I've actually never seen the ballet Giselle OR seen a performance at American Ballet Theater, so it was a double whammy today! A friend of mine writes for the "what's happening" section of the New Yorker, and she had an extra ticket to see Giselle today, so I happily accompanied her. It was great because since I never go to the ballet, I knew nothing about anything, but my friend was there to tell me the story of Giselle, the details about who the dancers were, and basically the whole history of ballet. Plus, seeing something on the stage of the Met that wasn't an opera (ABT performs at the Metropolitan Opera House when the singing's not in season) made me appreciate both the similarities and differences between an opera and a ballet.
The types of performances I go see the most often are obviously operas, so whenever I go to see a different kind of performance, I always need a few minutes to adjust. When I go see a play, I wonder why no one is singing. When I go see a musical I am freaked out at first by the fact that everyone is so heavily amplified. And seeing this very classical and traditional ballet today, I was at first feeling jarred by the fact that there were no words, and that all the acting had to be done completely with movements and gestures. Of course, that sounds ridiculous - it was a ballet!! But when the text is such an important part of everything you do, acting without it seems almost ludicrous at first. But after a few minutes I was able to relax and get into the flow of watching a story unfold that was completely told by movement.
Gisele is a young country girl who falls in love with a Prince disguised as a peasant (so far sounds like both Cenerentola and Barber). She has a heart condition and isn't supposed to dance too much (Traviata, La Boheme), but when she finds out that her boyfriend is not only a Prince but is engaged to someone already, she dances herself to death at the end of the first act (Antonia in the Tales of Hoffmann sings herself to death, and Giselle has a mad scene which reminds me of Lucia). The second act is the land of the dead, and all the women who died before they got married are dressed in these awesome white tutus, and they dance around and trap men and kill them when they get into their clutches - again, awesome! Gisele's former princely boyfriend comes to her grave, and she protects him from these crazy dead brides, and helps him escape alive, although he's all distraught because she's still dead. I can't really equate the second half to any opera because we don't have any dead brides killing young dudes. But that could be a cool premise for a new opera - maybe I'll suggest it to one of my composer friends.
According to my expert friend, the man dancing the lead in today's performance would possibly be one of the greatest dancers living today if he were only a few inches taller. I never really thought about that affecting a dancer's ability to go to the highest levels of success, but of course it makes sense. I don't profess to know jack about ballet, but this guys jumps and his landings were so incredible, I was greedy and just wanted him to jump and land for the entire ballet. It really looked like he had some harness attached to him that we couldn't see, his jumps were so high and his landings were so light. Singers complain that looks are starting to play very strongly into our profession, but imagine if the only thing holding you back were something as uncontrollable as your height!
When I was waiting in line for the bathroom, I was forced to contemplate yet another hardship of being a dancer compared to being a singer. These older new york ladies behind me were talking about the performance, and they started talking about the corps de ballet - the dancers who made up the ensemble, and who didn't have any solos. The ladies were exclaiming "imagine if you dedicated your whole life to dancing and you never made it past the chorus! I would rather be an opera singer in the chorus than a ballet dancer!" and I think they had a point. Someone in the opera chorus of the Met makes a decent living, and doesn't really have to worry about their voice or their body, and they can continue to sing in the chorus until they're 65 years old if they want to. A dancer in the corps still has to be incredibly careful about what they eat, they have to take dance class every single day just to stay in shape, and then they probably have to retire at 30 and find another career, after dedicating their whole being and lives to dance. Singers don't even usually start taking lessons til high school or college, but dancers start ballet classes at like 5 years old and never stop til they retire. The next time I complain about how "difficult" it is to be a singer, somebody remind me what it takes to be a dancer and I'll shut right up.
Ballerinas have my utmost respect and admiration, and I hope this gorgeous slightly short dancer gets his due respect despite his problems with stature. And may I be forced to stand on pointe until my toes bleed next time I utter a complaint about how the life of a singer is sooooo difficult.