Intricate cut-outs of luscious trees arch over the stage, and a painted drop shows rolling hills through a gap in the woods. Warm golden light beams into the forest glen, and a little cottage leans out onto the stage. As the pliant suitors of our heroine Giselle stride into the frame, our guileless peasant girl trips out of the cottage to meet them. The scene feels like a painting by Watteau or Fragonard come to life.
The Washington Ballet is launching its season at the Kennedy Center by resurrecting their very traditional and very pretty Giselle. The production won acclaim when it premiered in 2004, and remains just as picturesque in the hands of its latest cast of impeccable dancers. Their exercise in classical perfection moves from pastoral romance in the first act to a supernatural haunting in the second without showing a single blemish. The effect is one of storybook loveliness to a fault—this may be the only time I’ve ever said a show was too pretty.
The first act presents a festival of dances interspersed with pantomimed narrative. Maki Onuki carries the act as the gleeful peasant girl Giselle. In the iconic first-act solo, Onuki contrasts earthy skips with graceful floating to create a Giselle who isn’t fully at home in village life. With an eye to ascension, Giselle gives herself over to blind passion for the worldly charms of a nobleman in disguise. Brooklyn Mack brings self-assured charisma and unbridled athleticism to the showy leaps of the incognito Count Albrecht.
The plot of the first act is a love triangle that grows into a love rectangle—communicating this without words is no easy feat. Jared Nelson pushes along the narrative with the urgency and expressiveness of a silent-movie actor as Hilarion, Giselle’s winsome village beau. The long pastoral interludes can feel a bit unstructured, but the high points of the dance are nonetheless astounding. Ayano Kimura and Jonathan Jordan captivated me with their precision and verve in the “Peasant Pas de Deux.” Throughout the first act, Onuki’s Giselle twists and spins, alive in every part of her body, but when her partner sweeps her into the air, her entire figure freezes for a moment of magnificent stillness. When Count Albrecht’s true identity—and engagement to a noblewoman—are uncovered, Giselle goes mad from shock and falls dead before the entire village. In this scene, Onuki cracks the production’s perfect and pretty veneer to let in some gutsy, messy drama.
The second act is short, linear, and a good deal stronger in terms of overall impact. Nearly all the pantomime is eschewed in favor of integrated, lyrical dance. At Giselle’s grave, Aurora Dickie’s Queen Myrtha summons an army of spirits—jilted ghost brides called the Wilils—to trap the mourning Albrecht and Hilarion into dancing themselves to death. In her captivating solo, Dickie does not seek to hide her tremendous athleticism. She is a beautiful ballerina who achieves elegance and grace without feigning daintiness.
Jard Nelson, who shines with his acting up to this point as Hilarion, gets to wow us in the end with his fabulous fatal dance. As the spirits try to push Albrecht to exhaustion, he is sustained by the loving dance of the undead Giselle. Onuki and Mack share make a passionate, exquisite pas de deux. When the sun rises, the Wilis and their queen rise up on point and retreat from the stage in unison. This finale is nothing short of breathtaking.
Giselle succeeds in its pursuit of the picturesque, but as a piece of theatre it is somewhat wanting in terms of tension and drama. There was really no contrast to keep me us from surfeiting on prettiness. This may be due to the absence of a live orchestra: the Washington Ballet has switched to pre-recorded music due to budget constraints in the years since this Giselle premiered in 2004. The loss of traditional accompaniment may be largely outside the company’s control, but they could better adapt to the changing circumstances.
Stripped of its booming orchestra, a classical ballet may need some added drama in the production to preserve its power. Some updates to the costumes and lighting might have made the Wilis spookier— they are zombies after all—and Gisele’s death more heart-wrenching. After making such a big compromise to tradition, does traditionalism remain a valid approach? As it stands, when the Washington Ballet’s Nutcracker makes its annual return next month, I will have a new appreciation for the giant rat. In their resurrection of Giselle at the Kennedy Center, the Washington Ballet gives us impeccable performances, but the lack of innovation in this picture-perfect production leaves them pirouetting on the cusp of irrelevance.
This production of Giselle by The Washington Ballet was performed at The Kennedy Center Oct 30 – Nov 3, 2013.
Upcoming performances by The Washington Ballet