writers on dancing


Ave atque Vale — Hail and Farewell
(with Roses for the Future)

"Giselle"—in Tribute to Amanda McKerrow
American Ballet Theatre
Metropolitan Opera House
New York, NY
July 14, 2005

by George Jackson
copyright ©2005 by George Jackson

As the curtains open on "Giselle", it is dawn. Daylight has broken but a few early morning shadows still linger. A peasant lad stretches and yawns as he strolls into an empty clearing at a village's edge. The view gives onto vineyards and a hilltop castle not far away. Full sunshine flourishes then, and the clearing quickly becomes peopled; key protagonists appear—Giselle's two suitors and her mother —but we must wait a bit to meet her. The ballet will end the next morning, a few minutes earlier than it began, just as night is leaving and we see the sun's first rays reflected in the eyes of the single figure left on stage, Albrecht, the favored suitor. He has been devastated and reborn as only a romantic hero can be.

There is a naturalness to ABT's production of "Giselle" that suits this classic's ingredients of realism and fantasy. Life's cycles run their course so that we come to accept those opposites, love and death, being as inevitable as day and night. Amanda McKerrow, giving her ABT farewell at this performance, took the title role. She was to all appearances so natural, so simple, so perfectly perfect as the embodiment of a girl who loves to dance, who is in love and who plies her needle dutifully. Giselle had heard a knock on her cottage door and came skipping out with curiosity and high expectations. She seemed still something of a child, only uncommonly fine. The ballerina was as hidden as her full leg action was under her skirt (only the play of the lower portions—pointes, insteps, ankles and bounding calves—showed.) One could look at this characterization and be unaware of the art of it, or of the thought behind the action. For this Giselle, behavior was spontaneous. Whether she undertook something substantive such as rejecting the suitor whose very tread is antidance, or whether she added details such as trying to hide the tell tale signs of her fainting spell, glancing at her own homespun frock after admiring the imperious Bathilde's silken gown, taking off the heavy necklace Bathilde has bestowed on her and handing it to her mother before dancing her big solo—McKerrow preferred the light touch and this made her pre-tragedy Giselle sparkle.

Remarkable was how McKerrow's Giselle grew up to be capable of a love beyond the grave. It was through pain. Albrecht's duplicity in being betrothed to both Bathilde and Giselle, was a knife stab for Giselle. She suffered physically from learning of his deception. McKerrow used Giselle's ensuing madness to mature. She overcame confusion, recognized Albrecht, saw that he too was in anguish and knew he loved her nevertheless. She died a grown woman, reaching for a new certainty.

In Part 2, McKerrow molded what the poet Heinrich Heine in his review of the first, the 1841"Giselle" called "the dance urge" into an act of love. After her first wild spins when summoned from the grave, the texture of McKerrow's movement was that of a caress. Whether dancing with Albrecht or for him, she shaped embraces meant to sustain him. Perhaps she wasn't quite as bold in this portion of the ballet as she had been in Washington earlier in the year, but her body's continuous flow was singular and the movement's richness couldn't have been more potent.

The cast with which ABT surrounded McKerrow was mostly top notch. Ethan Stiefel's Albrecht was so simpatico one had to forgive him as Giselle did, and the brilliance of his brise diagonals in Act 2 showed Stiefel recovered from the injury that had kept him offstage for a time. Conducting, David LaMarche made Adolphe Adam's music into McKerrow's other partner. Herman Cornejo was the human hurricane that passed through the male portion of the Peasant pas de deux and Jennifer Alexander acted Bathilde as the role ought to be done - at star caliber. Gillian Murphy, leading the spirit maidens who seek vengeance for betrayal in love, hasn't an imposing stance. Yet she danced sharp as a spike and glared straight anger. Karin Ellis-Wentz was Giselle's good mother and Sascha Radetsky the honest, heavy footed suitor. The corps de ballet was OK, with new principal Michele Wiles much more than all right as one of the solo spirits.

Thursday's performance wasn't over after Act 2 of "Giselle". The company and McKerrow's fans staged a touching goodbye to her. McKerrow had joined ABT in 1982, twenty-three years ago, not long after having won gold and international attention at the 1980 ballet competition in Moscow. She had been trained mostly at Mary Day's School of the Washington Ballet and began dancing professionally there. One of her first leading roles was the sylphide princess in George Balanchine's "Scotch Symphony". Already audiences noted "that pale, astonishing child". Day cast McKerrow in an one-act French "Sylvia", in Choo San Goh ballets, "Les Sylphides" and other repertory. She continued to appear with Washington Ballet even after joining ABT, and at Thursday's intermission one couldn't be sure whether one was in New York or Washington. (Ms. Day watched the performance from the box of ABT Artistic Director, Kevin McKenzie—another of her protégés.) On stage, colleague upon colleague of McKerrow's, past and present, came to give her flowers. There were curtsies and kisses. Her husband, John Gardner, gave McKerrow a kiss to end all kisses and the fans pelted the stage with pink roses. The audience had risen long before, but wouldn't stop applauding. McKerrow was overcome. Brave trouper, she mounted a smile through her tears when Gardner took her clenched right hand and raised it high—a fighter's fist triumphant for the future. McKerrow and Gardner will be part of Ethan Stiefel's new team at Ballet Pacifica in California, where her title will be ballet mistress. Perhaps, though, she'll also stage some Tudor, as she did for Washington Ballet, and continue dancing for a while. She's the subtlest ballerina we've seen since Margot Fonteyn.

Photo:  Amanda McKerrow as Giselle. Photo by Rosalie O'Connor.

Volume 3, No. 27
July 18, 2005

copyright ©2005 George Jackson



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last updated on July 4, 2005