The Ballerina’s Legacy of GISELLE

We’ve reached the end of our 2015/16 season! Our Spring Mixed Repertory Program was just one week ago, but we’re back and ready to close this season at the Wortham with a revitalized classic. Artistic Director Stanton Welch has crafted a new production of Giselle with sets and costume designs by Roberta Guidi di Bagno. For this production, Mr. Welch handpicked principal dancer Yuriko Kajiya as his muse for the iconic role of Giselle. For this blog post we’ll be digging into our archives to showcase four of the past Houston Ballet ballerinas who’ve portrayed Giselle, the loving country girl and supernatural wili.

By Jessica Maria MacFarlane


Watch a preview of Houston Ballet’s Giselle below:


Performing the title role of Giselle is regarded as high an honor as performing Shakespeare’s Hamlet. In the ballet lexicon tragic heroines are attached to a range of technical feats, emotional hurdles, and extensive storylines. Giselle has become an all-inclusive force of storytelling for major ballet companies. And like performing Hamlet for theater troupes, the complex history of ballet continues to flow through each dancer involved in retelling this full-length story ballet.

In the Romantic era of ballet, around the time Giselle premiered in 1841, the overall atmosphere and aesthetic of the story was already sorted out; presenting pastoral settings and supernatural spirits in the same story was in vogue during the Romantic era for many art forms. The ballerina’s role up until the early 1800s had been fairly simple: she must present clear, simple footwork and smile sweetly while dancing in corsets and heavy brocade costumes. The male danseur in France and Italy experienced a burst of attention in previous eras, but in Romantic era ballets, the ballerina transformed and transcended.

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Yuriko Kajiya as Giselle with Connor Walsh as Albrecht with artists of Houston Ballet; Act I. Stanton Welch’s Giselle. June 2016. Photography by Amitava Sarkar

Giselle was an especially important character for ballerinas to perform in later Russian productions. Pointe work started to become more cohesive and complex due to blocked pointe shoes rather than heavily darned slippers. The loose but modest Romantic costumes–before the flatter Classical tutu–allowed for higher jumps and closer partnering. And to engage with the audience of the 1800s even further, mime in ballet began to echo the dramatics found in opera and theater, which meant characters started thinking and feeling on stage. Female characters became more ethereal and enchanting beyond their social status as we see with Giselle, a simple country girl who loves to dance but is fated to die.

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Yuriko Kajiya as Giselle with artists of Houston Ballet; Act I. Stanton Welch’s Giselle. June 2016. Photography by Amitava Sarkar

As Giselle’s technical feats progressed with altered and added variations, her dramatic qualities expanded. Russian productions of Giselle provided her character with increased flare and virtuosity, British productions revitalized her previous Romantic era innocence and purity, and so on and so forth. The most beloved performances by famous international ballerinas include the role of Giselle. Houston Ballet is just one example of Giselle‘s progression in America. How do American ballet companies connect to a decades old story about a village in the Rhineland? The role of Giselle and her powerful story of love, loss, and forgiveness is just one reason why dancers and audiences still adore this ballet.

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Carla Fracci as Giselle; Act I. First Houston Ballet Foundation full-length performance. 1967. Photographer unknown.

Carla Fracci helped introduce professional ballet to Houston. Houston Ballet Foundation’s Giselle was first performed in 1967 with students from the already established Houston Ballet Academy and other local dance schools. Fracci, along with the incomparable danseur noble Erik Bruhn as Albrecht, performed this role with devout sensibility and eminence. Her performance as Giselle in this production undoubtable inspired many of the young students whom danced alongside her.

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Carla Fracci as Giselle with dancers from Houston Ballet Foundation; Act II. First Houston Ballet Foundation full-length performance. 1967. Photographer unknown.

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Janie Parker as Giselle; Act I. 1985. Photography by Kenn Duncan
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Janie Parker as Giselle; Act II. 1985. Photography by Geoff Winningham

Janie Parker’s numerous performances as Giselle during the 1980s and 1990s have always be cherished in Houston. In Giselle her partners were two iconic Houston Ballet principals: Kenneth McCombie and Li Cunxin. In her book, Generous Hearts and Gentle Spirits (2001), Parker wrote, “I adored dancing Giselle and have mostly fond memories associated with it.” She notably performed on an injured foot during her fourth year at Houston Ballet, conveying an enormous amount of raw emotions during the mad scene in Act I especially.

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Janie Parker as Giselle, Kenneth McCombie as Albrecht; Act I. 1981. Photography by Jim Caldwell
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Janie Parker as Giselle, Kenneth McCombie as Albrecht; Act II. 1981. Photography by Jim Caldwell

 

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Mireille Hassenboehler as Giselle with David Makhateli as Albrecht with artists of Houston Ballet; Act I. June 2001. Photography by Geoff Winningham

Mireille Hassenboehler dominated the stage as a principal during the early 2000s. Filling in for an injured dancer and joining legendary principal Carlos Acosta during her first performance of Giselle in 2001 was a huge responsibility and an enchanting surprise. The following night’s performance was canceled due to Tropical Storm Allison, which flooded the basement of the Wortham and destroyed and damaged many costumes and shoes. Remarkably, the second weekend of performances for Giselle that year did continue thanks to many helping hands. Hassenboehler’s lyrical depiction of Giselle continued to grow with each performance.

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Mireille Hassenboehler as Giselle, Carlos Acosta as Albrecht; Act II. June 2001. Photography by Jann Whaley

 

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Yuriko Kajiya as Giselle with artists of Houston Ballet; Act I. Stanton Welch’s Giselle. June 2016. Photography by Amitava Sarkar

Yuriko Kajiya is Stanton Welch’s inspiration for the title role of Giselle. She’s already danced the role before, so this year’s production won’t be a complete introduction to Giselle. Instead, Kajiya will get to build upon her illustrious portrayal of this character. Many of the Romantic era qualities and Russian influences are alive in Kajiya’s depiction of Giselle thanks to her previous training. “She has remarkable balance. She moves without moving, she seems to float, hovering like she is moving underwater,” Mr. Welch told writer Nancy Wozny. Like Houston Ballet’s ballerinas before her, Kajiya continues to craft her individuality onto Giselle with each and every performance.

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Yuriko Kajiya as Giselle with Connor Walsh as Albrecht; Act II. Stanton Welch’s Giselle. June 2016. Photography by Amitava Sarkar

 


Watch Yuriko Kajiya discuss Giselle below:


Tickets for Stanton Welch’s Giselle are on sale now by phone or online at http://www.houstonballet.org/Ticketing-Schedule/Season-Calendar/Giselle/ with performances running until Sunday June 19.


Join us next time on ‘En Pointe with Houston Ballet’ for posts dedicated to our 2016 Summer Intensive in collaboration with our Academy and HBII’s upcoming graduation and tour, as well as some updates from abroad as our company takes Stanton Welch’s Romeo and Juliet on tour in Australia.

Jessica Maria MacFarlane is the PR/Marketing Archival Intern for Houston Ballet. She’s an active member of the Society of Dance History Scholars and a freelance dance writer for Arts & Culture Texas.

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