Howard Jacobson: Never underestimate the power of the of those old Austrian-Slavic legends

It’s the madness of erotic love which ballet can speak of as nothing else can
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The Independent Online

What is it about the phrase "Austrian legend of Slavic origin" that makes one want to slit one's wrists? Maybe it doesn't make you want to slit yours, in which case I'm the one with the problem. I hope it's not that I'm anti-Austrian or Slavophobic. I think it's the word "legend" that gets under my skin, and then the word "origin". Something to do with superstitions mouldering in rural antiquity, and my wanting them to stay there.

But let me contextualise. My wife had proposed going to see Giselle at Covent Garden. The deal is that she'll come with me to opera if I go with her to ballet. I'd agreed to Giselle on the safe assumption that as she didn't have tickets on the day, she wouldn't have them on the night. Maybe one ticket would materialise if she beat the returns queue, but not two. Whereupon I would do the noble husbandly thing, sacrifice my pleasure to hers, and let her go on her own. If that meant I had to stay home, drink a bottle of barolo and watch Chelsea play Barcelona on television, well, such are the deprivations a man who loves his wife must occasionally accept. But blow me if she didn't come back with a pair of tickets, centre stalls, row J – best seats in the house for people our height. I could barely, as you might imagine, contain my joy.

Now you can go to the ballet not having a clue what's going on and stay that way until the final curtain call when you applaud like a man who's just been rescued by a helicopter after 20 days at sea, or you can mug up on the story. Something made me mug up the story. Maybe if I grasped the plot, I thought, I would understand why my wife would be sitting with tears streaming down her face.

"In the quaint little villages snuggling amidst the romantic forests of the Rhineland," I read, "many strange, mystic legends of ghostly visitants..." And that was when I wanted to slit my wrists.

I have mugged up on ballet stories before but I had forgotten how much more plot there is in a ballet than you'd imagine there'd be need for. Girl in acres of white tulle meets boy in what my Yiddish-speaking grandparents used to call long gatkes, falls in love, gets jilted, turns into a swan and dies. That ought to cover it but never does.

Even in synopsis, Giselle is more complicated than Twin Peaks and Saved run together. Giselle falls for Loys who is actually Count Albrecht; her previous lover Hilarion does a lot of spying on her behind trees; Berthe, Giselle's mother, warns her against Loys on grounds which I assumed would become clear in time – so far so good. But then comes the moment when you know you are lost and are going to be lost for ever – "Wilfrid, Albrecht's squire, secretly warns him that a hunting party is approaching, led by the Duke of Courland and the Countess Bathilde, Albrecht's future wife."

It's that unexpected arrival of a Duke leading a hunting party that dashes me every time. Not just in ballet, in opera and in drama too. It's an invariable law of the performing arts: there's always one duke more than your comprehension can cope with.

Still, even to have got this far in my researches meant that I'd have some idea what was going on when I was sitting in row J. At least for the first 20 minutes. But no. No amount of preparation can prepare you for the miming if you have no instinct for it. And I am a dumb show illiterate.

Part of this is wilful. I don't want to watch lovers fall in love in silence. For me, the better part of love is language and if lovers are not talking I can't connect with them. How they manage to connect with each other without words is beyond me. No words, no jokes, and since when did a woman fall in love with a man who didn't make her laugh? All right, there's the sight of him leaping in his gatkes. And there's the sight of her with flowers in her hair, balancing on one toe. But after the leaping and the balancing, where does the relationship go? Which might be precisely what Giselle's mother was getting at.

Then again it might not. This is the other problem I have with miming: I am blind to its semiotics. As in ballet, so in life – I am unable to read the signs. In my susceptible years I could not approach a woman who had not signalled her unequivocal interest in me first. The sign I was waiting for was a crooked finger, the nail painted vermilion, beckoning me to the darkest corner of the room.

To be certain I was reading the signal correctly I needed the owner of the finger to be wearing a concupiscent smile. And, ideally, little else. Only an undressed, lewdly grinning woman crooking a finger at me would do it. Any gesture less definite I read as cold indifference. Will you therefore be surprised, reader, to learn that I spent my susceptible years alone?

And now here I am trying to understand why Berthe makes a basket shape with her arms, holds it over her daughter's head, then spills it at her feet. In the interval I venture an interpretation to my wife. Loys, aka Albrecht, is too high and mighty for Giselle, who is just a country girl, and when push comes to shove, for all his attentive leaping he won't bring home the bacon. But this is wide of the mark. What Berthe is actually warning is that there's an Austrian legend of Slavic origin that tells of jilted brides turning into troubled spirits known as Wilis – a fate awaiting Giselle if she goes on crooking her finger at Loys. And this my wife intuits from a woman miming a basket.

And now guess what? I am spellbound. The Wilis materialise from their graves in a gauzy mist, their morbid ethereality, their frustrated vitality, somehow perfectly suited to the unnatural way ballet dancers move their limbs. That I am not slitting my wrists is due in part to a wonderful ballerina called Tamara Rojo, but it's also the power of the metaphor, the exquisite madness of erotic love, the everything and the nothing of our bodies, which I suppose ballet can speak of as nothing else can. Whatever the explanation, I too have tears streaming down my cheeks when the tormented spirit of Giselle, appeased at last, vanishes for ever into her silent tomb. Ah, reader, reader, these Slavic legends.

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