Paris Opera Ballet back in Korea after 30 years to perform 'Giselle'

The famous Dance of the Willies scene in Act 2 in "Giselle" [YONATHAN KELLERMAN]

Ballet fans in Korea have likely seen the romantic ballet “Giselle” a number of times by now, as it’s one of the most beloved ballet pieces of all time. Naturally, Korea’s two major ballet companies — the Korea National Ballet and the Universal Ballet Company — regularly stage the classic piece.

But not many would have been able to see “Giselle” performed by the Paris Opera Ballet, the oldest national ballet company in the world that premiered the work in 1841.

The troupe came to Korea in 1993 to premiere the piece, and now it’s back again, 30 years later, to present to Koreans the “true characteristics of French ballet,” says Jose Martinez, director of the Paris Opera Ballet, who was part of the team that came to Seoul 30 years ago as a dancer of the Paris Opera Ballet for “Giselle.” The French troupe was founded in the late 17th century under royal patronage.

“Giselle” has been invited to Korea to begin this year’s season for the LG Arts Center Seoul in Magok-dong of Gangseo District, western Seoul. The Paris Opera Ballet is here for five performances, which began on Wednesday and will end on Saturday.

From left, Paris Opera Ballet dancers Guillaume Diop, Dorothee Gilbert, Kang Ho-hyun and director Jose Martinez [LG ARTS CENTER SEOUL]

According to Martinez, the Paris Opera Ballet performs “Giselle” as much as possible whenever it has the opportunity to go overseas as it is a performance that best captures the characteristics of a French ballet.

The version the Paris Opera Ballet is staging at the LG Arts Center Seoul was created in 1991 by two of the most important French choreographers, Patrice Bart and Eugene Poliakoff, which is slightly modified from the original.

When Bart visited Korea in 2011 to work with the Korea National Ballet on “Giselle,” he said that “'Giselle' is a masterpiece of the romantic ballet,” and that “it’s a French ballet created by French people,” therefore a work that has “French sensibility.”

“Back in the 19th century, France was heavily influenced by mysticism, superstition and fantasy, and ‘Giselle’ embodies those characteristics. The work also accurately depicts the social hierarchy that divided people into the rich and the poor. Giselle was caught in between the two,” he said.

This 19th-century romantic classic named after the female protagonist is set in a lush Rhine Valley kingdom of Germany. In the first act, the pretty, innocent Giselle falls in love with a handsome stranger who she later finds out is Count Albrecht disguised as a commoner. Giselle gives her whole heart and believed that her lover, Loys (Count Albrecht’s fake name), did too. But Loys was already engaged to a prince’s daughter, Bathilde. Devastated by the betrayal, Giselle dies of heartbreak.

Gilbert plays Giselle for Satuerday's 2 p.m. performance. [AGATHE POUPENEY]

The second act, known as the “white act” because everyone wears white, is set in the forest near Giselle’s grave, and the story revolves around Albrecht’s quest for redemption and Giselle’s forgiveness.

Martinez said French ballet is very technical and it’s important that the dancers convey the emotions through the techniques. One of the most talented and versatile dancers at the company who can best portray that is Dorothee Gilbert, Martinez said as he introduced the dancer.

“I think each dancer is so different in performing their own Giselle,” said Gilbert. “It’s because the personality of the dancer and the technical maturity are portrayed through the performance. The Giselle I danced 15 years ago is not the same Giselle I will dance this week. That is why I think I continue to perform Giselle.”

Korean ballerina Kang Ho-hyun, who joined the Paris Opera Ballet in 2018, said that “Giselle” has a lot of technical leg movements and the costumes are also designed in a way to better show the dancers’ ankles — another characteristic of a French ballet.

“The dancers pay more attention to beautifully position our feet and legs when we do our steps and jumps,” said Kang.

Gilbert and Hugo Marchand play Giselle and Albrecht. [AGATHE POUPENEY]

Kang plays the role of Willy, the ghost of Giselle, and participates in the famous Dance of the Willis in Act 2. There’s another Korean dancer in the French company, Park Sae-eun, who was named a principal dancer, or etoile, in 2021, becoming the first Asian dancer to be given the honor in the company’s 353-year history. She could not join the Korean tour due to her pregnancy.

Myriam Ould-Braham and Germain Louvet will pair as Giselle and Albrecht on Thursday and Saturday evening; Leonore Baulac and Paul Marque on Friday; and Dorothee Gilbert and Guillaume Diop on Saturday afternoon.

The performances on weekdays begin at 7:30 p.m. There are two performances on Saturday, one at 2 p.m. and again at 7:30 p.m. Tickets range from 120,000 won to 340,000 won.

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