Dead can dance

“Dance him to death!” the spooky Wilis order the young girl, Giselle, who quivers in misery at the side of her grave.

The fluttery creatures are ballerinas — Russian ballerinas, keepers of the flame of classical dance. In the upcoming presentation of Giselle by the Moscow Festival Ballet (formed in 1989), every step in the beloved dance is a state treasure.

Wilis, folkloric specters borrowed by Giselle author Theophile Gautier from German poet Heinrich Heine, are the ghosts of involuntarily virginal maidens who were jilted on the eve of their weddings. Giselle, having had the misfortune to fall in love with the duplicitous prince Albrecht, can now count herself among their bitter ranks. But will she heed the Wilis‘ command to keep her would-be husband dancing till he drops dead of exhaustion?

War between the sexes. Love beyond the grave. Passion. Ambition. And that’s just what you see on stage.

“Giselle,” says local dancer/choreographer Ann Dunn, “is the ultimate role for a ballerina.

“It’s also,” she warns, “the most difficult, because of the range of movements and the acting ability needed.”

Not to mention the history that continues to haunt this famous French work.

One hundred sixty-some years ago in Paris, Gautier fell madly in love with an Italian dancer named Carlotta Grisi and wrote Giselle to immortalize her. Choreographer Jules Perrot, meanwhile, had already abandoned his Swedish-born lover in pursuit of Carlotta and was happy to lend his energy to the new production.

In works like Giselle, dancers communicate not in Balanchine-esque showoff leaps and hyperkinetic energy but in the understated vocabulary of Romantic-era ballet, in which every subtle gesture bespeaks worlds.

Still, nuanced movement aside, it’s rumored that when Gautier and Perrot brought composer Adolphe Adam — who was also besotted with the seemingly endlessly inspirational Carlotta — on board, Adam supposedly whipped up the entire two-act ballet in one week.

“To look at the ballet in its historical context,” muses Dunn, “makes it more exciting.”

[Marcianne Miller is a frequent contributor to Xpress.]

Asheville Bravo! Concerts presents The Moscow Festival Ballet performing Giselle at 4 p.m. at Thomas Wolfe Auditorium on Sunday, March 14. All seating is reserved. Tickets ($20-$55, half-price for children and full-time students) are available at the Civic Center box office or through Ticketmaster (251-5505). Info: 259-5544. Ann Dunn will demystify Giselle in a lecture/demonstration on Saturday, March 13 in Pack Library’s Lord Auditorium, starting at 2 p.m. Call 255-5203 for information.

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