My first day on the job as Music Director and Chief Conductor for Het Nationale Ballet in Amsterdam, I walked into my new office. On the desk was a pile of correspondence from my predecessor, and on the top of the pile was a fax from a colleague, describing his agony, as he suffered from a bad case of “Gisellitis”. It was not till I conducted my first season of the ballet many years later that I understood what he meant.
Giselle is one of the most difficult, frustrating, challenging and, ultimately, rewarding of the classical ballets to conduct. Musically speaking, the language is not complex or difficult to comprehend. It is of its time: charming melodies, simple accompaniments, naïve and a bit melodramatic at times, stunningly evocative and beautiful at others, all achieved using very classical musical devices.
Composer Adolphe Adam was an adept tale teller of the theatre, with a gift for melody. Like Mozart, his writing demands absolute precision in performance – one easily hears any musical imperfection. Unblemished performances are one challenge but the particular "Gisellitis” affliction, leading many a conductor to an early ballet career end, stems from the necessity to marry every note of music to virtually every step on stage. Exactly that which makes it so beloved by ballet dancers and fans across centuries and generations, makes Giselle a ballet of Olympian heights for a conductor: ballet variation after variation, character dance upon character dance, intricate and difficult (for the dancer) solo upon solo. after the overture there is hardly a moment when one’s conductor eyes can leave the stage. Our eyes remain glued to each dancer, trying to anticipate each move they make.
Multiple performances mean multiple casts, across every role, and, because the dances/soli/variations are so difficult in terms of ballet technique, each single dancer, whether peasant, prince or Wili Queen, requires a different speed, different phrasing, different points in the variation in which to speed up, or slow down, or time to balance. And then, each dancer performs differently every night- we conductors strain to see whether someone is ‘on their leg’ or ‘off their leg’ tonight; will they balance forever, turn more times, leap higher than ever before? And is the orchestra so with us that we can match the chord to landing, the sustained note to the balance, is the oboe player turning blue in the face because the dancer is so perfectly held in the lift that it needs to feel/is endless but the wind player is running out of air? What do I do? Risk the wrath of Principal Oboe or Principal Dancer, or of the ballet’s Artistic Director? Go with the drama of the moment, the musical logic, the larger dramatic imperatives of the story?
Madeleine Eastoe & Kevin Jackson in The Australian Ballet's GisellePhoto Jeff Busby
This marathon of matching, anticipating, adjusting, differently, takes a thorough and detailed knowledge of classical ballet, of the choreography, and of each dancer, to execute well. Our scores are littered with tempo markings, multiple ones over every note of the score, with names of dancers attached, and then amendments for smaller or bigger stages, for different partner combinations. And, on stage, before the performance begins, at the interval and at the end of the show, dancers, ballet staff, even public at stage door, all have requests re adjustments large and small: of tempos, of breath, of the choreography (!).
It is our role, as conductors to find our way through the myriad of just demands, and to create for stage, for the orchestral players and for the audience a total whole which makes sense. How to facilitate the individual requirements of all, whilst creating drive, convincing narrative thread across two hours is a complex and mentally extremely taxing challenge. Haunted by dreams of who needs what, who is partnering whom and what was discussed in the last rehearsal? Marrying that with perusal of the orchestra list and which players are in tonight, how each responds to our beat (who plays at the front of the beat, who at the back), which flautist likes to linger at a certain point, necessitating temporal acrobatics to catch up to the millisecond moment a dancer lands a jeté (when gravity as an absolute trumps interpretative largesse): Giselle, almost like no other ballet prompts sleepless nights, troubled days and self-doubt plagued performances.
After my first week of Giselle performances I fully understood the conductors’ version of “Gisellitis”. Incurable really, the symptoms lessen somewhat with age and experience. Familiarity with our company and dancers ease fears somewhat, and, at times, one can even begin to enjoy the beauty of the music and the marvellous moment when music and dance marry perfectly, and performers and audiences alike are completely transported into the magical world of the theatre. At least, that’s what I dream of…….or maybe, someone will invent a cure?”
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