At a typical Carolina Ballet rehearsal, choreographers and coaches are heard correcting dancers leg positions and counting beats for precision turns. More recently, however, instructions have included, put yourself in the situation, act naturally and really feel it.
No, the company isnt readying a theater production, although these rehearsals focus on the same acting values and emotional truths a play requires. Thats because Giselle, opening Thursday, is unique among the classic 19th-century story ballets in its believable love story.
Unlike the female archetypes in Swan Lake or the stereotypical tomboy in Coppélia, the young peasant girl Giselle goes through a wide range of realistic emotions. The dancer portraying her must first be convincing as a pure maiden easily wooed by the handsome Albrecht (posing as a peasant but actually a soon-to-be-married duke). Then she must show naïve incomprehension when Albrechts deception is revealed, and be persuasive that it leads her to mental breakdown and subsequent death. Most challenging, Giselle later appears as a dead spirit, devoid of emotion but still capable of communicating forgiveness toward Albrecht.
To further enhance the reality, the dancers do not break character to bow after big solos and pas de deux, as they do in other story ballets. They also do not play to the audience but relate only to one another, keeping the drama concentrated.
The choreography by Marius Petipa, based on the 1841 original, is quite difficult. Company coaches Melissa Podcasy and Marin Boieru, whove performed Giselle many times, drill the dancers in producing an illusion of gravity-defying lightness to indicate Giselles innocent joy and, later, ethereal presence.
It should look effortless, Podcasy said at a recent rehearsal, but its hard to disguise the physical power needed to make it happen.
Boieru focuses on making Giselles dead spirit seem to float on air.
It must be extremely smooth, he said. You shouldnt see all the work that goes into making it look simple.
The acting and dancing challenges arent the only reasons artistic director Robert Weiss has waited 15 seasons to stage it. He needed dancers up to performing the leads (he now has three couples wholl rotate during the run) and he needed enough capable women for the second acts Willis. A Willi is the spirit of a dead woman, jilted by her lovers, who takes mortal revenge on men. Their choreography requires exacting precision in mirror-image movements that create an eerie atmosphere.
In our company of 35, we now have more women than ever before, Weiss said recently, so weve only had to fill in with four local students to make up the 18 Willis required.
Weiss is making one change to the usual choreography. The scene with a peasant couple dancing for visiting royals is a later addition to the original and doesnt use music by the ballets composer, Adolphe Adam.
Ive always found the music cloying and the choreography trite, Weiss said. I wanted to show that the couples relationship works because they are of the same station, unlike Albrecht and Giselle, whose relationship can never work. Weiss is using music from other Adam ballets for his version.
As with so many ballet companies now, the performances must use recorded music, but Weiss was determined not to skimp on the scenery, which has to depict a peasant village and a moonlit lake.
We were very lucky to acquire an elaborate set from Italy, he said. It was already in the country for another companys production, so we arranged to use it.
Margaret Severin-Hansen, one the productions Giselles, summed up the ballets appeal during a rehearsal.
You are watching a person live a real life, she said, and you can lose yourself in it all.