The Washington Ballet
John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts
Washington, DC, USA
Wednesday, October 20, 2004 to Sunday, October 24, 2004
© 2004 by George
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
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
©2004 by George Jackson
Sali Ann Kriegsman
Alexandra Tomalonis (Editor)
Kathrine Sorley Walker
is available by subscription ONLY. Don't miss it. It's a good
read. Black and white, 48 pages, no ads. Subscribe
is published quarterly (January, April, July and October)
in Washington, D.C. Address all correspondence to:
P.O. Box 34435
Washington, D.C. 20043