My Date with Giselle

Photo by flickr user “dalbera.”

I’ve been a bad ballerina. Prior to last weekend, it had been years since I’d been a patron of the ballet – and that’s very, very bad.

Because when you’re a performer, being an audience member is artistic maintenance. If you want to grow and stay at the top of your game, you have to buy a ticket and let others perform for you. Otherwise, how can you continue to be inspired to be a better performer or technician if you don’t consistently drink in the art of others?

Ballet Arizona’s Giselle this past weekend and was the artistic awakening I so desperately needed.

There are two things about, oh, eight-or-nine year old Tiffany you should know: 1) I wanted to be a ballerina; and 2) I was extremely precocious – to the extent that I went through the Yellow Pages, circled ballet schools, and then showed my parents my handiwork. Dance classes followed soon after.

I spent a solid decade practicing tendus, échappés, fouettés, and grands battements. Not too long ago, I had an embarrassing collection of leotards, pinks tights, and leg warmers. I was fortunate to never endure mangled feet as a result of my Pointe shoes, although my big toenails are permanently shifted on the diagonal. My teenage calves wouldn’t fit into stylish winter boots, because those muscles were deliciously overdeveloped.

Not an image from Ballet Arizona’s production, but beautiful nonetheless. The Wilis! Photo by flickr user “ah zut.”

So going to the ballet is a rather sacred event, because I’ve been there.

I know what it takes to deliver that kind of performance ¬– the hours in the studio, the Epsom salt baths to soothe cramped calves, the costume fittings, the audition process, the strength of will onstage to elongate just a little bit more…

Needless to say, I fell in love with every single dancer in Giselle last weekend. But none were more stunning than the ballerina who played Giselle, Kokoro Umemoto, which is as it should be for the titular character of a ballet…But I’m getting ahead of myself.

If you’re unfamiliar with the story of Giselle, check out the synopsis on Wikipedia. Don’t worry, I’ll wait for you…

You’re back and you know the story now? Great! As I was saying…

In this ballet, the beauty for the audience and the challenge for the character of Giselle reside in the fact that the first act and second act are night and day (literally and figuratively). The first act is full to the brim with whimsy, merriment, and celebration (well, until everything turns south right at the end). For the majority of the act, ballerinas flit across the stage like fairies or schoolgirls smitten with their first crushes. Everything is light, and many, many fanciful stories are conjured and told during this act.

The character of Giselle must embody a spirit that sets her apart from the rest of the girls in the village. She must be elegant and naïve; prim yet daring; a picture of grace and young love all rolled up into one individual.

Kokoro Umemoto was perfection on Pointe shoes. Happiness dripped from her fingertips and I in the moment that she was a teenager, although it’s likely she’s in her early 20s. Watching her fall in love onstage made my skin tingle. I remember what that felt like the first time. She transported me back to that moment and all I could do was grin.

Photo by flickr user “Josh Stocco.”

When the curtain closed on the first act, I desperately wanted some hot chocolate and to do some grandes plies in the lobby.

I couldn’t wait for the second act, which is famous for its choreography, tone, and overall creepiness. I also couldn’t wait to see how our Giselle handled the abrupt change in her character from festival queen to haunted wraith.

The second half of the ballet was absolutely breathtaking. The slight frame of Kokoro Umemoto was suddenly overtaken with the weight of a broken heart. Thrust into the afterlife and confronted with her lover’s penitence, Giselle took us on a journey of adjustment, forgiveness, regret, and strength. Long gone was the beautiful smile of the first act, replaced by a furrowed brow and a forlorn stare. The devotion Giselle showed during this act while protecting her penitent lover despite his betrayal was both harrowing and romantic. As the final curtain closed, I had tears in my eyes.

When I got home that night, I watched old dance tapes and marveled at the ballerina I used to be. I flexed and pointed my toes, examined my arches. I pulled out of the bottom of my dance drawer my favorite pair of pink and black legwarmers. Thanks to Miss Umemoto, I plan to put them to use in the near future…

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