February 15, 2023

American Repertory Ballet’s “Giselle” Makes the Classic Work More Relatable

RETELLING A CLASSIC: Dancers from American Repertory Ballet rehearse a scene from “Giselle” in which Albrecht, played here by Aldeir Monteiro, collapses after having been forced to dance nearly to death. Ryoko Tanaka, facing away from Monteiro, plays the ghostly Giselle.

By Anne Levin

When Ethan Stiefel was artistic director of the Royal New Zealand Ballet, he asked his friend and fellow dance star Johan Kobborg to collaborate with him on a production of the 19th century classic Giselle. Now, a decade later, Stiefel is staging the work for American Repertory Ballet (ARB), which he has headed since July 2021.

Kobborg, who lives in London, was right beside Stiefel last week at a recent rehearsal in a roomy space at Talbott Library, on the mostly-empty Princeton campus of Westminster Choir College. The two-act, 19th century ballet comes to the New Brunswick Performing Arts Center for four performances March 3-5.

Stiefel and Kobborg, both 50, worked in tandem with the dancers on details of their portrayals. “Feel the purpose, don’t just do the steps,” Kobborg said to Aldeir Monteiro, cast as the nobleman whose infatuation with a young peasant girl leads to heartbreak, grief, and vengeance. “You need to realize that she’s gone.”

Giselle is widely considered to be the perfect Romantic era ballet. Its timeless story of love gone wrong has kept it in the repertories of ballet companies across the world. A year after it premiered in New Zealand, Stiefel and Kobborg’s version was made into a feature film, which has been screened at several international film festivals. The ballet has also been performed by Opera National Bucharest, which Kobborg headed from 2013-2016.

Kobborg is a veteran of the Royal Danish Ballet and London’s Royal Ballet. Stiefel was a principal dancer at American Ballet Theatre and starred in the cult film Center Stage before changing his focus from dancing to directing. The two first met some 27 years ago, they reminisced during a sushi lunch break. “It was around 1996, I think,” said Kobborg. “I have no idea how I ended up in a tour group called Stars of the American Ballet, since I was at the Royal Danish Ballet at the time. But I did. And I had seen Ethan dance at a gala in Denmark.”

Stiefel traced the development of their friendship to performances he gave as a guest artist at London’s Covent Garden, where Kobborg was dancing with the Royal Ballet. “I didn’t realize he was there, but one day, there he was. The apartment I was staying in was right down the street from his. We became friends. We realized we had some shared sensibilities.”

During the years he served as dean of the School of Dance at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, Stiefel had commissioned Kobborg to create a ballet. The idea for the collaborative Giselle came to him a few years later, during his time in New Zealand. “We had both played Albrecht, and we’d talked about it,” he said. “I thought, wouldn’t it be great to do this together?”

The idea appealed to Kobborg. “It is unusual,” he said. “I think you’d have a hard time finding a production done by two male dancers.”

Their approach was never set in stone. “We didn’t say, ‘You do Act I and I’ll do Act II or anything like that,’ said Stiefel. “We knew the broad strokes of what we would do. But even if you know each other, it’s always a big gamble.”

The version follows the 1841 original by Jean Coralli and Jules Perrot, with some tweaks. Giselle is a young peasant girl who falls in love with Albrecht, a nobleman in disguise. When his true identity and plans to marry another are revealed by his rival, Hilarion, Giselle goes mad and dies of heartbreak. After her death, she is summoned from her grave into the deadly sisterhood of the Wilis, who take revenge on the men who have wronged them by forcing them to dance to death. Hilarion succumbs, but Albrecht is ultimately saved by Giselle.

Instead of the traditional peasant pas de deux in Act I, Stiefel and Kobborg have added a solo for Hilarion, “a kind of dance-off between him and Albrecht,” said Stiefel. Also unique to this version is a festive wedding of a peasant couple. “A traditional Giselle is about her love, but the environment of Act I does nothing to enhance that,” said Kobborg. “Here, Giselle sees these festivities. She is very happy for this couple, and all the more happy about what she thinks are her own plans to marry. So we haven’t made big changes, but we’ve enhanced the narrative.”

Instead of the traditional setting in a medieval period, “this is set in more of a Victorian time in Europe,” said Stiefel. The ballet is shown through the lens of Albrecht, who ends up very remorseful, “years down the road. That’s not always the approach in other versions.”

Both men agree that full-length, classical ballets have to be relatable. “It’s a fine line between respecting the original and being a museum piece,” said Stiefel. “And you have to keep up with today’s attention spans. There is more dancing for the corps [de ballet] men in this version, and it’s a little meatier.”

The story has “a very primal cornerstone,” Stiefel said. “This is a guy who’s engaged to someone, and all of a sudden something very primal happens with someone else. I think people can relate to that love story — the trauma of a broken heart  and what that does to a person —  whether they know ballet or not.”

Performances of Giselle are at the New Brunswick Performing Arts Center, 11 Livingston Avenue, March 3 at 7 p.m.; March 4 and 2 and 7 p.m.; and March 5 at 2 p.m. Tickets start at $25. Visit arballet.org.