A Portrait of “Giselle”
By Seán Martinfield
Sentinel Fine Arts Critic
Photo by Lynn Imanaka
We arranged to meet at San Francisco’s Hamilton Condominium – the former Alexander Hamilton Hotel, built in 1929. My friend, Pat Carney – designer and overseer of the recent and magnificent restoration of the Art Deco building – agreed that it was the perfect setting for a rendezvous with universally recognized prima ballerina Lorena Feijóo. Had she not suffered a sprain to her ankle, I would have taken advantage of the beautiful grand piano and filmed Ms Feijóo wafting through the spacious Lobby. Outside, it was freezing cold and pouring rain. But inside, the filtered light from the tall curtained windows and the glowing warmth from the nearby fireplace produced a storybook atmosphere that suited the occasion perfectly.
“I had to choose between my other crutch and my umbrella,” she said, after a warm embrace. “So, I chose the umbrella. How’s my hair?”
LORENA FEIJÓO and SEÁN MARTINFIELD – Drying out Giselle
With that – we launched into an exchange of recipes, dietary supplements, sleep-aids and the blessings of having Mom around when you’ve sprained your ankle. Eventually we would get around to the subject of San Francisco Ballet and Adolphe Adam’s beloved work, GISELLE.
LORENA: I do everything in small proportions. I try not to go overboard on sugar – refined sugars and stuff – it’s just not healthy. Because I’m a dancer, when you have a really important role to do – when you have a white leotard or you know that you’re really going to be over-exposed – then I try to not do carbs. That is a real sacrifice for me, because I think I like carbs better than protein. But we usually do more salads and protein than carbs. You drop a lot of pounds if you can adjust to the discipline of no carbs at all for a while.
SEÁN: That’s hard.
LORENA: Oh, it’s very hard – and I love pasta! So, for me in general, if I have something that’s really naked or anything with the white stuff – white makes you look really bigger on stage – then you really take care. But, if not, then I do a little bit of everything. Very small portions. Everybody knows that vegetables and fruits are the best for you.
SEÁN: Are you eating throughout the day instead of sitting down to a meal?
LORENA: Throughout the day. My mom says I’m like a little mouse. I pick. When you’re working, it’s hard. You go from rehearsal to rehearsal. You try to eat an apple, have something you can munch on, keep a yogurt in your bag.
SEÁN: Trader Joe’s non-fat French Vanilla Yogurt – saving my life.
LORENA: I know! It’s great. The other thing I love is kefir. It’s wonderful for you. So, it’s about things you don’t have to warm-up. Then I do a bigger meal at night which is when they say you shouldn’t eat that much. But it’s really the only time we as dancers have the chance to have a hot meal.
SEÁN: What’s the usual bedtime for you?
LORENA: I’m a latey – 11:30 or midnight. Those are the days when we don’t perform. On performance days you get home at midnight. You are so over-excited with the show, the body is almost boiling. You have to let that quiet down a little bit. You’re not even hungry when the show ends. It takes an hour, an hour and a half for dancers to start craving food again.
SEÁN: What do you do to ease yourself into sleep?
LORENA: Usually, by the time you shower and eat – that’s time enough to start winding down. Your body just needs to rest because you have been active for so many hours. I have a great CD with Buddha bells. You know? It just puts me in a zone and I love it. Another thing is Rescue Remedy from Rainbow Grocery and Whole Foods. It’s a mix of essences from 12 flowers that are supposed to be calming. You spray it or put drops under your tongue and it goes right into your system, into the blood vessels right away.
SEÁN: Wow! I’m usually conking-out at 3:00 in the morning – that is, after my own workout and all this research I’ve put in on GISELLE.
LORENA: I’m a latey and you are a party animal!
SEÁN: Well, almost. So, based on other productions I have seen – each of which shows something slightly different – I have some questions about the current production at San Francisco Ballet. Specifically, the way the spiritual world is brought in. What is the story here?
LORENA: The main story, the concept, is the same. Helgi added a pas de deux in the first act, with two variations, which doesn’t exist in the original version. Kind of quick, a little more peasanty. Hard to do as it is! The first act is very hard for the ballerina because you dance a lot. So, with this added thing it makes it even more technically demanding.
SEÁN: What has been eliminated to accommodate this?
LORENA: Nothing. He just added this to the score. He didn’t trade it for anything, just added it. When I first came in, I thought, “Oh, my God. How are we going to do this?” Because, there is already enough choreography in the first act for you to get swamped and tired. I think your body just gets used to it. It’s not a heavy pas de deux, but a kind of light and speedy variation. It’s different from the other solos she has which are a bit more melancholic. [Additional music attributed to Ludwig Minkus.] In the story, Giselle has a heart problem. She is a young, passionate girl who meets this wonderful man and falls for him. It’s her first real love. The second solo is more about this happiness. In the real version, it’s hard to portray because you have to give this earthy quality to her as a peasant but also portray her fragility. She’s not a normal peasant that just goes and smashes grapes to make wine like the others do. In the first act she makes gestures that indicate, “I have to sew.” She has to remain home and doing some kind of work that is not so physical. So, you have to find a balance in the role – to be young, to have a joie de vivre as the French say, “the happiness of living”, and a passion for this man. But at the same time you have to show you are fragile, you have a problem, you are not just like the rest of the peasants. You’ve got to be a good actress to find a way to explain this to an audience without words.
SM: Is there something inherent in her nature about wanting to dance? All the girls dance, but does Giselle want to be a Dancer?
LORENA: Putting it in modern terms – sewing is Giselle’s day job and her biggest hobby is dancing. It is her passion. She has a reputation in town for being more refined, more delicate than the other peasants, and with this natural ability to dance. But, because she sews, the fabric of the Duchess’ dress mesmerizes her. It’s more flamboyant She makes a long gesture at the dress, almost as though she were going to touch it. The Duchess sees her do it and then Giselle becomes very embarrassed. Touching somebody from the court was just not seen in those days. Then there is a bit of conversation. It’s funny because the Duchess is the rival, the one committed to Albrecht. Giselle is a naïve girl, innocent and young. She doesn’t realize what is going on. The Duchess says to her, “You are so beautiful. What do you do?” She responds, “I sew. But I love dancing!” Then the Duchess asks h er, “Do you have a fiancé?” Giselle looks around, but doesn’t see Albrecht. “I do. He’s not here right now. But, I do.”
LORENA FEIJÓO – Arnica is great for inflammation
SEÁN: So, later in the scene, when the mother comes out and reprimands Giselle for all the excitement going on, Giselle responds with, “I’m just dancing.”
LORENA: Absolutely! “Don’t get mad me. I’m only dancing. You know I love dancing.”
SEÁN: The scene also shows that if Giselle were born into royal circumstances that she would fit right in.
LORENA: Yes, she’s one of these girls that is born into this environment but doesn’t belong in it. There’s something about this girl that puts her in a different place.
SEÁN: I’m fascinated by the Wilis. One production I saw suggests the mother gets a vision of Myrtha, the Queen of the Wilis. It is an accepted reality in the culture that these spirits or totally other group of beings – almost like vampires – exist. From the vision the mother gets this notion that her daughter is fated to become one of these beings. She is trying to protect Giselle, because she knows this force is looming over her. When Giselle dies, everyone understands the level of tragedy.
LORENA: Absolutely. There is this legend among the people of the town that girls who died before they were engaged or got married would then become these flying, ethereal creatures who come out during the night to torment men. The girl died because of some sort of anguish a man had caused to happen. The girls were made miserable; something was not right. They died because the man was not good to them, not attentive enough. Thus, according to the legend, the girl becomes one of these ghosts – the Wilis – who come alive during the nighttime. If a man happens into their woods, they will torment him until he dies. So, it’s almost like Payback Time. You are going to pay-up for what you did to us!
SEÁN: That bit of signature music has the same kind of feeling as heard in Tchaikovsky’s SLEEPING BEAUTY – you can sense the presence of darkness. So, in spite of the fact the Wilis appear as innocent blushing brides, they are the face and presence of evil because they will force the man to dance until he drops dead.
LORENA: Myrtha is boss in this kingdom; she tells them what to do. The man must die – before the morning sun would rise. The difference between the Wilis and Giselle is that she is too new. She is not yet bitter. Because her love for Albrecht is greater than anything in life, she is able to forgive him. She actually helps him to live through the night. She is so given to him, and she has no selfishness. She loved him beyond anything, even beyond his betrayal. Her love is so strong she can forgive him even after death. In the first act, there is a gesture where you are supposed to show you are forgiving him. It is at the end of the Mad Scene, when she is not seeing anything, and then finally focuses-in on the mother. She hugs her and then turns to Albrecht and gestures. They come together. After she says, “I forgive you”, she feels the pain in her heart and dies. In that gesture, you must transmit to the audience, “I love you and I forgive you.” So, in Act II, it is that love which enables her to dance with him and why she can accompany him all the time. Every other man coming into this area would be killed. But Giselle enables Albrecht to keep dancing through the night, and until the sun comes up. At the end, if you really look – at the sound of the four bells – she has a look of relief on her face. Albrecht is lying at the center of the stage. She goes to him and helps him get up. She holds him and rocks him her arms and says – Look! The sun is out there. You are safe. I saved you. You are good to go. You will not die, and you are the first.
SM: In other respects, the role of Myrtha is also that of a Mother Superior – in this “convent” of women.
LORENA: Yes, absolutely.
SEÁN: It’s clear, in her opening dance, this is her territory. The girls come in one by one and show the starting of consciousness. It’s confusing because the girls appear so innocent. That is, until you find out what it really is. Then enters Hilarion; always represented as a very attractive peasant boy. Rustic, generally kind of hairy, and earthy. My sympathies have always been with him. In one version he is danced to death, in another violently killed, maybe pushed off the cliff. What happens to Hilarion here?
LORENA: In our version, he gets killed. He is brutally killed by the Wilis. They have no compassion. In part, I think because – in the first Act – he is the one that revealed the whole story when he takes the sword. He sees Albrecht hiding his royal accessories in the little house. Hilarion loves Giselle dearly. But he is too peasanty for her – as you say, too earthy, too abrupt, and not delicate enough. In the second Act, the Wilis just want revenge. They use him to show that the Wilis are not just beautiful ethereal beings. They are bad, mean, with no compassion. They are not going to forgive any man. That’s It! You know?
SEÁN: Oh, yes!
LORENA: “You failed! You are going to pay for it.”
SEÁN: And how about Albrecht! Not an established character in the town. They don’t know who he is.
LORENA: He does not get introduced until after the first couple of things you see happening between them, during their first dance. When the peasants arrive, they see that Giselle is so happy. “Omigod! I’m going to introduce you to them!” And then there’s a little bit of ‘Oh, God!’ – a look of doubt in him. He checks himself out to see that he is well dressed, and then he starts thinking. It’s an uncomfortable situation for him because he just wanted to be alone with Giselle. He did not want this exposure because he knew what he was doing was wrong. He is seeing this naïve girl who is so opposite that of court women. Giselle is fresh, sweet and young, full of life and totally innocent. That did not exist at court. Everyone knows what they are going for and –
SEÁN: Who has to marry who.
LORENA: Yes – since you are, like, ten! Albrecht truly falls in love with Giselle. Though it’s not given in the story, in the ballet, he starts it almost as a game – a fling, a kind of romance. And then, slowly, he finds himself falling in love with her. He doesn’t have a choice when the court comes in; he is cornered. There is his fiancée. The Duchess says to him, “Why are you dressed like that? What is this outfit you are wearing?” In some versions, Albrecht makes a gesture of ‘Don’t worry about it, a silly thing’. In others, it’s ‘I was hunting.’ Giselle sees all of what’s going on. A lot of Giselles just stay on the side of the stage. After Albrecht and the Duchess start to have a more intimate conversation, I like to go to back of them and observe. She thinks, ‘What’s happening? I can’t believe what my eyes are seeing!” It builds up to the moment where she separates them and says to the Duchess, “Excuse me! This is the man I was telling you about, the one I am going to marry.” And the Duchess responds, “Forget it! This is my fiancé. What are you talking about?”
LORENA FEIJÓO (Giselle) and TIIT HELIMETS (Albrecht). Photo, Erik Tomasson
SEÁN: In Act II, when Albrecht arrives at the gravesite and Giselle appears – it seems that she is reaching out to him, but is not yet quite visible. He is sensing her. And with just enough surrender – and in the same manner of trust or belief that most of us experience at the passing of someone we love – can accept her presence. Then he does actually see her. And with his first embrace and lift, it is to say, “You are really here.” Then Myrtha and all the Wilis enter. Albrecht is a man, yes, but now he is the energy of Love. Perhaps the Wilis recognize this and get back in touch with who they once were.
LORENA: Good impressions.
SEÁN: Are you familiar with THE NUN’S STORY starring Audrey Hepburn?
LORENA: I’ve heard of it, but I haven’t seen it. I love her, so I should see it.
SEÁN: It’s really beautiful. In the beginning of the film, the story is about the process of the girls taking their initial vows toward becoming a nun. In the period during which the story is told, that includes an installation ceremony in which the postulants wear something resembling a bridal gown. After they are invested in their habits, the Mother Superior tells them that during this period of their novitiate they will be put through various tests to determine if they are worthy of joining the community. She says to them, “If you question any of these exercises, you do not belong with us.” Before being fully accepted, each must freely surrender all possessions and thoughts associated with their former life. We watched her at home removing her former engagement ring, but taking a pen to use at the convent. She gives up the pen and uses another to sign the contract of the final vows that commits her to the congregation until death. A wedding ring is placed on her finger and she is declared the “Bride of Christ”. So, here is another example of a tale that incorporates similar symbols and imagery to unfold a story involving emotional attachments and conflicting notions of the Eternal.
LORENA FEIJÓO – A warning from Myrtha, Queen of the Wilis
LORENA: That’s very interesting. It is similar to the ballet. In fact, I’m so glad you capture all these nuances. When people see Giselle for the first time – if it is not well portrayed and performed by dancers who are not artists – there can be a lack of understanding. I’m really in shock that you get all these little details. In fact, when I danced the role of Myrtha – it was a character I loved doing when I was younger – when Albrecht comes to her and begs, “Don’t kill me” – Myrtha always has a gesture which says, ‘I don’t want to hear it.’ At the end – if you have a really good “Myrtha” – you have to sense her almost-like pain in telling him, “No!” because she realizes that their love is so great. As you said, the Wilis have become a little more human because they see that Giselle is able to forgive, that their love is beyond any sense of guilt or feelings of reprehension, punishment, and revenge. Giselle is able to understand what happened because she loved him so much. So, Myrtha is able to soften the rest of them.
SEÁN: Comparing “Giselle” to your dual roles of “Odette / Odeil” in SWAN LAKE, what is the difference in your interior work with the three roles?
LORENA: We consider them the “white ballets” because they are so pure, so very Traditional in the ballet world. Swan Lake is very classical – so your posture, the whole torso is very straight. The same with Sleeping Beauty. Everything is very clean and sharp, but at the same time with finesse. The characters are very different, as you can tell. In Swan Lake you have this wonderful metamorphosis of the white swan – beautiful creature, tender and loving – to this being (“Odeil”) who is really not a swan. She is pretending to be a swan in the second Act, but she is really a lady trying to be sensual, trying to capture —
SEÁN: She is the temptress.
LORENA: Exactly. Giselle belongs to the Romantic period. So there is this sense that the torso has to be a little bit forward and the arms a bit rounder. If you go to photographs of that era, the women are in corsets that did not allow them to be straight. All of the positions were very round. There was not a lot of length, if you will. It’s very characteristic of “Giselle” to be very forward – which is one of the things I was very well taught. I had the fortune to incorporate this when I was very young, because I studied the role in Cuba. Just seeing Alicia Alonzo and all the prima ballerinas do this role, you are visually fed. You learn a lot from that.
LORENA FEIJÓO – Memories of Alicia Alonso
LORENA: So, when I came here, it took a while for me to explain to the other dancers that this is what was missing. It is so important. It’s what separates Giselle from Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty, and all other classical ballets. For example, if you are in a pose – your head anticipates the movement. If you are going to do a piqué arabesque – the head starts here and then the rest of the body follows. It gives an illusion of slow motion. Little things like that. Giselle should never be straight, not even in the first Act when she is being a young girl. In Cuba, my goal was to learn these aspects. But, at this point, over there – I feel we’ve gotten a little bit passé or démodé. When you see the company, they’ve gotten a little bit stuck on the old, old times. So, for the ballerinas in the first act, I feel that it’s not as fresh as it should be. It’s too studied, too careful. You lose the sense of naiveté, the freshness of being a girl. It takes a really great artist to be able to mix both of them – to be really able to keep the tradition of the torso forward and the roundness of the forms and the shape of the arms. The delicate aspects of Giselle. Even when doing the mimes – the forward position of the body, doing the inquiry. It’s accenting the period where women were not just straight; wearing clothes that forced them to be kept forward. That adds to the delicate feeling of her. But also to find that you cannot pose in every moment. For example, sitting on the bench with Albrecht – you have to be vulnerable. She’s a 15-year-old girl. It was a great experience for me to come and see Alexandra Ferri and others portray the first Act where they were more natural. So, you have to be a true artist and have a knowledge of the ballet. You have to find the right combination, the right amount of ingredients to make it look like what it is.
SEÁN: The forward posture also suggests that she can be assertive when she wants to be, in spite of her fragility. The telegraphed head movement you are describing also suggests longing – and later on, the longing through Eternity.
SEÁN: But what we never get is that Giselle is going to become one of these creatures, the Wilis. We just never go to that aspect of the story.
LORENA: I think the good part of that is that she just joined the kingdom. She is still new. See, in life, you can be a resentful person or not. To me, she is one of those people that – no matter what people do to her – she is able to forgive. She loved Albrecht so much. She knew deep in her heart that, although he was linked to somebody officially, there was a real honesty about the love he was showing her.
SEÁN: That’s also an aspect of the legend of the Wilis – that the lover, the bridegroom or fiancé must prove his fidelity; that he really did love that person. That ingredient allows for his escape or, at least, to endure his trial until the dawn. In Act II, what appeals to you the most?
LORENA: The music is so beautiful. When the dawn comes, Giselle realizes that Albrecht has been saved. He is exhausted and lying on the ground. She goes to him and rocks him and says, ‘Don’t worry. Look! The sun is out.’ I love that. She helps him get up. In this moment she is almost human. He puts his arm delicately around her, carries her, and then puts her back down. From that moment on – to me – she becomes the ghost again. She is, of course, a ghost during the whole second Act. As you were saying, she has transcended to this world. But when her duty is done, when she must return to creature, there is that moment of transformation. Act II is very difficult. When the Adagio starts, everything on stage is silent. Silent – like a grave. You are the only thing moving. Excruciatingly slow. You just do développés, and stay on one leg for a really long time. The theater gets so quiet. You can almost feel the fear. Because, anything you do – if you’re not really in the role – it can really mess up everything. You can almost feel the breathing pattern of the whole theater. It’s a very magical moment.
SEÁN: Is this your favorite moment as a dancer?
LORENA: It’s the hardest moment. You must conquer it technically and artistically. There’s a very funny story about it in Cuba. They call it, “The Moon”. ALICIA ALONZO did a film of Giselle. The camera is rolling and she could not make it through this part. She was known for being a really strong technical dancer – an incredible virtuoso. But, that day, she could not make it. So, in the movie, they focused on the moon. In Cuba, when your coach is rehearsing with you, they will say, “Take it from the moon.”
That’s how hard that moment is – even for a dancer like her. On that day, she just could not find the serenity. You are on that one leg for a long time. You have to control that foot and promenade very slowly. Just a little something trembling, or a little bit of an off-moment – you can totally see it!
LORENA FEIJÓO – Take it from The Moon
SEÁN: So they’re not giving you the option of “The Moon”, right?
LORENA: No! No moon!
LORENA: It’s very funny. Sometimes when I get there – you have begged the Queen of the Wilis, ‘Please, don’t let him die’ and she responds with, ‘Don’t want to hear it! Go, dance!’ Giselle goes back and has this moment almost like, ‘Please, God’ – or Universe or however you want to think it, you know? – ‘Help me do this.’ Everybody is looking – Albrecht is looking at you, you know the Wilis are there, Myrtha is looking, and the whole audience is quiet. The moment in the music is so tender, so low. It is so difficult.
SEÁN MARTINFIELD and LORENA FEIJÓO – A view from the Hamilton Condominium
What proved to be difficult was learning that Lorena’s doctor had the final say about her sitting out this season as “Giselle”. But, as every “Albrecht” will appreciate – longing for the next encounter with Lorena Feijóo is very sweet sorrow.
See related articles and interviews:
MELISSA MANCHESTER – A Conversation with Seán Martinfield
ANITA COCKTAIL and LEANNE BORGHESI – A 3-Way Dialogue
GILBERT & GEORGE – A Debut, at the de Young February 16th – May 18th
ANDREW NANCE – Brilliant Solitaire in I AM MY OWN WIFE
GISELLE – Opens Saturday, February 16th at San Francisco Ballet
SAN FRANCISCO OPERA Announces 86th Season – 11 Operas, 78 Performances
ANNIE LEIBOVITZ – Exhibition at the Legion of Honor
NORMA SHEARER in “MARIE ANTOINETTE” – At the Legion of Honor, January 13th
SWEENEY TODD – PRIME CUTS FROM DIRECTOR TIM BURTON
SEÁN MARTINFIELD wins “Best Presentation” in SF City Hall Bake-Off
SAN FRANCISCO OPERA and THE BIGGER PICTURE – Announces Four-Year Worldwide Digital Cinema Agreement
ANITA COCKTAIL and LEANNE BORGHESI – A 3-Way Dialogue
THE OLD MINT – Breathing New Life Into “The Granite Lady”
JENNIFER SIEBEL – A Conversation
MARIE ANTOINETTE’S PETIT TRIANON COMES TO SAN FRANCISCO
An Interview with PASCAL MOLAT, Principal Dancer of the San Francisco Ballet
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