Samantha Van Knowledge. Giselle… Comedie Ballet by François Gremaud. Photo © Dorothée Thébert Filliger
Theater plays always manage to have a “…triumph…” printed on the program or a “…wonderful…”. Could mean anything – “With thousands of slaves in tow, Julius Caesar brought his triumph to Rome…”; “It is wonderful the persistence of the Ancien Régime…”
But quote me wholeheartedly when I say of François Gremauds and Samantha van Wissens Giselle… Comédie-Ballet that it enters the minds of creators and viewers of today and yesterday. So it hits the heart of the famous classic Giselle, ou les Wilis: I listened with genuine interest and also laughed at what was actually serious textual analysis, and I gasped in spontaneous dismay when van Wissen-Giselle dropped dead. And that’s certainly evidence of a great achievement in a triumph of theatrical writing.
Giselle… Comédie-Ballet has the same plot as any Giselles I’ve ever heard of – Act 1: nobleman in disguise falls in love with peasant girl who tragically dies after learning the truth; Act 2: The dead peasant girl thwarts her own damnation and the vengeance of a supernatural woman named Wilis. In addition, Gremaud’s Giselle…Comédie-Ballet is based on the screenplay used by Jules-Henri Vernoy de Saint-Georges and Théophile Gautier for the premiere of Giselle, ou les Wilis on June 28, 1841 at the Paris Opéra.
Photo © Dorothée Thébert Filliger
Gremaud modeled his Giselle… typeface as a palimpsest: you have to pay attention to the warp, weft and stains of the paper, not just the latest printing on it. When read, the script forms an indivisible, if rather dizzying, whole of parts.
The execution of Giselle…Comédie-Ballet by choreographer-performer Samantha van Wissen is more than up to the task of holding together the entire palimpsest of Gremaud, which pieces the general story, the social context, the author’s intentions, the writing, the choreography and stage art encompasses the perspectives of historical observers and actors. in Giselle… Comedie-Ballet.
Van Knowledge uses a classic one-woman show format to turn the script into an entertaining and educational, even innovative, dance piece.
Moving with the subtle, distinctly personal confidence of an accomplished dancer, Van Wissen begins with Giselle… owning Giselle, ou les Wilis, the classic format, and Giselle, a character. “Van knowledge”, she says, means “from the disappearance” in Dutch, her mother tongue. “Her” annihilation, she says, alludes to one of the central questions raised by Giselle, ou les Wilis – which, it is believed, would involve whether or not Giselle’s annihilation is imposed or desired or self-imposed Will-o’-the-wisp of a literary intellectual.
Van Knowledge continues to demonstrate her ownership of the potentially possible Giselles-Giselles through the play, a significant pause here, a rising but always gentle voice there to focus but mostly let the viewer wander through, with feeling, questioning and Answers for having decided.
Van Wissen dances: moves while speaking, speaks while moving.
Sometimes cheeky, sometimes not, she comments on subjects as diverse as the historical connection between pantomime and ballet, the librettist Théophile Gautier’s belief in the centrality of love, the role of Bathilde, Giselle’s mother, or the earlier wild and European success of La Sylphide by Italian Filippo Taglioni at the Paris Opéra, which happens to be, wink, wink, full of hot but tragic and invisible girls, desirable, morally weak but sentimental and well-placed guys, betrayal, witchcraft, revenge. The whole shtick naturally flies through the forest at dusk.
Photo © Dorothée Thébert Filliger
Van Knowledge demonstrates more than she says with hands and feet, pantomimes, pantomimes, dances, postures, figures, phrases… Desperate lover, what a noblewoman dressed up as a 19th century ballet figure looks like. Plays the bouncing and twirling 15-year-old Giselle, a dancing fool – do you know she has a weak heart? Bathilde is very worried.
For the viewer, Van Wissen’s art of dancing brings all the comments and movements to a boil: showing Giselle, ou les Wilis creates Giselle… Comédie-Ballet. That’s why I gasped at the pantomime of Giselle’s death. So me and my partner went out and thought of Giselle… Comédie-Ballet – more as a dance than a performance.
So, Gremaud’s and van Wissens Giselle… is as much triumphant dance as literary or narrative art.
But I also think that Giselle… Comédie-Ballet is contemporary – through the thoroughness of its literary anatomy and with regard to the needs of today’s audience.
Remember van Wissen’s initial “wipe out” as a show owner?
When all is said and danced, the ultimate aesthetic success of the screenplay Giselle, ou les Wilis revolves around the erasure of the girl and/or the thrill of femmes fatales, or, as in contemporary entertainment, are the words and clichés just a pandering one Mishmash of What some producers and Mountebanks think is attracting eyeballs? Or is it a mixture of culture, commercial calculus, and a desperate need to speak about something universal and vital to people?
Coming from Gremaud and van Wissen’s Comédie-Ballet with the option of thinking it’s the mix. Basically I’m with them because it’s clear that they think so too, “Giselle” as a concept boils down to bringing love, love, capital L, to the stage. In the end, it takes very little real tweaking from Giselle, ou les Wilis to make that clear.
If the developer behind Madame Butterfly that I saw the other day had behaved as prudently as François Gremaud Giselle (…), I still wouldn’t regret the wasted 100 euros. I wouldn’t be surprised at the state of mind of the opera’s creative developer either.
Photo © Dorothée Thébert Filliger
Holy cow! That butterfly I saw was, for Hitler, like stumbling into a showing of an ironic spring! Talk about being under the white man’s burden. I enjoy the pre-war works of novelist Louis Ferdinand Céline, a notorious racist and active anti-Semite. I can cite certain aesthetic ideas of the socially ascendant weasel Martin Heidegger, even though he knew he loved Hannah Arendt even as he prepared to throw her and his Jewish colleagues under the Nazi bus. Nevertheless, it is impossible for me to explain that I saw Madame Butterfly that evening in Germany of all places. There is simply no rationalization possible.
In the same vein, building on someone’s thesis on obliterated “romantic heroines” and the long history of bootstrap moralization by wealthy American patrons and in the name of eradicating historic misogyny, Akram Khan recently managed to give Giselle, ou les Wilis, to summon as The Little Girl Who Could, shifting the play’s focus from the sweet, nebulous character Giselle to the invigorating message that tells us that all a Sillikins girl has to do is undo eight thousand years of patriarchal oppression , gotta show some damn guts.
I know the saying about beggars, wishes and horses, but still I think now that if Khan had seen Gremaud’s Giselle…comédie-ballet he might have considered using Gremaud’s approach to controversial classics to do Madame Butterfly instead. Butterfly fits Khan’s aesthetic vibe better. More importantly, when Giselle, ou les Wilis love, turns over capital L, Butterfly, power sure turns over, capital P. Imperial and patriarchal power to boot. In the narrative dynamics of the opera there is certainly room for a little female resistance. Even a little American-style girl gumption might actually do the trick!
Let’s hope someone stages Gremaud’s Giselle… Comédie-Ballet for an international audience – in English.
Beggar, get up! Let’s especially hope that other aspiring classic controversy re-creators take a look at what Gremaud has achieved with his Giselle…comédie-ballet.
“Giselle… Comédie Ballet” by François Gremaud was produced at the Théâtre de la Bastille with solo dance and performance by Samantha van Knowledge with musical accompaniment by Léa Al-Saghir or Anastasiia Lindeberg (violin), Tjasha Gafner or Antonella de Franco (harp), Héléna Macherel or Irène Poma (flute) and Sara Zazo Romero (saxophone). A printed libretto is available. I saw it on January 6, 2023.