Artistic Director’s Notebook: Giselle

Though it’s now been three years since the premiere of Pacific Northwest Ballet’s Giselle, the idea for staging our own production was presented to me almost five ago. I had been unsuccessfully shopping for the right Giselle when Doug Fullington came to me with the suggestion that I look closer to home. Doug knew not only of the trove of Stepanov notation housed in the Harvard Theatre Collection, which he was able to translate, but also of the work of Marian Smith, one of the foremost scholars on Giselle and ballet’s Romantic era, whose base of study was the University of Oregon at Eugene. With some convincing that I could guide and oversee the staging, we had a plan.

The process took months, but every day proved fascinating as figures and texts penned some 170 years ago revealed steps, patterns, motivations, and enough clues to start an interpretation and assemblage of the ballet. Dancers’ bodies became the ciphers, with Adolphe Adam’s score serving as an indispensable guide. The handwriting of the original repetiteur, Antoine Titus, was scrawled across the top of the notes. A manuscript by Henri Justamant, only recently discovered at a casual book sale in Germany, offered a meticulous ground plan. This rich labyrinth of sources still left a few gaping holes, but these too were filled in and a new/old Giselle was born.

For the 2011 premiere, we rented scenery and costumes, which were adequate, but aging. Credit Rico Chiarelli’s lighting design for making the stage look both convincing and haunting. We knew we needed new designs for the production’s return. Enter Jérôme Kaplan, probably the most sought-after designer in ballet. PNB audiences will recall Jérôme’s brilliant costume designs from Jean-Christophe Maillot’s Roméo et Julietteand his scenic and costume designs from Alexei Ratmansky’s Don Quixote. Jérôme is based in Paris and travels the world, but he has taken a temporary second home in our costume shop. Eighty-two exquisitely tailored costumes have been created over the past year in our tiny shop under the leadership of Larae Hascall and herculean efforts of Mark Zappone and the many devoted and talented individuals from our costume department. Additional help was brought in from some of our peer organizations around Seattle. Each design is historically researched, meticulously crafted, and exquisite in color and detail.

A few miles to the north, at PNB’s shop in Fremont, our scenic artists and painters have been creating the backdrops and building of Giselle’s village and nearby graveyard. Taking a cue from the detailed lithographs of the original designs, the entire production is steeped in tradition and yet stunning in its freshness, as if layers of patina or soot were cleared from a canvas or fresco. We are all so proud of the fine work of our artisans, who are armed with paintbrushes and needles, creating buttonholes and bulrushes and a production that is destined to be a classic in our diverse repertory.

The vision and the execution are not possible without support, which came from many, particularly those on our Board of Trustees. I’d like to offer a special note of appreciation to Phil & Lesli Schlaepfer and Patty Edwards for challenging others to complete our fundraising goal. Long before the fundraising for this build gathered momentum, four individuals stepped forward, as they so often do, to support the artistic vision of PNB. Thank you, Pam, Dan, Jeff, and Susan, for believing in what we do and for believing in our beautiful Giselle.  – Peter Boal

May 30-June 8, 2014. 

Featured photo: Peter Boal and Carla Korbes in rehearsal for Giselle in PNB’s Phelps Center studios, photo © Angela Sterling.