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Dance review: Pacific Northwest Ballet premieres a reconstruction of 'Giselle' in Seattle

June 13, 2011 |  4:10 pm

Ballet fans had eyes affixed recently on an event not in New York City, St. Petersburg, nor other acknowledged capitals of classical dance, but one in Seattle.

This cultural metropolis of grunge rock 'n' roll is also the home to the esteemed Pacific Northwest Ballet, which after 39 years has developed a solid artistic reputation, particularly for its dancing of the Balanchine repertory. But the company is in the spotlight now, thanks to a Romantic classic -- its premiere of a unique reconstruction of “Giselle,” based on choreographers’ Jean Coralli and Jules Perrot’s 1841 original (for the Paris Opera Ballet), and Marius Petipa’s subsequent restaging in 1884 at the Imperial Theatre (today’s Mariinsky Ballet). 

Artistic director Peter Boal, dance historian Doug Fullington and music scholar Marian Smith used extensive French and Russian notation documents, dating from 1841 to 1903, to produce a “Giselle” as it might have looked in the 19th century. They are the first American company to do so. 

On one hand, Boal's decision was audacious -- presenting contemporary American audiences with a meticulously rendered, 170-year old European dance tradition with entirely different standards from what is popular today. In that time, intricate steps, manners, delicacy, and complex story-telling through pantomime were prized.

On the other hand, Boal joins a growing trend of directors looking back to the original masters of classical dance and the sources they left behind. Though ballet is passed on primarily through oral tradition, written descriptions of choreography and notes about staging do exist. The Kirov Ballet has utilized these materials for several reconstructions and the Treatro alla Scala will present a restaging of “Raymonda” (from 1898) in October.

Pacific Northwest Ballet’s new “Giselle,” seen Friday and Saturday at McCaw Hall, is both familiar and eye-opening.  The familiar was found in the story’s large brush strokes and some of the signature solos for the principal dancers, which over the decades have been retained in most traditional productions (including the recent one by Los Angeles Ballet). The ballet is set in a picturesque German village, where the peasant girl Giselle is wooed by Albrecht, a duke disguised as a villager. But Albrecht is already engaged to a noblewoman, and when he is unmasked and his betrayal revealed, Giselle dies of a broken heart. She becomes a Wili, a ghostly siren who seeks nighttime revenge on unsuspecting men. 

The biggest surprise came from the restoration of the original ending. After saving the grieving Albrecht from her sister Wilis, Giselle pushes him away and indicates that he should return to his betrothed, Bathilde. On cue, the noblewoman and other aristocrats enter to carry Albrecht out of the woods. Though he continues to mourn Giselle, the audience knows as the curtain falls that he will marry Giselle’s rival. 

In between, we see a richer, more complex ballet than is currently popular, one that is almost comparable to an epic film for its sweep, character development, story lines and visual stimuli. Hilarion, the gameskeeper who also loves Giselle, acts like a narrator, directly addressing the audience. Though the company's program has a two-page guide to explain the mime, it’s not so difficult to understand: Hilarion shows us he hates Albrecht by shaking his fist. 

All the characters, even minor ones, have a newfound vibrancy here. Giselle and Albrecht are immediately affectionate. Giselle is headstrong and playful; her weak heart, though referred to, is much less a defining personality trait than we have become accustomed to. 

Dance steps and mime gestures take place on the specific musical notes as intended by composer Adolphe Adam, who even wrote musical passages to imitate the sounds of human conversation. The outstanding Pacific Northwest Ballet Orchestra, conducted by Emil de Cou, brought newfound beauty to this score. 

This process has clearly had an effect on the dancers, who were acutely engaged.  The second act was the most compelling; the corps de ballet excelling at the lyricism of the Wilis’ enchanting formations. Giselle’s famous mad scene was, strangely, less affecting than usual. The stage is crowded, and the two Giselles whom I saw were unable to muster the insane frenzy that can bring tears to the eyes.

That said, both Carla Körbes (Saturday night) and Kaori Nakamura made memorable impressions. Körbes is a superlative technician with a luscious musicality. Nakamura brought great urgency to her love for Albrecht, who was danced with equal passion by Lucien Postlewaite. Saturday’s Albrecht, Karel Cruz was a strong partner, but unable to sustain his energy or technique to the ballet’s conclusion. 

Other standouts were Jerome Tisserand as the unfortunate Hilarion and Laura Gilbreath as the impassioned Myrtha, Queen of the Wilis.

Pacific Northwest Ballet borrowed serviceable sets and costumes from the Houston Ballet. The company hopes to build its own for the next performances –- and it doesn’t know when that will be. Most likely, this “Giselle” won’t return to the stage for two more years. It’s unfortunate –- but tantalizing -- to have to wait all over again.


Dance review: Los Angeles Ballet dances 'Giselle'

-- Laura Bleiberg, from Seattle

Photo: Pacific Northwest Ballet principal dancer Kaori Nakamura as Giselle, with company dancers in the world premiere staging of "Giselle." Credit: Angela Sterling