by Kat Richter for The Dance Journal
I’ve been underwhelmed by Pennsylvania Ballet in the past but last night’s performance of Giselle at the Academy of Music was everything that the 171-year old classic ought to be. From the sets to the score to the sheer physical strength of husband-and-wife Principal Dancers Julie Diana and Zachary Hench, Giselle was the perfect start to the company’s 2012-2013 Season. In fact, I’m glad I never saw it as a little girl because if I had, I would have wanted to become a ballerina—a peasant girl prancing happily with a handsome partners or one of the ghostly Wilis in their flowing white tutus— and with my lack of turnout, it’s a wonder I actually made it through my ballet classes in college.
The ballet begins with the innocent but spirited Giselle who finds herself caught between two suitors: Hilarion, The Gamekeeper, danced by Lorin Mathis, and Count Albrecht, danced by Hench, who disguises himself as a peasant to woo Giselle despite being engaged to somebody else.
Considering that the ballet premiered in 1841, the pantomime feels a bit dated at first but as the story unfolds, we are transported to another time and place; what seemed cheesy and unnatural at first becomes part of the magic. It also doesn’t hurt that Hench looks exactly like the Albrecht in the children’s book by Violette Verdy that I grew up reading, Of Swans, Sugar Plums and Satin Slippers. All he has to do is run onstage with a flourish of his velvet cloak and the audience is enraptured.
Diana, too, is uncannily convincing in the role. It’s hard to believe she’s actually the mother of two, and that she’s already danced Giselle several times before. When she hops across the stage on the tip of her pointe shoe and swings Hilarion’s sword in a circle around the stage, she really is a lovesick teenage girl. I can only imagine with Principal Dancer Arantxa Ochoa will do with the role tonight.
Jermel Johnson was on fire in the Peasant Pas de Deux. He seemed to fumble a few of his landings, but who wouldn’t with jumps like those? Soloist Evelyn Kocak paled in comparison, and their partnering in the adagio felt a bit stiff, but the strength of the corps made up for it. They performed Marius Petipa’s choreography beautifully, tracing lines and symmetrical patterns across the stage with surprising precision. The movements were repetitive and a bit predictable at times but we’re talking about a ballet that’s nearly two hundred years old. It’s stood the test of time for a reason and the choreography suited the company very well.
Despite the vengeful Myrta, Queen of the Wilis, and fog that surrounds the grave of the now heartbroken Giselle, the ballet is not without its charms. In the first act, two real Russian wolfhounds circle the stage to herald the entrance of the nobles and there are even a few funny bits to break up the pathos.
As for the second act, no wonder it’s become one of the most beloved in the entire ballet cannon. The arabesque sequences were every bit as haunting as Verdy’s book had suggested they would be and the Wilis were both beautiful and frightening as they tried to dance first Hilarion and then Albrecht to death.
And yet Giselle is, above all, a love story. A penitent Hench is reunited with Giselle’s ghost and she shields him from the tormented ghosts of the crypt. He leaps, and pirouettes into a back attitude turn but still the Wilis are not satisfied. He jumps, again and again and again, shooting so high into the air that the audience bursts into not one but two rounds of applause. Just as he is about to collapse from exhaustion, the sun rises and Giselle fades into the mist, sparing his life. After such a strong start, it seems safe to say that this season will be a very good on for Pennsylvania Ballet.
Kat Richter is a freelance writer and teaching artist with an MA in Dance Anthropology. Her work can be found at www.katrichter.com.
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