writers on dancing


The Giselle Diaries

The Washington Ballet
Eisenhower Theater
John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts
Washington, DC, USA
Wednesday, October 20, 2004 to Sunday, October 24, 2004

By George Jackson
copyright © 2004 by George Jackson

Wednesday. Opening or "preview" night of Washington Ballet's first attempt at the great romantic classic, "Giselle". Tempted though I was, I did not attend. The company wanted critics to see the production first on "press" night, Thursday, so I went instead to the Australian Embassy to hear Li Cunxin speak about his career in ballet (Beijing, Houston, Australia) and the autobiography he recently published, "Mao's Last Dancer". One of Washington Ballet's principals, Runqiao Du, is a younger Beijing-trained colleague of Cunxin's.

Thursday. Washington Ballet did well, at times very well, with "Giselle". In the past, the company's longtime director, Mary Day, had kept it away from 19th Century classics ("The Nutcracker" doesn't count, and anyway it was Ms. Day's domestic version). Last year, current director Septime Webre tried the comedic "Coppelia" as a start. It was well danced but the old ballet's soul was missing in the performance I saw. Tonight, things weren't as seamless and smooth, yet by the time the curtain descended on the lone figure of Albrecht turning away from Giselle's grave and taking his first steps into a new day, meaning and feeling had become palpable.

The company seemed somewhat tense during the first portion of Act 1. Among the populace of the German village where the action takes place was many a new corps member and a sense of waiting for something to happen gripped the stage. Giselle, Michele Jimenez, looked appealing indeed as she insisted in a gentle way that her heart had been given to Albrecht. He, Rasta Thomas, wasn't just a newcomer to the village. He seemed someone whose manners, broader and grander than anyone else's, were due to more than just the variant customs of a village a day's journey away. This Albrecht seemed a stranger, possibly a foreigner. He was certainly unpracticed in pretending to be a country lad. Thomas never let the audience forget that Albrecht is a noble in disguise. Not just reaching for the sword that isn't there at his side gives him away to Giselle's unwanted, local suitor, Hilarion. In the Hilarion part, guest artist Duncan Cooper (from Dance Theatre of Harlem) was the one figure who seemed at ease from the start.

At first, Giselle and Albrecht gave the impression that they were acting in two different productions of the ballet. She and the rest of the cast existed in a tempered, naturalistic British American edition and he in a Russian version, as grandiose as a silent movie by Eisenstein. Both dancers made some of their mime seem memorized at the beginning. The trigger that set Giselle, Albrecht and the entire performance flowing was the Peasant Pas de Deux. A diversion from the plot, it was danced joyously by Laura Urgelles and Jonathan Jordan. His legwork was fleet. The beaten steps, particularly, were as bright and firm as freshly minted coins. His bounds, broad as basketball shots from across the court, arched easily. Properly placed, he seems to be learning to become taller while in motion. Ms. Urgelles, always a punctilious and proud technician, has purged herself of the harsh edge that used to insinuate itself into her dancing. There's not yet cream when she springs forward or pirouettes, but the movement is smooth and satisfying. The audience's response to the pair was much more than polite.

Inhibiting tensions were gone from the dancing that followed this duo. The corps let itself participate without reservation—the women and the men as villagers celebrating a new vintage and then as witnesses to tragedy as Hilarion proves Albrecht's duplicity. Equally convincing in a vengeful vein were the women as Act 2's ghosts of jilted brides. Ms. Jimenez's Giselle became spacious and sure. Her mad scene and sudden death at Act 1's conclusion were bolder and more convincing than skeptics had forecast. Melodious phrasing distinguished her dancing throughout Act 2. Signs of rehearsal had vanished as Giselle, a spirit now but still herself in her insistence on her love, and Albrecht reaffirmed their bond. Together, they tried to stay his dance to the death demanded by the unsatisfiable ghosts. Mr. Thomas partnered Ms. Jimenez generously. Although on pointe she is the slightly taller of the pair, one wasn't aware of a size mismatch. His solo dancing was powerful, with some leaps remarkable. However, his muscles appeared to be constrained at times and the diagonal of brisés had a cramped look. Perhaps a more spacious stage would have helped him to fully let go. It was at the very end that the grand manner of acting paid off. In the ballet's final moments, alone on stage, Mr. Thomas summarized the tragedy that had happened and shed a light on the start of Albrecht's new life thereafter. A different day was dawning.

The visual production was traditional. Most handsome was Kevin Meek's silvery lighting of the fogscape for the haunted opening of Act 2, and for the incipient, wine tinted dawn that concludes the ballet. The sets by Simon Pastukh and the costumes by Galina Solovyeva came via Indianapolis from the Kirov/Maryinsky workshop in Russia. The recorded music sounded patchy and was unworthy of the rest of the performance and production. Credited for the staging was the "Coppelia" team of Charla Genn and Mr. Webre. Additional coaches included Beverley Bagg, Hilary Cartwright and Rebecca Wright. The proceedings, choreographic and dramatic, were mostly the ones sanctioned by convention. A few corps passages had been lengthened, but in the manner of the original.

The night's leading Wilis, the ghost brides, were Erin Mahoney as a tall, imposing, angry enough Myrtha, not quite comfortable in fast passages and with long balances; Brianne Bland as a very clean, compact Zulma with ready attack; and Ms. Urguelles doubling as Moyna. Rebecca Wright was too much the down-to-earth peasant as Giselle's mother; didn't she share even one gene of elegance with her daughter? John Goding's Duke was rather uncommanding. In reference to the real world, the Duke is the top individual on stage and must seem so. Morgann Rose, as his daughter enfianced to Albrecht, had no problem taking her proper place. Albrecht couldn't have employed a more suitable squire than Luis Torres's Wilfred. These "minor" roles can be key in giving a production coherence.

Friday. Elizabeth Gaither as Giselle and Runqiao Du as Albrecht danced a small scale Act 1. It was perfectly acceptable. There was more dynamism during Act 2, but it was the quality of the dancing, not its quantity, and the feelings generated in this portion of the ballet that made the evening successful. Ms. Gaither is short, and the fluffy big tutu with its long skirt which Giselle wears as a Wili made her look very vulnerable, like a little girl in clothes she'll grow into. She was touchingly careful about everything she did—her opposition to the other Wilis, her concern about Albrecht and her porcelain dancing. Mr. Du is a romantic, not a virtuoso. There were no brises across the stage or endless entrechats. He acted as if Albrecht experienced the end of Act 1—Hilarion's accusation and proof, Giselle's madness and death—and everything in Act 2—Giselle's return from the grave, the Wilis's demands—as in a dream. Astonishment and disbelief were written on his face and told in the angle of his lean. His port de bras for gesturing became eloquently modeled, his partnering moves acquired a lyric plastique. Mr. Du took a poet's approach to conveying Albrecht's quandaries and hopes.

There was new casting, too, in some of the other roles. Alvaro Palau's Hilarion was intensely passionate, if not as stellarly danced as Mr. Cooper's. Morgann Rose's incisive beats and Sona Kharatian's sensually elegant backbend turns as the solo Wilis, Zulma and Moyna, caught the eye. Marcelo Martinez, the new male soloist in the Peasant Pas de Deux, was impressively streamlined.

Saturday Afternoon. Erin Mahoney is a dancer with a light yet sure actress's touch. Her Giselle was brushed with dewdrops. More than convincing in everything she does, Ms. Mahoney made the course of events seem simple and inevitable. How freshly she loved, how fascinated she became with the Duke's daughter, how logically she paced and phrased her madness. It is the rational French (Yvette Chauvire, Violette Verdy) who have given us the greatest Giselle mad scenes, musical and immediate at the same time. Ms. Mahoney's approaches that caliber.

Tall stature did not interfere with the vivacity of Ms. Mahoney's dancing in Act 1. On occasion in Act 2, a looseness in the shoulders and arms during fast passages diminished her classicism. In adagio, though, she was impressive. Those in the audience who have turned the pages of picture books found a resemblance to one of the iconic interpreters of the Giselle role, Olga Spessivtseva, particularly in profile.

Ms. Mahoney was cast with partners of suitable height. Mr. Du was her Albrecht and Beth Kaczmarek her mother. Mr.Du's performance wasn't as consistently poetic as the night before, probably because he had to diversify his responses opposite so natural an actress. Ms. Kaczmarek was a silly stock figure at times, yet spared us Ms.Wright's inexplicable gesture of sending Giselle into Albrecht's arms as she dies. Nikkia Parrish's Myrtha had the right sort of relentlessness as she crossed the stage, each bourée step as controlled as a Singer sewing machine's stitches. Her shoulders, though, were tight.

Saturday Evening. This was the paramount performance so far. Same principals as Thursday, yet everything flowed from the first moment. As Giselle, Ms. Jimenez's dancing was sumptuously melodic. The audience held its breath, so perfect was the harmony of movement and mood she conveyed. As Albrecht, Mr. Thomas allowed spontaneity to temper his grand manner while retaining its assets. He came closer to Giselle's world yet, wisely, maintained a certain distance. Dancing, he moved more easily throughout both acts, but still he didn't appear to be at his top. Ms. Mahoney's Myrtha was her best one, with even her épaulement and arms controlled. Ms. Rose and Ms. Kharatian were her principal companions. Mr. Cooper, Mr. Jordan, and Ms. Urgelles were among the many cast members who contributed to this select occasion.

Sunday Afternoon. Both lead dancers, Brianne Bland as Giselle and Jonathan Jordan as Albrecht, established the temperaments of their characters right away. Ms. Bland portrayed a bold girl, one with a will of her own, and she used this trait throughout the ballet. It served her well in making Giselle come to life, although it doesn't cast the village lass in the most romantic of lights. Actually, a spunky Giselle is in keeping with the original 1840s scenario . Being a bit daring suited Ms. Bland's dancing too. She's Bournonville shaped, very frontal, and moves straightforwardly, neatly, and if a step threatens to unravel in performance, she'll change it rather than allow untidy dancing to show. So, her hops on pointe in Act 1 were few rather than many, and then Ms. Bland switched to changements, pristine ones. There were no unexpected steps in her Act 2.

Mr. Jordan kept Albrecht's aristocratic bearing intact for a while after ridding himself of cape and sword. Astonishment was his response to trouble. Both attitudes can be effective in making Albrecht vivid on stage if they are maintained imaginatively. Mr. Thomas and Mr. Du, respectively, had shown that. Mr. Jordan, though, let the images linger a while and then allowed them to fade. He restated them every so often but didn't really transform them into compelling motivations. His dancing had highpoints—soaring leaps, some with strong beats. Instead of a brise or entrechat passage as Albrecht tries to satisfy the Wilis's demands, Mr. Jordan did a series of unusual air turns, repeatedly jumping straight up and spinning down to land in a neat kneel. Between his feats, though, were lax moments. A more gripping characterization and greater continuity undoubtedly will come when he dances Albrecht a second time.

Other new casting at the matinee had Ms. Rose as an awesome Myrtha. She looked like a creature of marble, impressive and stone cold. She used her boureés, beats and leaps as weaponry. Maki Onuki's Zulma looked etched, so clear was her line. Kara Cooper's lightness and energy, and Brian Malek's supple footwork, were featured in the Peasant Pas de Deux.

In Retrospect & for the Future. Should the Washington Ballet have ventured into the traditional past? Should it have had so many new casts? The answers, respectively, are yes and a qualified yes. Mr. Webre, Ms. Genn, the company and the several guest workers gave audiences a genuine, full blooded "Giselle". Doing this ballet taught the dancers acting, style and sustained performing. Mr. Webre discussed these benefits at his post-performance talks. There is a further consideration, though. Will the dancers get the chance to do this ballet again? The best performance was Saturday night's, and it was those principal dancers's third time round. To grow, the one-timers need repeats relatively soon.

Notes. Elizabeth Gaither is scheduled for foot surgery later this week. Despite that, she insisted on dancing her Giselle last Friday.

During the post-performance chats, audience members repeatedly asked about the history of "Giselle". Look up such authors as Cyril Beaumont and Ivor Guest for the ballet's older history.

Photo:  Ellizabeth Gaither in Act 2 of Washington Ballet's Giselle; photo by Steve Vaccariello
Volume 2, No. 40
October 25, 2004

Copyright ©2004 by George Jackson


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last updated on October 25, 2004