On Thursday night ABT gave us a Giselle that wasn't blisteringly novel in concept. What a relief. It was Giselle, pure and simple; the story told clearly, directly, with attention to detail and with deep commitment.
A production like this one is the best argument for the classics and their place as the foundation of a ballet company's repertory. They are the roots that tunnel to bedrock. A ballet like Giselle has a text so porous and rich that repetition is necessary to discover the possibilities and bring the flower to full bloom. Julie Kent has played Giselle for many years now. She's gotten to the point where she's had time to think about every step she makes and why she makes it. For all the effort that went into her performance, it was not calcified. It was beautifully sculpted and profoundly moving.
Kent takes a direct route on a well-traveled road in her characterization. Her Giselle is smitten with Loys/Albrecht, so much so she is blinded to all other things by him. You can see it in the way she looks at Jose Manuel Carreño; it's the sort of love that just leaves her standing there, jaw agape and paralyzed; the sort of love so impossibly perfect that it turns a heart to porcelain in danger of shattering utterly. When Kent plays "loves me, loves me not" with the daisy and gets the wrong answer, she doesn't register distress. She goes absolutely numb, sets the flower down and walks away. Her horror is too great for a reaction. It isn't playing at fear; she had a glimpse of what life would be like if she found out that Loys did not love her. She's staring into the Void.
Carreño plays an ardent Albrecht, and you only see what a cad he is when he's confronted. The details are fascinating; when Hilarion blows the hunting horn to call the court to return Albrecht drops the sword and looks at him with half a smile almost as if he finds the challenge interesting. It's masculine and scary, a game of Chicken or Russian Roulette. He still thinks it's a dare. Not until he's holding Giselle's lifeless body does he start to figure out that this was never a game to her.
There were clear details like this all through the ballet and not just among the principals. Erica Fishbach's Berthe did beautifully the mime warning her daughter of the dangers of dancing. It started with a pointed moment when we could see her recall the story of the Wilis, as if it was something she dredged up from a long forgotten cautionary tale told to her when she was an unruly child. Impetuosity made Stella Abrera's Bathilde consistent. The sort of temper that could allow a woman to take an expensive necklace and offer it on a whim is one that could turn in a flash if she thinks someone has stolen her fiancé. The look she gave Giselle at that moment was a slit-eyed look of utter hatred. As much as she hated Giselle at that moment she turned from her and bored into Albrecht with the same gimlet stare. He was not escaping blame. Ethan Brown's Hilarion was the uncomplicated sort, with a brace of pheasants instead of rabbits, but he made his position in the drama absolutely clear and kept the narrative moving forward. The peasant pas de deux was danced by Xiomara Reyes and Joaquin de Luz; it was interesting to me in that the woman’s variation is a different one than the brief allegro one often done in the United States, but a longer one with many grand jétés on the diagonal.
Kent's mad scene was deeply affecting and disturbing; like Bathilde, we felt uncomfortable being forced to witness it. We had the dubious privilege of watching someone have every illusion torn from her like the impact of a bomb. There was no gentle wasting away, when Kent recounted the daisy, she ripped the petals off of it in anger. What was impressive was that she made the scene so raw without making it awkward, even as she fell crouched into a fetal ball or crawled backwards like a crab. It was starkly naturalistic, but never seemed out of place. The only moment I wished she had retained from earlier interpretations was where there is music (two upwards runs of the flutes) for Giselle to "see" the Wilis; a premonition of what is to come. Kent did not use them for that; perhaps she felt it would not have fit with the raw earthiness of the scene as she imagined it.
Act II starts off with Hilarion binding together some sticks with rope to form a humble cross for Giselle's grave. There are some atmospheric lighting effects by Jennifer Tipton suggesting the Wilis. The production, retained from the 1987 film Dancers, is a good one with a medieval flavor to the first act, and it's all very effective without feeling overbudgeted. Gillian Murphy's Myrta doesn't project big yet (and I have a personal preference for a Myrta who is tall enough to tower over Giselle), but she knew what she was doing and why she was there. Of the lieutenants, Michelle Wiles had a better night than Carmen Corella, who was having trouble with her balance and in sustaining the movement.
Kent started out well in the second act and kept getting better. I’ve seen wilder and loftier performances of her first Act II variation, but not better understanding of the throughline of the act. The couple’s first pas d’action was a haunted dance of forgiveness, every lily a redemptive caress. So clear was her acting that even when she left the stage, I always had a sense that she knew exactly where she was going. By the final pas de deux before daybreak there were some sublime moments, especially the arabesques where Carreño would gently lean her over her pointe to create an exquisite, drifting line. Carreño’s partnering was excellent, as was his dancing; he has powerful, handsome legs and perhaps the most solid aplomb of any male dancer today, as if his axis were unmovable.
By the time of daybreak, both dancers had risen to real poignancy. I have never seen a Giselle more drained by her fight for her true love’s life, nor more desperately relieved to see dawn. It was as if the sun were a prayer answered. After the Wilis left Albrecht gently carried Giselle away in the direction opposite her grave, and for a moment it seemed that he had forgotten that she was dead, that by surviving this sort of cleansing ordeal he might have her back again. It was never to be. She left him tenderly, bestowing a single small white flower of forgiveness and remembrance on him.
Is this the best production of Giselle in the world? No, but it’s one the company could take anywhere with their heads held high, and the same for the principals. If there was a slight stumbling in the production, it was in some of the corps work, the friend's pas de six in the first act was having trouble staying together, and 18 Wilis on the Metropolitan Opera stage in the second act is six Wilis too few to make the sort of spiritual impact that the massing of these spirits in a murderously accurate sisterhood can have. Also the orchestration by John Lanchberry is interesting, as the finale of the Wilis’ dance begins it stays delicately in the strings but one keeps expecting a powerful build up in the horns that never comes. The orchestra played very well under Ermanno Florio.
One of the small mysteries of the production is who is responsible for it. There is no staging credit, and there deserves to be one for whoever has been coaching and setting it. Whoever it was, he or she did justice to the directive in ABT’s name; we were graced with both Ballet and Theater.
Injury provoked the cancelling of Jeu de Cartes at NYCB on Tuesday; we got the debutante cast of Divertimento No. 15 instead. I’m not complaining. A few dancers looked still a bit taken unawares by the substitution but Miranda Weese had a glorious romp, even more accurate than previous performances. It’s the sort of role that lets us see her in fifth gear, and she functions best at high speeds. I sat a bit closer than I had been at previous performances; I think it helped me to understand Janey Taylor a little better. Where others have seen risky expansiveness, I see precipitousness (I’m usually afraid she’s going to roll over on her ankle and sprain it), but I’m beginning to see some of what they’re seeing.
I moved around a bit during the performance, going down to a front row orchestra seat on the extreme house right. It’s a magnificent place to watch La Valse; the curdled and Gothic atmosphere hits you like the bloom of a sweetly poisonous flower. Most fascinating this time watching was trying to understand further the role of the three “fates” in the ballet (Dena Abergel, Deanna McBrearty, Eva Natanya). Are they propelling the action or within it? Watching them up close in their first dance, they seem like an infernal machine; something that’s set in motion, but has no understanding of what it is doing. Natanya was particularly good in her role; fascinated by every action she made but seeming to comprehend none of them. I think that’s also why the three vanish into the corps during the second half of the ballet; they are part of the action, not outside of it. Good performances were done by the leads (Rachel Rutherford, Sebastien Marcovici and Philip Neal as Death) and in the subsidiary roles, particularly Pascale van Kipnis and Stephen Hanna. Van Kipnis has been undercast recently and I hope this is just an aberration. She deserves to be one of the soloists being groomed to be a principal. In both of the above ballets, Hanna gave a more refined performance than he has before, while not losing any force.
The extreme sides close up are about the most unfortunate way to watch the new Wheeldon ballet, Variation Sérieuses, the entire center stage is blocked by scenery. I will write at greater length when I’ve seen the ballet from a better vantage point. For now, it’s an amiable backstage drama on the order of Antony Tudor’s Gala Performance. Like that ballet, which used one piece of Prokofiev for the “backstage” portion of the ballet and a second for the “performance”, this work uses Mendelssohn’s variations for the “rehearsal” and Rondo Capriccioso for the performance. I was not that taken with how the Mendelssohn was orchestrated or used and there are a few dramatic holes in the work. We never understand why Kowroski’s diva prima ballerina character is actually good enough to be a prima ballerina. It’s an easy myth to assume that the only thing separating the principal dancers from ingenues like the one played by Alexandra Ansanelli are age and treachery but surely that isn’t so. It’s a shame Wheeldon never allows Kowroski to dance well. Quibbles aside, the ballet is an astute addition to the repertory merely for its variety. Wheeldon’s ballets have been the most varied recent additions to the recent NYCB repertory, especially in terms of decor. He is going for breadth in his repertory; he’s tried assimilating both Balanchine in classical and modern mode, Ashton at his most chic and now he seems to be looking at Tudor. It’s unfashionable, something most choreographers have eschewed for depth and I think it’s to Wheeldon’s credit. He is young, and one travels in one’s youth. I hope though, that when the Grand Tour is done, that he will not be afraid to burrow down roots as well.
A Real Giselle (ABT 5/17 and NYCB 5/15)
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