Being Giselle: Alison Tatsuoka reflects on her artistic process and performing the title role10.09.2019
There is a video on Youtube that I must have watched a thousand times, of the Russian ballerina Galina Mezentseva dancing the Mad Scene from Giselle, and the camera catches for the briefest moment a tear resting on her cheek, like dew. I must have been fourteen when I watched it for the first time. It marked a significant shift in my understanding of ballet: ballet was not, as I had thought, just exercises we did in ballet class. Ballet was also the way Mezentseva turned her head slowly through the lights; the way her mouth opened just a little bit; the way her dark eyes bore through the screen yet saw nothing; the way her long skeletal fingers shook as she plucked petals off an imaginary flower and scattered them into the air. I became obsessed with this video, with Mezentseva, and most of all with the ballet itself.
Giselle is a romantic ballet in which a young peasant girl, Giselle, falls in love with a man named Albrecht. What begins as a story about young love soon turns into tragedy when Giselle discovers that Albrecht is actually a prince betrothed to a princess. Shocked by this betrayal, she goes mad and dies of a broken heart. In death she joins the Wilis, ghosts of girls like her who have died of broken hearts and try to kill every man who visits their graveyard. They target Albrecht, who comes to visit Giselle’s grave, but Giselle protects him by dancing with him until sunrise, when she and the other Wilis are forced to depart. The ballet is tragic; it tackles death, betrayal, and vengeance. But at its core it is about the power of love.
When my teachers told me in the fall of 2016 that I would be dancing Giselle, I didn’t believe it. They told me that IBT would perform it in April, at Neumann University; they told me when I would start rehearsals, and which part of the ballet we would rehearse first. I knew, factually, that I would be dancing Giselle, but I couldn’t believe it. This ballet was so special--not just to me, but to ballet in general. It had been a staple of classical ballet for almost two hundred years. I felt all the history and worth of Giselle looming over me like a mountain; how was I to climb this role, me, seventeen years old and just failed her driver’s test?
Nevertheless, rehearsals started in September, and I drove to the studio every day straight from school: twenty minutes down Lancaster Ave, putting my hair up at red lights. The more I worked on the ballet, the less daunting it seemed. Being able to break the ballet down into palatable pieces--here, the circle of ballonées, then here, the meeting with Albrecht--made it seem just like any other ballet I’d done. Of course, it wasn’t—I had never done a full-length ballet, never played a character before, never even had to mime—but in the early rehearsals at least, when I barely had the confidence to be myself, much less an icon like Giselle, pretending this role would be just like any other I’d done helped tremendously.
In the winter I started rehearsing with my partner, Andre Teixiera, a guest artist from New Jersey Ballet. I remember being so nervous every rehearsal—hadn’t done much partnering before—but he was incredible, always very kind and helpful. He worked like a beast, too, which was a great lesson for me; I remember during one rehearsal of the second act pas de deux, he ran his variation over and over again, not just punching through it for stamina, but actually working each time to make it cleaner and stronger. His brother, Humberto Teixiera, also came as a guest artist to dance the role of Hilarion, the villager in love with Giselle who reveals Albrecht’s betrayal. I learned so much from him, too. I still remember a tip he gave me about acting; he said the best way to jumpstart an emotion was to breathe as your emotion, and so I stood on the side of the studio before rehearsing Mad Scene breathing the loud, shaky breaths of a girl about to die—and it worked, though I may have looked a little mad myself.
Progress on the ballet chugged along, especially after the partners arrived: the pieces were coming together, the technique polished, and on my end, I was discovering how I could play Giselle by discovering how much we had in common. She loved to dance, like me; she was young and filled with joy, as I could be too; she was sheltered but wanted to roam big and free. When she danced she felt she was free—at least, this was what I imagined of her, because this is what I felt myself.
The Mad Scene was the last piece of the ballet that I worked on. The Mad Scene comes at the end of Act 1, after Hilarion has revealed Albrecht’s true identity to Giselle. It is her death aria, if you will. Unable to understand how a man she loved could betray her, she snaps—goes mad—imagining at times that she is with Albrecht in their first meeting, at other times trying to run herself through with a sword, until finally collapsing dead from heart failure in Albrecht’s arms. The Mad Scene has no actual dancing but it is the hardest part of the ballet. It is so intense, so complex, so internal; it scared me. I had no idea how I could do it.
For the record, I knew I would never be Mezentseva. I knew my Giselle would not be even the same species as the great Giselles I admired so much. I wasn’t aiming for some legendary historic interpretation; I wasn’t so delusional. But what I wanted desperately was to do justice to this ballet that I worshipped, and to this girl I had come to love. And to do that, I had to be as honest as I could, so I could give Giselle everything I had.
So the Mad Scene scared me. Because I had nothing in myself to put into the scene. For the other parts of the ballet, I could imbue Giselle with myself: I knew that joy of dancing, I knew that unique mix of love and frustration towards a mother, I knew that sparkle of looking into the eyes of a boy you like. But I did not know how to be mad. I did not know how to grieve so terribly to want to die. I did not know how to lose myself.
My teacher told me that when he had to act deep scenes like this, he thought of the death of his father. He demonstrated part of the Mad Scene to me, and though he was an old man acting the part of a young girl, he brought tears to my eyes. I tried to do as he said, but I was seventeen and not so familiar with grief. I tried to use characters from books, memorizing written emotion like prayers, but it still felt shallow. I racked my life for anything I could put into Giselle. Nothing worked.
And then, about a month before the performance, my English teacher assigned us to write a book of poems based on a story of our choosing. I chose the story of Giselle, of course, and I wrote a poem from Giselle’s point of view in the Mad Scene. Suddenly it clicked. As I wrote this poem from Giselle’s perspective, imagining the questions she asked, her helplessness and her hope, I put Giselle’s experiences into my person instead of the other way around. I empathized with her; I realized that I could access emotions beyond my wildest dreams through empathy; I realized that all acting was just empathy.
We performed just one show of Giselle, on April 9, 2017. The day of the performance I remember being so nervous, I briefly wished that the car would crash on the way to the theater so I would not have to perform. I couldn’t speak to anyone in the wings; I could barely breathe. My calves cramped, and my hairpins scraped my scalp, and my toes throbbed. I thought a million times that I would not be able to take a single step. I thought a million times that I would fail. And then I opened the door of Giselle’s cottage and felt the hot stage lights like the sun and heard the violins, and instantly my nerves disappeared and my calves felt like new, because I was Giselle, and Alison was inconsequential, like everything else.