The Authenticity and History of Giselle: Interview with Angel Corella of Pennsylvania Ballet

Pennsylvania Ballet is bringing the iconic romantic ballet Giselle to the Academy of Music in March. In an exclusive interview with Phindie, artistic director Angel Corella talks passionately about the ballet and how he and the dancers of the company are tackling the masterpiece.[Pennsylvania Ballet at the Academy of Music] March 7-17, 2019; paballet.org.

Phindie: Why did you selected Giselle for the 2018-2019 season?

Angel Corella: We decided on bringing Giselle and Romeo and Juliet to have a romantic season. Any ballet that I bring to a season, I am really confident that our dancers will do very well. I would not want to just do it just because it was not done for couple years. I want to make sure that we have the right dancers and the right style so that our dancers could actually develop and tell the story the right way and be true to the ballet.

Phindie: How many of the dancers are performing Giselle for the first time?

Angel Corella: A big percentage of them, although most of the principals performed it before. There will be three dancers who are dancing Giselle, the title role, for the first time. It is interesting to work with the dancers who performedGiselle before. They have their own idea of what the role supposed to be, especially the style and the movements, especially the movements of the arms. It is good to revisit with the dancers and to see the different points of view and get both old and new information.

Corella_AngelPhindie: As artistic director, do you input your Giselle/Albrecht into the dancers, or do you let them create their own?

Angel Corella: Usually, I am very open to let them experiment and try their own ideas. However, this ballet is very defined stylistically, and it is much harder to make it work without having the right atmosphere. So with this one, I have been a little more firm.

I was so lucky to have worked with so many incredible Giselles, such as Alessandra Ferri, Julie Kent, Alina Cojocaru, and Diana Vishneva. I created a partnership with every single dancer when I was dancing. The ballet can be totally different depending on the partner. The story does not change but the ballet can have a different look. For example, there was one dancer who would dance Giselle a bit more mature in the first act. Then I would dance Albrecht a little cocky, like almost a competition. Or some may dance her Giselle more shy.

With our dancers at Pennsylvania Ballet, even at an early stage of rehearsing the ballet had a totally different look depending on the lead dancers. For example, Oksana [Maslova] is such a delicate beautiful dancer and in the second act she dances as if she was floating. Her partner Arian [Molina Soca] is Cuban and very sensual. Whereas Mayara [Pineiro] is a much stronger dancer. He dances with Zecheng [Liang], who is very energetic. They are very passionate in the first act. Then surprisingly in the second act, they come together to create a more romantic and delicate atmosphere. Each couple gives such a different Giselle and I hope people will come see all of the casts.

Phindie: How are Corps de Ballet dancers coming out?

Angel Corella: They are great. They are all done already. We actually finished during The Nutcracker [in December] because I wanted to make sure. The corps de ballet is so very important in every ballet we do. In all of their scenes, they create an atmosphere and tell the stories, often more so than the principals. If the corps de ballet is not in perfect unison, it will not create the right impact. So step by step, the arms, the heads, even eyelashes, each dancer has to be at the right position in the right form to bring the world and the look of Giselle. It is a very delicate and precarious. For example, if one jump by all of the corps de ballet dancers is not exactly at the same time, the tulle of the tutu will give it away. When dancers go down the tulle goes up. When dancers go up it comes down. So if someone is late a little bit, you will see that by the delicate tulle of their costume rippling and creating messy waves.

Or the direction that they look at. If everyone is looking at straight to the audiences except one looking at the side of the stage, whitthe e of her eyeball could reflect light and the ghostly and magical atmosphere could be broken.

Phindie: It sounds like a meticulous and mathematical process. I assumed that you would teach them more emotionally, by dancing, since you are a dancer as well?

Angel Corella: Well yes, I do. There are two processes. First, you do it mathematical and go through details. And then we create atmospheres and expressions. To be able to achieve the perfect ballet, you not only have to  be good at coaching and have a good idea, you also have to know how to express it and how to make dancers understand.

I was coached Giselle by Irina Kolpakova, a former prima ballerina at Kirov State Academic Theatre of Opera and Ballet in St. Petersburg and one of the greatest coaches of all time. So that has given me lots of information I can pass on now. Like the symbolic position of the arms of Giselle and the willis. So many think that arms should be like this [crossed in front of torso, under ribs] as if she is holding a lost baby. Which is ridiculous. The synopsis says nothing about a lost child. The arms should be crossed in front of her chest like she would do in her coffin. Little creepy, isn’t it? I learned that from Irina. All those details that create the characteristic atmosphere of Giselle are very important. And that is also the key element of Giselle. Because they are ghosts. They are dead. Almost like vampires.

Photo by Alexander Iziliaev.

Photo by Alexander Iziliaev.

Phindie: Giselle can be narrated in so many ways depending on how it is directed and how dancers perform it. It can be such a tragedy where a peasant girl is played by a noble playboy and dies when she finds out that he was actually engaged, or it can be passionate love story.

Angel Corella: Especially in today’s world, you have to be very careful. People may not see it, especially in the first act, he is all the time stopping her from going home and some may take it as a sexual harassment. He is imposing himself. In some versions, the female dancer may act as if she is upset. But I believe that she is happy because she is in love with him. So all of this is about flirting and the relationship between two human beings. He thinks that he is in control but she is actually the one who is in control.

It is hard not to blame Albrecht for what he has done. With his aristocratic background, he and his people thought he would get away with it. But at the same time, I think he really loved Giselle. And he makes a big mistake. He lets himself be blinded by passionate love. Love was bigger than being who he was. I think it was the lesson that Giselle teaches him. When he goes back to her grave, she could have killed him. She could have let him dance till he dies. But she chooses the other way, because she really loves him. She just says, “Although you betrayed me and made me who I am now, I am forgiving you and I am letting you go.” That is why this ballet is a tragedy. At the end he is left alone, knowing what he has done. Not only knowing that he killed her but also knowing that she forgave him.

That is the main theme behind Giselle. Forgiveness. Without wrong decision, there is no forgiveness. Mistakes happen in the real world every day. It is an example of what the true love is. She loves him eternally, and deep down he does, too.

Phindie: What is the message you would like to convey?

Angel Corella: We are now an international ballet company. We are one of the biggest companies in the U.S. and around the world. So, any shows that you come and see, it must not only be high quality but also something that you will not see anywhere else. I think when you start bolder, new choreographies, it may take a little while for audience to catch up. That is why it is dangerous to do something just fine. Fine, for me, is never fine. It has to be spectacular or I would not want to do it.

Phindie: Last question, just because: What is your favorite spot in Philadelphia?

Angel Corella: I have been in Philadelphia for five years now. We love Cafe Lift and often go there. I love the Academy of Music, of course. Walking on Chestnut Street for all shopping, and Rittenhouse Square. All the museums, especially the Barnes Foundation. It is similar to many European cities. Lots of history. Lots of first. It is very fun city.

[Pennsylvania Ballet at the Academy of Music] March 7-17, 2019; paballet.org.

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About the author

Eri Yoneda

Eri Yoneda writes about dance and classical music for Phindie.