I have never been a fan of ballet, but more than happy to explore new possibilities in art appreciation. It would be even better if I were caught surprised, even stunned, with wide open eyes. This is what prompted me to watch Giselle by Teatro alla Scala Ballet Company at the Hong Kong Arts Festival 2014.
Pardon me for being unable to give any meaningful comment on choreography, of which I barely know anything. All I can say is that etoile Svetlana Zakharova and guest dancer David Hallberg both impressed me greatly with their energetic and passionate movements, which helped them deliver the characters of Giselle and Albrecht in considerable depth and fine detail. Their mastery of dancing skills also seemed significantly higher than the rest of the line-up. The sharp contrast was easily visible even for someone as ignorant as me. While the protagonists are supposedly the best of the team, it is still somewhat surprising to see such a conspicuous gap.
More surprising though is that the house programme includes an article on the symbols and myths in the woods of Giselle, instead of a dummy's guide to the background and technical features of the performance. Perhaps Giselle is so popular that it warrants no introduction, but I think it may not be a very good idea to assume that most, if all, spectators are familiar with the masterpiece. There are always newcomers like me.
Apparently I do not have the expertise and knowledge to appreciate the choreography and skills involved, thus I chose to focus on what interested me most – the plot and characters.
Like many other female protagonists in folklore and fairy tales, Chinese or Western, Giselle is a character of pure love, kindness and innocence. Although she falls in love with the wrong man and dies of a broken heart when betrayed, she comes out of her grave and saves her lover from the spell of incessant dancing until death. Her loyalty and devotion to Albrecht is by all means respectable, and it is disheartening to see her fall for the wrong man who doesn't really deserve her love.
In sharp contrast with Giselle, Albrecht is an intriguing character. What bothers me most is the reason of his disguise: to abandon his engagement with Bathilde, daughter of the duke of Courland? To free himself from nobility and start life anew in the village? To hunt for women in a fake identity so that he does not have to worry about anything? It seems Albrecht is not any different from many other egoistic characters who make terrible mistakes, though often unwittingly, that end up with regretful and irrecoverable consequences. A more important question is: why are male characters often those who commit misdeed, but females are the ones who bear the consequences with grief, despair, torture and even death as if they were helpless sacrifices? What does it have to say about our assumptions of gender roles and stereotypes in performing arts?
Mixed feelings therefore filled my heart seeing Albrecht alone in the woods at sunrise, overwhelmed by remorse, at the end of the story. While it is sad to see a man losing his lover forever, I can't help reminding myself of his giving to Giselle a false hope of happiness in the first place.
If Giselle is meant to have any moral lesson, my take will be honesty in love – being faithful to someone you love means more than having one lover at a time, but also present your true self to someone who loves you and cares for your well-being. Make sure that he or she is not falling in love with an illusion.