Monday, October 24, 2016

Pittsburgh Ballet Opens Season with "Giselle"

Amanda Cochrane & Yoshiaki Nakano in a Scene from "Giselle" Credit Duane Rieder

Three days before Halloween, Pittsburgh Ballet theatre opens its 47th season with a story of haunting beauty - "Giselle," with the PBT Orchestra. In this spine-tingling tale, a lover's lie triggers a tragic turn of fate for a young girl. As this love story spirals into darkness, the ballerina brings to life one of the most iconic roles in the repertoire. Along with a revival of Adolphe Adam's original score, PBT will unveil atmospheric new scenic and costume designs in celebration of Artistic Director Terrence S. Orr's 20th anniversary season.

Drawing from supernatural themes of the Romantic era and Eastern European folklore, the story of Giselle juxtaposes love and betrayal, life and death, vengeance and forgiveness as a young girl descends to the unearthly realm of the Wilis. 

The story opens with a blossoming village girl, euphoric in love. But Giselle’s hopes shatter when she learns her love, masquerading as a peasant, is already engaged to a noblewoman from his own class.  Here the story unmoors from the mortal world. When the curtain rises on Act II, Giselle is no longer among the living.

Excerpted from the Giselle Audience Production Guide, here are six spook factors that will raise the hair on your neck. 

That Gives Me the Willies! This phrase, about something that sends a chill down your spine, may have originated from the ghostly Wilis of Giselle. Giselle is a 19th century masterpiece of the Romantic era, when themes in ballet shifted to nature, individuality and the supernatural. The inspiration was a Slavonic legend of the Wilis, ghosts of young maidens who died of grief after their love was betrayed.

Photo Courtesy PBT

As the legend goes, their spirits haunt the highways in the dark of night, luring young men and forcing them to dance to their deaths. The legend of the Wilis predates Giselle and assumed shifting forms throughout Eastern European folklore. From maidens who were cursed by God to those who died unbaptized, the variations and pronunciations varied throughout the region. One variation is found in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire with the Veela, magical beings whose entrancing beauty compels men to dance to their deaths. In Giselle, the Wilis are frightening, yet tragic figures — young women doomed to perpetual heartbreak. 

The Mad Scene: From the festive village scene to the otherwordly aura of Act II, the role of Giselle takes the ballerina on an incredible arc of emotions and movement qualities. And at the end of Act I, as Albrecht's betrayal becomes apparent, Giselle just kind of...snaps. "She replays in her mind—with halting steps and distracted motions — the daisy scene, where he swore his love to her; she stumbles through the steps of their first pas de deux. Her hair comes down, her anguish on full display. Finally, she dies, from a weak and broken heart," writes Lisa Auel, PBT's manager of Audience Education.

Photo Courtesy PBT
Musical Foreshadowing: One of ballet's first original scores, the music of Adolphe Adam also innovates with recurring musical themes that characterize roles and moods throughout the narrative. One eerie example is Giselle and Albrecht’s first love theme, which ironically echoes during Giselle’s mad scene at the end of Act I. The musical theme of the Wilis also shadows Giselle’s mother’s premonition in Act I and again following Albrecht’s betrayal.  

He Loves Me, He Loves Me Not: Featured in Giselle Act I, this schoolgirl daisy game traces its written roots to the pages of a nun’s 1471 songbook. As Giselle plucks petals from a daisy in Act I, however, this light-hearted game foreshadows Albrecht’s ill-fated betrayal.

Ballet en Blanc: First seen in La Sylphide (1832), this term refers to scenes that feature the female corps de ballet costumed in pure white, dancing completely unified choreography. Sometimes referred to as “pure ballet,” it emphasizes the larger patterns and dramatic power of the corps, which assumes a menacing aura in Giselle. Act II finds Ballet en Blanc taking the ghostly character of the Wilis who (wearing their wedding dresses and veils), with their signature "flattened" arabesques, move into frightening formations. The Wilis did ballet blanc before the swans in Swan Lake and the shades in La Bayadère.

Photo Courtesy PBT

The Ballerina’s Dual Role: Perhaps even more subtle than the dual role of Swan Lake’s Odette and Odile, Giselle requires intricate artistry to embody first an earthly, then an ethereal essence, a mystique that makes it the ballerina’s definitive dramatic role. From Giselle’s joyful 32 ballonnés  - a bouncing hop – to her Act II arabesques with the Wilis, the foreboding builds from the Mad Scene all the way to her grave site.

According to Artistic Director Terrence S. Orr, "When we meet Giselle in Act I, she is euphoric in love. When she reenters in Act II, a chill runs down our spine. This is a young girl who spirals from joie de vivre to darkness in the blink of an eye. The shift in movement quality is exquisite, from buoyant leaps to an ethereal weightlessness."

Photo Courtesy PBT

Meet the Four-legged Star of 'Giselle'

It takes a certain quality to star in a ballet performance. Composure. Elegant carriage. Charisma. Grace.  

Five-year-old Ellie, a pure-breed Great Dane, checks every box. This 175-pound canine will strut across the Benedum Center stage during PBT’s season opener Giselle with the PBT Orchestra.

Look for her (she won’t be hard to spot) among the Act I hunting party, which plays a key role in the plot twist of this haunting love story.

Photo Courtesy PBT

When Ellie takes the stage, she’ll also put the spotlight on an important cause: Pennsylvania Great Dane Rescue. Ellie is a rescue dog and she’s currently up for adoption.

“Great Danes are regal looking, usually they’re well reserved…and usually a Great Dane loves to be with people,” said Jean Matvey, whose first dog, Mona, inspired her to launch the rescue in 2008. “I know (Ellie), she’s very well trained, I trust her. “She’s a good dog. She’s great with cats, with other dogs and she’s excellent with people. She’s huge…and she thinks she’s small.

Ellie’s main-stage appearance with a first for the Great Danes under Matvey’s care, but she says she’d do anything to “anything to promote the rescue.” Between feeding, exercising, taking in and placing the dogs, Matvey and her husband’s lives revolve around their Great Dane family – and she wouldn’t have it any other way.

“By now it’s so part of my life that I don’t even think about it,” she said. “To me it’s work. It’s a job, but yet it’s a job that I love.”

Matvey founded the rescue in 2008 to provide a needed service for Great Danes and Great Dance mixes – a breed Matvey says is particularly vulnerable at shelter due to their size and space needs. The rescue also welcomes dogs with special needs.

“This isn’t a breed that people think of going to shelter. But they do.”

 This year alone, they’ve taken in 95 dogs, which come from throughout the tri-state area and even from abroad on occasion. Together with a team of about 20 volunteers and a network of foster families, Matvey shelters the dogs, and meticulously matches them with an adoptive family.

“Usually, whenever I get the dogs in, I think of it as, ‘this is the first day of their new life’ and we just go on from there.”

In addition to adoptive families, the rescue always is looking for committed volunteers to foster dogs, help with transportation and assist with administrative projects. Donations, which help cover bedding, food, vet visits and other needs, also are welcome. For more information, or to get involved, visit or email

See Ellie onstage during Giselle with the PBT Orchestra on Friday, Oct. 28, at 8 p.m.; Saturday, Oct. 29, at 2 and 8 p.m.; and Sunday, Oct. 29, at 2 p.m. For tickets, phone 412-456-666 or visit website

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