No one would argue that Giselle (1841) is among the most popular ballets of all time. Yet this melodramatic ghost story was not universally admired by contemporaries. The Danish choreographer August Bournonville, for instance, reportedly criticized the ending as immoral, since Albrecht, the young nobleman whose seduction of a naïve peasant girl proves her undoing, escapes punishment. At the end of the ballet, Giselle is dead, or rather, undead; Albrecht, though chastened, is allowed to pick up the thread of his old life.
In the terrific revival of Giselle that American Repertory Ballet presented March 3-5 at the New Brunswick Performing Arts Center (I attended on March 3), co-producers Ethan Stiefel and Johan Kobborg address this supposed flaw in the narrative by showing us what becomes of Albrecht in later life. Haunted by remorse, “Old Albrecht” recalls the events that led to Giselle’s tragedy and her ghostly transformation. The story unfolds in flashback, with an added epilogue brings the ballet to a shocking and macabre conclusion that may or may not satisfy moralists of Bournonville’s stern ilk.
No matter. This production, which Stiefel and Kobborg created for the Royal New Zealand Ballet in 2014 and which is making its East Coast debut, is ingenious and succeeds on many levels. Expert coaching has drawn the best out of ARB’s young dancers, who give polished performances of dramatic depth. While largely faithful to the ballet’s choreographic text, this Giselle offers the kind of fresh perspective on a classic that would be controversial if a major company attempted it, but which a spunky regional company like ARB seems ideally suited to provide.
Mounting an evening-length classic represents a significant challenge that ARB met splendidly. The scenic design by Howard C. Jones was first-rate; and one can only regret the absence of a live orchestra.
In the title role, Ryoko Tanaka possessed admirable lightness and clarity. Her Albrecht, Aldeir Monteiro, approached both his solos and his partnering with style and intrepidity. In Act Two, Savannah Quiner displayed an attractive plasticity as Myrtha, Queen of the Wilis, that ruthless gang who are the ghosts of jilted brides, and who take revenge by ensnaring men and dancing them to death. As Zulma, one of Myrtha’s vampire “deputies,” Clara Pevel was notably lyrical.
Giselle’s choreography is always delightful. The steps of Giselle’s Act One solos have unquenchable charm, while the dances of Act Two are alternately brilliant and uplifting. What most distinguished this Giselle, however, was not its solid dancing but the attention lavished on dramatic artistry and storytelling. The highlights were those revelatory moments that advanced the plot.
Coming face to face with Giselle for the first time, Monteiro’s Albrecht seemed struck by an emotion unlike any this frivolous young man had experienced before. Tanaka showed us the exact moment in Act One when Giselle’s mind snaps and she goes mad: cringing and clutching her disheveled head, she turned slowly to face the audience, a terrible gleam in her eyes. In Act Two, her readiness to forgive her betrayer and her joy at his salvation became equally clear. For her part, Quiner’s Myrtha brandished her wand like a riding crop, her eyes blazing with malice.
Stiefel and Kobborg have also rearranged the so-called “Pas des Vendanges” in Act One, in order to make the interpolated “Peasant Pas de Deux” a more integral part of the narrative. In this version, the usual soloists have become a wedding couple (Seth Koffler and Lily Krisko), who supplant Giselle as Queen of the Harvest. While the changes further fragmented the divertissement, they allowed Giselle’s mother, Bertha (Madison Elizabeth Egyud), to present Krisko with a long, tulle wedding dress, foreshadowing the supernatural events of Act Two. And Monteiro and Leandro Olcese, as the jealous gamekeeper, Hilarion, were allotted rival solos that expanded their roles. The corps de ballet was wonderfully alive, inspired by the rhythms of Adolphe Adam’s infectious score.
As Old Albrecht, Andrea Marini grieved sparingly, but soulfully. His appearances at the beginning and end of the ballet framed the action, but his appearance at the end of Act One felt like an intrusion; it distracted viewers from the celebrated tableau that should rivet our attention as it brings down the curtain on Giselle’s death, a scene of pathos never surpassed in the annals of ballet.
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