- prevents Albert's doom at the last possible moment before dawn, when the Wilis must return to their graves. Designer Michel has costumed the Wilis in diaphanous shifts, rather than the customary Romantic tutus -- in trying to create the most otherworldly, insubstantial effect with the gowns, he sought out a fabric that would "float like cobwebs," and found it in magician's silk.
Though the period, the setting and to some extent the atmosphere of the ballet have been changed in accordance with Mitchell's fundamental concept, it was also part of his thought from the beginning that the actual choreography remain as close as possible to classical tradition. So he turned to Frederic Franklin, the 71-year-old Liverpool-born dancer, choreographer and ballet master who has had a distinguished balletic career on both sides of the Atlantic. For more than a decade, Franklin resided in Washington, as artistic director (later codirector with Ben Stevenson) of the National Ballet, until that company's demise in 1974. In recent years, he's been choreographer in residence for the Cincinnati Ballet; more recently still, he was appointed the company's acting artistic director, after the untimely death of its former head, David McLain.
Franklin, however, has had a long association as well with DTH. "Franklin has been working with our company for years," Mitchell notes. "He staged our version of the second act of 'Swan Lake,' and also our 'Scheherazade.' He's a walking encyclopedia of ballet history, and what's more, he learned the choreography of 'Giselle' from Markova and Dolin."
Alicia Markova and Anton Dolin were the most celebrated English-born interpreters of Giselle and Albrecht in the ballet's early history in the West. Moreover, they in turn were taught the roles by Nicolai Sergeyev, the ballet master from St. Petersburg who transmitted the Russian classical legacy to the West, using notations made in his homeland that he brought with him when he emigrated in 1918. Franklin's version for DTH completes the historic circle, uniting a new American twist to the story with its traditional dance roots.
All this care has already paid off in terms of recognition. The DTH "Giselle" had its world premiere at London's Coliseum last July (it's since been staged in New York and Boston) to considerable acclaim. On the basis of the London production, Franklin was awarded the 1984 Laurence Olivier Award for Best Choreographer of the Year by the Society of West End Theatres. The same auspices presented DTH with two additional awards, both for "Giselle," which was hailed as Outstanding New Dance Production of the Year and Best Dance Show of the Year.
"It really was coals to Newcastle for us to bring our 'Giselle' to England," Mitchell says, "and then to become the first American company to take these awards, despite our being up against the Royal Ballet, Ballet Rambert and all the others over there."
"Giselle" will have four performances at the Kennedy Center, starting with Tuesday's opening-night program (which also includes Robert North's "Troy Game") and repeating Thursday and Saturday evenings and Sunday matinee. Repertory for DTH's two other slightly varying repertory programs will include the company's first Washington performances of Glen Tetley's "Voluntaries," as well as Balanchine's "Serenade," John Taras' "Firebird" and Geoffrey Holder's "Banda."