writers on dancing


Day and Night

American Ballet Theatre
Opera House
The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts
Washington, DC, USA
February 2 and 3, 2005

by George Jackson
copyright © 2005 by George Jackson

Wednesday Evening

There is a buzz in the theater, the sense of something very special about this performance of one of Amanda McKerrow's signature roles. It is for her hometown audience with friends, family and her longtime teacher in attendance. The ballet company which has been her anchor for nearly 23 years surrounds her on stage and backstage. Comes Act 2: McKerrow's Giselle emerges from the grave. What astounding simplicity! She stands waiting for the command to dance like a newborn, not yet believing the absence of confinement. Then, turning and turning, it is as if she can't get enough of that first breath of freedom. A hunger, a passion is manifest. It transforms ethereality into musicality. Like a melody, plaintive at times and urgent at others, the shading of each sequence is rich in substance. Her will to dance is unstoppable, yet she becomes aware of having to make a sacrifice, for to save Albrecht is to loose him despite her love for him having no bounds. McKerrow's Giselle ends in immolation. Because of her, this Act 2 has been overwhelming.

What of Act 1? It was misbegotten tonight, special occasion not withstanding. Fake peasants, Hilarion walking not with an earthy tread but a mechanical clumping, Wilfred stiff as a dresser's dummy, Courland so unimposing he disappears into the scenery, the Peasant Pas de Deuxers having Hermitage airs. The ill omen affected even McKerrow. She failed to make much of an entrance, her Giselle wasn't springtime incarnate emerging from the cottage door. Of course, her dancing was decent yet her mind seemed busy assembling expression and technique and little of it looked fully done. Small accidents befell her during the mad scene: her necklace entangled as she tried to rid herself of this gift which had become unwanted; her skirt remained upturned as she got to her feet from the floor. McKerrow overlooked these chances. She was still in study mode for Act 1.

Whoever staged this version of "Giselle" had good ideas and bad.The good or necessary ones seemed merely marked tonight. For instance, the indication that the cottage opposite Giselle's belongs to Albrecht was missed by much of the audience. The bad ideas stood out. Giselle's fascination with the dress of Courland's daughter wasn't just spontaneous. She compared it to her own ordinary skirt, which took an instant to mime. Yet the light this action shed on Giselle's habits was superfluous and a distraction. For American Ballet Theatre, Washington has become the try-out town.

Albrecht was danced by Ethan Stiefel. In Act 1, his all-American Boy ease saved him from appearing as misdirected or underrehearsed as the others. His straightforward characterization of a young man who can be headstrong and remorseful worked. Then, in Act 2, Stiefel showed of what more he is capable. He suggested Albrecht's innate nobility, the reason for Giselle's love. Polish now replacing spontaneity, his vital dancing—clear, quick multiples in the legwork with supple above-the-belt poise—and unstinting partnering became the accompaniment to McKerrow's scope and drive, a deeply sympathetic accompaniment. This act became the great dancing duet it ought to be.

The third role in Act 2 of "Giselle" is that of the revenger Myrta, an Amazon Queen in Brothers Grimm guise. Michele Wiles was every inch the Amazon Queen. She danced boldly and spaciously. She was too full blooded perhaps to be the leader of disappointed dead brides. A coach ought to have corrected what projected into the theater as her smile. With binoculars one saw that Wiles' expression was anything but that. The women's corps needed more cohesion being Myrta's followers but less clockwork as the vintners of Act 1. The Act 2 solo for the Moyna in Myrta's entourage was well danced by Anna Liceica. David LaMarche conducted.

Thursday Evening

Daylight or moonlight, blue skies or nightshade? The old ballet "Giselle" has both. Act 1 is daytime. What happens is plausible, from a poet's point of view. Alessandra Ferri, American Ballet Theatre's third principal this season to be cast in the title role, is totally at home in the sunshine. A small woman, she uses size subtly to contrast Giselle's sensitivity and sincerity with the behavior of larger people on stage. Watching Ferri in action made it easy to believe the love story of trust and deception that drives Giselle to her death. She danced softly, gently to show joy. She knew the precise moment to stop moving and stand stock still to register shock. The madness that ensues for Ferri's Giselle was the behavior of someone astonished that she could no longer control her body and limbs.

All in all, Act 1 looked better Thursday than it had during Wednesday's performance. Gennadi Saveliev as Giselle's unwanted suitor, Hilarion, was a strong woodsman, brusque by nature. Carlos Lopez, in service to Count Albrecht, knew his master's temperament and his own proper place in the scheme of things. Susan Jones's acting gave substance to the figure of Berthed, Giselle's sole parent (her makeup, though, was more a grandmother's than a mother's). The way the nobility is characterized, being aloof in manner as well as richly dressed, is apt potentially. However, Guillaume Griffin's Courtland seemed as undistinguished a ruler as Wednesday's Victor Barbee. Not to give the highest ranking character on stage more due must have been a conscious decision of this production's anonymous stager(s) but not one that enriches the ballet. Julio Bocca was in the starring role of Count Albrecht, who has won Giselle's heart. Bocca succeeded in his disguise: he was eager, likeable and looked a bit gnarled pretending to be a hard working villager. He was less convincing as Albrecht the noble.

Ferri's Act 2 left a lot to be desired. Not only was the dancing rather diminished but the acting, her usual strength, was restricted. She expressed passion infused with a sense of loss, yet without shading and nuance. It was as if she had brought with her to the stage just a single mask. Bocca, in this act's many demanding steps (including the two diagonals of forward brises), managed adequately. Experiencing the supernatural didn't change his characterization. There was no ennoblement as this Albrecht remained the same ready young man who had seemed a convincing villager.

What made Act 2 special was Veronika Part's singular personification of supernatural malevolence. As Myrta, the principal of the spirits who pursue the perpetrators of deception in matters of love, Part danced gloriously. Her stretch is molten lava, her articulation is porcelain. In this role she was a warrior with attack as she starts and triumph as she concludes maneuvers. Did she intend to make Myrta seem somewhat mad, for she gave the impression of talking to herself as she danced?

Other aspects of dancing "Giselle" need more work. The corps de ballet's cohesion and impetus, especially in Act 2. could be improved. The soloists need more polishing. Sascha Radetsky showed a wonderful jump in Thursday's Peasant Pas De Deux but less than wonderful transitions from step to step. Monique Meunier in the Moyna solo had great aplomb, but seemed too happy for an avenging spirit.

Gratifyingly, ABT's conductors respect both the music and the dancing. The baton on Thursday was in Charles Barker's hands.

Photo on the front page by Anthony Crickmay.

Volume 3, No. 5
February 7, 2005
Copyright ©2005 by George Jackson


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last updated on February 7, 2005