Carlotta Grisi as Giselle in Paris, 1841.
  • Carlotta Grisi as Giselle in Paris, 1841.
What a fascinating, funny world premiere it was.

Pacific Northwest Ballet's first-ever full production of the 170-year-old ballet classic Giselle—which closed yesterday, and was an austere, enthrallingly alien ballet experience compared to the typically overstuffed Romantic story ballet—was a first because it was a second.

It was specially, locally, painstakingly reconstructed from written notations taken down in Russia and Europe between 1842 and 1903, with blanks filled in by PNB choreographer/artistic director Peter Boal. Not being a ballet specialist, I have no way of judging the authenticity. (New York Times critic Alistair Macaulay praised it as a restorative tonic for a piece that had become slow and soupy over the last 30 years compared to the prior century-and-a-half.)

What mesmerized me were the steps themselves. They were simple, unshowy, very often entirely straight-legged—and mad difficult. What a different language for the post-Balanchine dancers of PNB. I imagine their bodies, early in the rehearsals, trying to revolt. I imagine it was very hard work, this piece. They did a gorgeous job.

Giselle also provided great fodder for the national Dance Critics Association conference, held in Seattle this weekend, themed around reconstruction, re-staging, and dance's whole conflicted relationship with the past.

On Saturday I was honored to take part in a panel about creating the past moderated by historian Libby Smigel, with choreographer Donald Byrd and choreographer Tonya Lockyer.

I focused on visual art's institutional jealousy of time-based arts like dance. One of my heroes, veteran New York critic Elizabeth Zimmer, told me a story afterward that's worth sharing.

Years ago, while in college at Bennington, Zimmer was invited to a dinner for The Clement Greenbergs organized by scholar Michael Fried. (Greenberg is the infamously powerful modern art critic; Fried, in addition to being Zimmer's cousin, was Greenberg's protege, and Fried's most famous book is the still-debated Art and Objecthood—about whether art has grown to be too theatrical.)

Mrs. Greenberg asked Zimmer what she was studying, and Zimmer responded, "Poetry."

"Poetry?" she said. "Poetry is a dead art. Now paintings can be looked at, talked about, sold!"

Zimmer's mind has been turning over that comment ever since.