PNB's troupe rises to the demands of its unique 'Giselle' production

The company's cast struggles with the story's acting requirements but masters its choreography, as PNB gains national attention for an original take on this seminal ballet.

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Carla Körbes as Giselle and Karel Cruz as Albrecht in PNB's 'Giselle.'

The company's cast struggles with the story's acting requirements but masters its choreography, as PNB gains national attention for an original take on this seminal ballet.

It’s easy to understand why PNB artistic director Peter Boal wanted to bring the ballet Giselle into the company’s repertoire. Along with La Sylphide nine years earlier, Giselle moved ballet from the world of aristocratic dance into the overtly sensual, feminine, and airborne art form that we now define as classical ballet complete with shoes that, although far softer than today’s toe shoes, allowed the ballerina to rise up almost to full pointe.

Still performed by ballet companies around the world 170 years after its creation, Giselle continues to move audiences with its grace and lyricism. The role of Giselle, arguably the most dramatic in the classical ballet canon, has been performed by the greatest ballerinas of every generation since Carlotta Grisi created it in Paris in 1841. Anna Pavlova, Alicia Markova, Galina Ulanova, Gelsey Kirkland, Natalia Makarova, Alicia Alonso, Carla Fracci, and most recently Diana Vishneva and Alina Cojocaru are just a few of the dancers who have captivated audiences with their combination of exquisite technique and dramatic power.

Despite the ubiquitous presence of Giselle, it is not performed by the New York City Ballet, where Boal made his career, and neither he nor most of the current PNB dancers has ever appeared in it. What’s more, it requires a very different technique than the rapid-fire Balanchine-based style that PNB dancers know — and an acting range beyond what most of them have been taught.

Although everyone in Giselle must act and dance well for the ballet to succeed, the roles of Giselle and her lover, the disguised duke Albrecht, are particularly challenging. In the first act, Giselle must convey the innocence of a country girl and then the heartbreak of betrayal that leads her to madness and death when she discovers Albrecht is engaged to another. In the second act, when she reappears as an otherworldly spirit known as a Wili, she must be able to convincingly forgive the lover who betrayed her and send him off to a happier life. For his part, Albrecht must evolve from a seductive cad into a repentant lover seized by grief at Giselle’s death, and together they must convince us of both the sexual energy between them and the enduring love that will continue beyond the grave.

Once Boal made the decision to introduce Giselle to PNB, he made another, even riskier choice. Rather than import one of the versions currently being performed — all based more or less on one of Marius Petipa’s stagings for the Imperial (now Mariinsky/Kirov) Ballet from1884 or 1903 — Boal chose to recreate as much as possible the 1841 original of Jean Coralli and Jules Perrot, with Petipa interpolations. The result is a production that is probably as close to the original as we will ever get.

Much has been written about the process Boal and his collaborators, assistant Doug Fullington and Giselle scholar Marian Smith, used to create the PNB production. The end result is a ballet that relies as much on acting and pantomime as on dancing, adds several characters and scenes, and requires the dancers to step precisely on the beat and execute the movements with such clarity that even the smallest mistake becomes evident.

As compared to other versions, this one enables us to see almost every bone in a ballerina’s foot as she rises up on pointe or places a toe gently on the floor. In Giselle’s gorgeous Act II arabesques, we can almost see individual muscles stretch along her legs as she moves her body into full extension. When Albrecht does his series of entrechats (scissor-like jumps), his landings must be solid, without any allowance for a heel that doesn’t quite touch the floor. With the slower tempi of Adolphe Adam’s original score, the entire company must hold every movement a little longer whether it’s a jump or leap, a balance on pointe or a billowing lift. And with the body held in much more of a box frame than we see in today’s modern ballets, the extreme physical discipline required to move in one part of the body while maintaining relative stillness in another is enormous.

With all this in mind, the fundamental question about PNB’s Giselle is, Has Boal’s gamble paid off? To my mind, the answer is yes, and no. Certainly Boal’s daring and the willingness of his dancers to follow him so far outside their comfort zone is admirable. And the year-long effort that went into creating this production has significantly raised PNB’s profile nationally and internationally, with critics coming from throughout the U.S. and Europe to see and review it.

There’s also no question that the PNB production provides the closest possible glimpse into a seminal moment in the history of classical ballet. That was made possible with source materials that are available today, including recently discovered detailed prose and graphic descriptions of the dancing and mime scenes. With the added mime scenes, the story of Albrecht’s betrayal becomes more clear, his rivalry with Hilarion for Giselle’s affection more intense, and the menacing nature of the Wilis more obvious. But though the added pantomime clarifies certain narrative elements, in the first act particularly it serves mostly to prolong what is an already overlong setup for the exquisite second “white” act, whose elegant solo variations and ensemble dances for Giselle, Albrecht, the Wili queen Myrtha and her Wili maidens are stunningly beautiful.

A more serious problem in the first act is the “mad scene” in which Giselle’s discovery of Albrecht’s duplicity literally drives her to a fatal collapse. In other versions, it takes her several minutes to fully comprehend the betrayal and then descend into madness. But here Giselle goes mad almost the instant she realizes Albrecht is engaged to Bathilde, which is neither believable nor as dramatically powerful as it should be.

As for the dancing throughout the ballet, the entire PNB troupe, from principals to corps, should be commended for its ability to execute the deliberate style of the choreography. The unison dancing of the men and women of the corps was impressive, especially given the physical strength the steps require both in the fast-moving first-act village scenes and the measured Wili dances. The principals and soloists — Carla Körbes, Karel Cruz, Batkhural Bold, Carrie Imler, Jonathan Poretta, Chalnessa Eames, and Sara Ricard Orza — took readily to the exacting requirements of the physical style and the Romantic feeling that permeates the movement.

The acting range of the principals who danced on opening was another matter however. Carla Körbes has stellar technique and an intense emotionality that infuses every role she dances. In the second act especially, her elegant phrasing and innate musicality made her ghost-Giselle a riveting image as she glided across the stage or slowly turned her body in a circle, one leg outstretched.

But Körbes was less successful in conveying the development of Giselle’s character. Despite her changing circumstances and physical transformation from living human to ghost spirit, Körbes’ Giselle remained the same fragile being throughout. She executed her steps perfectly and with great feeling but the quality of that feeling never changed, undermining the dramatic impact of her tribulations.

Karel Cruz as Albrecht had another, more serious problem, namely that he failed to emote at all. The movie-star handsome Cruz makes an imposing figure onstage and dashed off his jumps and leaps with precision and verve. But one never sensed a real person behind his turns and leaps or any emotional connection to the woman whom he seduces then mourns after he has driven her to death. When Cruz’s Albrecht fell on Giselle’s dead body at the end of Act I it seemed more an act to satisfy the stage direction than a heartfelt expression of contrition and grief.

Even Carrie Imler as Myrtha seemed uncharacteristically emotionally removed from the narrative. Among PNB’s principals, Imler is one who can usually be counted on to throw herself full throttle into the dramatic requirements of a role, so it’s hard to explain her muted performance. Despite this deficiency, Imler brought her signature technical proficiency and regal bearing to Myrtha’s elegant variations and especially her bourées, the tiny, gliding steps on pointe that embody Myrtha’s spirit-like state. With three other casts scheduled to perform Giselle, and the growing confidence of the company with this new production, it’s fair to assume that each performance will be a little different.

Despite its deficiencies, the PNB Giselle is a lovely production. Although in his program notes Boal apologizes for the sets and costumes from Houston Ballet, which he says “have seen quite a few performances,” if there are any imperfections they were not obvious, even from the sixth row. The earth-toned sets and costumes of the Act I village scene glow with warmth, while the Wilis’ diaphanous white dresses of the second act provide a stark contrast to the dark and scary forest they inhabit. Randall Chiarelli’s lighting illuminates without calling attention to itself, and the effect he creates when Giselle gradually disappears from sight behind her headstone is one of his greatest technical and artistic achievements. The PNB orchestra did a fine job with Adolphe Adam’s sweetly melodic score, which effectively drives the action at every turn.

If you go: Giselle, through June 12 at Marion McCaw Hall, Seattle Center, 321 Mercer St., Seattle. Tickets start at $27 and are available at the box office, by phone (206-441-2424), or online.


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