Author's confession: I spend a lot of time in the PNB conference room talking to dancers and choreographers. But Smith's story was the only one that I thought would make a good spy novel.
The roots of Pacific Northwest Ballet’s production of Giselle might go back to the 1840s Paris productions, or the 1860 notes of stager Henri Justamont, or the 1890s Stepanov notations recorded in St. Petersburg to preserve the Marius Petipa choreography. But for University of Oregon professor Marian Smith, who has served as a historical advisor to PNB for this production, it started with an amazing fax in 1994.
“I had been to a Verdi conference in Italy and met an archivist from Leningrad,” recalled Smith. The two chatted and exchanged contact information. Smith had seen a page of ballet notations reproduced in “an obscure theater journal.” The page, possibly part of the oldest preserved notes about Giselle, supposedly was stored in a Leningrad collection. After her return home to the United States in those “days before the Internet,” she followed up with a fax about the notes.
A few minutes later, she received an answer from Russia. A page of dance notations and a query: "is this what you are looking for?" “When it came off the roller, I almost flipped,” said Smith, the author of Ballet and Opera in the Age of Giselle.
For Smith, Giselle is not any romantic ballet – it is the ballet, one that literally obsessed her since she began researching her doctorate thesis. And here, in a blurry fax, was one of the earliest known records of how it was actually danced.
She knew she had to have the full manuscript, to see everything written down, but how to get it? The archivist was willing to make a copy on microfiche but Smith needed to convey it to the United States
Colleagues advised her not to have the copies mailed. In those Soviet Union days, the mail was unreliable and a microfiche copy might be confiscated somewhere along the lines on the mistaken assumption that it wasn’t just old notes about a ballet.
So she turned to unlikely courier, her Mom.
“My mother was going to Russia on a tour, so we made arrangements for her to meet the archivist and pick up the microfilm. Being a nice lady from Texas, she took a gift, too, and did a little exchange,” Smith said.
Then the story strayed briefly into James Bond territory. Mom was turned back at the border when trying to leave Russia due to a paperwork snafu. “She handed the copies off to another woman on the tour, and told her that it had to get to me,” Smith said.
Everything worked out fine. Both the microfilm and Smith’s mother arrived safely back in Texas. Eventually a photocopy of the Giselle notes arrived on Smith’s doorstep.
“I remember the evening that it came,” she said. “I was so excited that I couldn’t even take time to turn on the lights. I just laid it out on the floor, next to a window, to read it.”
What she saw was the musical score for Giselle with annotations written by balletmaster Antone Titus, the man who brought the ballet to Russia after the 1842 premiere at the Paris Opera. “It blew my mind,” said Smith. “It revealed so much about the characters and shows how closely their actions are related to the music.”
The story of Giselle is a romance ending with a ghost story. A pretty peasant girl falls in love with handsome boy, boy turns out to be a prince and unable to marry her, she goes mad and dies, and then become a Wili, a spirit doomed to dance men to death in the forest. Except, she defies her supernatural orders and saves her handsome Prince.
What the score’s annotations revealed was that Giselle “is not a shrinking violet,” said Smith.
It also, Smith believes, shows why Giselle has remained so popular in the ballet repertoire over the past three centuries. French composer Adolphe Adam created “something like the perfect film score. It’s not like the ballet music of Tchaikovsky, which stands alone, but it’s springloaded for the theater.”
In Titus’s notes about the choreography of Jean Coralli and Jules Perrot, “you can see how the music lines up to the action, it’s loaded with every possible detail.”
Smith worked with PNB Education Programs Manager Doug Fullington and Artistic Director Peter Boal on the reconstruction of a Giselle closer to that original concept, but not one slavishly dictated by it.
The notes from Titus have been supplemented by the 1860s record of performances prepared by Justament and “possibly used in Belgium” as well as the Stepanov notations about Petipa’s interpretation in the great Imperial Theater of St. Petersburg.
And the historical research has turned into a living performance, one that will create its own records, perhaps some day to floor another Giselle researcher in the far future with new insights on a beloved masterpiece.