Later this spring, the Washington Ballet will present 20th-century and contemporary works, as well as premieres, by choreographers including Jiri Kilyan, Justin Peck, William Forsythe, George Balanchine, Alexei Ratmansky, Twyla Tharp, Ethan Stiefel, and Antony Tudor. The company starts the season off, however, with a consummate production of a treasured 19th-century gem, Giselle.
Enjoy the cleverly executed simultaneous vanishing of 18 veils, the spare, careful use of a fog machine, and a cameo by a couple of sleek greyhounds. Beyond that, however, don’t look here for revisionist reimaginings, gimmicks, or effects. Artistic director Julie Kent and associate artistic director Victor Barbee take a lively, well-paced, but respectful approach to their staging of the original 1841 choreography by Jean Coralli, Jules Perrot, and Marius Petipa. Guest conductor Charles Barker leads, with nuanced attentiveness, a well-prepared 35-member Washington Ballet Orchestra rendering Adolphe Adam’s sweet, animated score.
The story: Count Albrecht spies Giselle, a lovely peasant girl, disguises himself as a commoner, and woos her. Hilarion, a gamekeeper, discovers and reveals Albrecht’s true identity. Further, Giselle learns that Albrecht is promised already to Bathilde, the daughter of the Duke of Courtland, both of whom are visiting Giselle’s village seeking refreshment after a hunt. Giselle, who has a weak heart, is overcome by these discoveries and dies.
The second act takes place by her grave, around which swirl the Wilis: spirits of young women who have perished from the grief of unrequited love. Led by their merciless queen, Myrta, the Wilis seek revenge by forcing men to dance to their deaths. That is Hilarion’s fate and would be Albrecht’s too were it not for Giselle’s intercession on his behalf. She forgives and frees him, and in so doing frees her own spirit too from the bleak winds of bitterness.
I know, right? One hundred-seventy-six years later and that libretto, by Theophile Gautier, inspired by a theme from Heinrich Heine, still sends shivers down one’s spine.
Rotating casts of principals are cycling through this week’s seven performances, and for good reason. These roles — particularly those of Giselle, Albrecht, and Hilarion — are grueling. The stellar performance under review here, Thursday’s, featured Maki Onuki as Giselle, Rolando Sarabia as Albrecht, and Gian Carlo Perez as Hilarion.
Onuki is stunning. In the generally joyful first act, she radiates innocence and playfulness. In the second, she is a spirit whose strength has overcome the actual and metaphorical brittleness of her heart. Onuki’s girlish persona crosses over at that point into a tender but tough, eerie determination. On the fringes of Myrta’s otherworldly legions, Onuki’s huge technical range is on display, from serene adagios to gravity-defying jump-leap-hop combinations as the spirit world tests, punishes, and emboldens her. It’s creepy — and it’s wonderful.
Sarabia’s performance is also magical. He has great chemistry with Onuki, their partner work is graceful and romantic in the first act, ghostly and redemptive in the second. At Myrta’s belligerent beckoning, his footwork is lightning, his turns in the air astonishing. Perez, as Hillarion, is fiery — when he leaps, he soars. Kateryna Derechyna is a steely Myrta with a forceful, decisive grace. And Ayano Kimura and Jonathan Jordan’s first-act peasant pas de deux was polished and elegant.
The second-act choreographic fireworks cunningly depend on the solemn counterbalancing force field of the Wilis, a corps whose understated but taxing precision ensemble work makes or breaks the somber mood. They were perfect, their chilly grace enhanced by Simon Pastukh’s forested sets and Galina Solovyeva’s flowing costumes, as delicately lit by Robert L. Fabrizio.
- Giselle is onstage at the Eisenhower Theater of The Kennedy Center thru March 5, 2017.
Details and tickets
A note: Unless you’re in a particularly class-war sort of mood — and admittedly 19th-century Parisians were — it would be a stretch to find great political meaning in Giselle. The nobility comes off looking more than a little patronizing, but the story is about love, loss, and forgiveness, not politics. Forgive me, then, for pointing out that in a capital brewing plans to build border walls and tighten immigration restraints, this week’s gorgeous ballet is brought to you by a highly international group of artists from Japan, Cuba, eastern Europe, South Africa, our recent ally Australia, and elsewhere. It’s just another striking reminder that needless national barriers and jingoistic antagonism run counter to the spirit and the excellence of the arts.