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Giselle Defeats the Wilis

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Dawn Atkins and Boston Ballet (Rosalie O’Connor photo)

After ten years, Giselle returned to open Boston Ballet’s 56th season. Considered the epitome of romantic ballet, its story of enduring love contains also some of the most challenging dancing in the repertoire. Adolpf-Charles Adam’s score sets the stage for the story of a peasant girl with a weak heart whose love for a nobleman causes her to fall for him, dance herself to an early grave, but later save him from his own demise at the hands of the Wilis, spirits of maidens betrayed by their lovers. Brought back to the Boston stage by Artistic Director Mikko Nissinen and impeccably staged by Ballet Master and 18-year veteran of the Boston Ballet Larissa Ponomarenko (after the original choreography by Coralli, Perrot and Petipa), the classic scenario gained new life and electrified the nearly packed house Friday night.

Music Director Mischa Santora, a Swiss-born Hungarian who joined the Boston Ballet last season, led the second show of the run. The orchestra played with grace and poise equal to the dancers onstage, however a preponderance of minor errors and inconsistencies grew throughout the evening to the point that they could not be ignored or entirely forgiven. Perhaps it is because Boston audiences are simply spoiled by all the world-class ensembles in town that such slip-ups begin to stand out, but in any case once my clam-ometer reached one per 5 minutes, I started to take notice; in a two-hour ballet, that adds up. Mostly the offenders manifest as sloppy entrances and shoddy intonation, although the violins seemed to have the worst of it with ensemble, especially in the faster passages. Sometimes, though rarely, instruments failed to speak on their entrances, and at one point, a sour oboe note occurring just when Giselle is drawing attention to her failing heart, could almost be excused as intentional (it wasn’t).

That is not to say on the whole they did not perform very well, just that in a town like Boston such inconsistencies stand out; one must acknowledge the bar is high here. Commendable was the percussion, which controlled the ebbs and swells of the numbers with superb dynamic control, and the exquisite extended viola solo for our lead character (one assumes from the program it must have been principal viola Jean Haig).

But the orchestra aside, it is the dancing that draws the audience to classical ballet, and in this whole company shined. While one may immediately think of feet and legs when envisioning ballet, choreographer Larissa Ponomarenko states she first focuses on the port de bras (position of the arms). In a narrative story, this becomes essential to convey the emotions and interactions of the characters, allowing the audience to “hear the dancers tell the story.”

Principal dancer Lia Cirio, a 15-year veteran of the Boston Ballet, superbly danced as Giselle Friday night. The role is considered one of the most challenging in the repertoire not only because of the extreme technical challenges of the dancing, but also because of the multilayered character struggles the dancer must evince while focusing on her jumps and footwork (including an impressive fouetté which she executes continuously across the entire stage). Giselle’s mixture of a weak heart and strong passions portend an ill fate. Her flirtations with disguised nobleman Albrecht (Lasha Khozashvili) are abruptly interrupted by palpitations and flutters, which Cirio’s lithe frame and dramatic face expressed with immediacy and without artifice. When Albrecht is revealed, along with his noble betrothed, Giselle descends into hysterics with the greatest mad scene this side of Lammermoor. Reliving their entire albeit short relationship, from ‘he-loves-me-not’ petal picking to the devastating revelation that Albrecht is taken, Cirio gave a tour de force so visceral that at times one felt a twinge of “someone go help that girl!”

Of course every leading lady depends on the support of a great male lead, and Khozashvili danced Albrecht with obvious strength but also subtlety. Whether he was executing ecstatic double 720-degree spins in the first act, or feats of poise like landing great leaps supine on the ground as if dead in the second act, Khozashvili showed natural command and consistent emotional connection to the character.

The equally first rate supporting characters included Matthew Slattery’s Hilarion (Giselle’s peasant friend who clashes with Albrecht) — equal parts bravado and lightness. The pas de deux in the first act between newcomer Soo-bin Lee and Junxiong Zhao came in second only to Giselle’s mad scene as a first-act highlight, as they displayed impeccable coordination and balance.

In the second act, when Albrecht visits Giselle’s grave, the Wilis, spirits of heartbroken maidens, get revenge by dancing young men to death; the female corps de ballet performed the other-worldly roles perfectly. Onstage nearly continuously, and holding poses when not actively dancing, their stoicism in coordinated movement and ghostly wedding-dress costumes set an eerie scene. The queen of the Wilis, Ji Young Chae, gave us something exceptional, especially considering she had to execute most of her moves while holding a prop. The second act, though, belonged to our leading lovers, and they pulled every stop, both in technique and emotional connection. As the drama unfolds, Giselle is originally sympathetic to the Wilis, but ultimately rescues her love from that ghostly contingent. Her interactions with Albrecht develop from a sort of chase (the men are danced to death after all) to a tender duet. With Albrecht near death, Giselle turns on the Wilis, sheltering him from their powers, thus saving his life and preventing herself from being cursed to their ranks forever. Of all the massive vertical leaps and cabrioles, one of the most impressive moments and enduring images of the whole drama appeared near the end, when Albrecht crosses the stage with a victorious but inert ghost of Giselle draped across his frame, as if she were lying on top of him, but they both stood vertical — offering no jumps, no footwork, just an amazing visual made possible by perplexing technique. Once Giselle’s spirit lies at rest, dawn comes for a redeemed Albrecht, and the story closes.

Boston Ballet in Giselle (Rosalie O’Connor photo)

Giselle runs through September 29th at the Citizens Bank Opera House.

Patrick Valentino, a graduate of New England Conservatory, is a Boston based conductor, composer, performer and author. More information can be found at his website.

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2 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. On the choreography:
    Jean Coralli and Jules Perrot created the original choreography in France, but this version is based on Petipa’s revival of the work in Russia.

    Marius Ivanovich Petipa (1818/22-1910) was a French ballet dancer, teacher, and choreographer. Although born in France, he was trained primarily in Belgium (while his father Jean was the Maître de Ballet and Premier danseur at the Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie); he danced in the 1840s at the Comédie Française and then at the Paris Opéra where his brother Lucien was a Premier danseur. Marius traveled widely, dancing notable roles in Bordeaux and Madrid before settling in Russia. He held the position of Premier Maître de Ballet of the Imperial Theatre of St. Petersburg from 1871-1903 and influenced many modern choreographers such as Léonide Massine and George Balanchine. Petipa acted as Premier danseur for the Mariinsky from 1847-58, collaborating with the most celebrated choreographer in Europe, French ballet master Jules Perrot.

    By the 1860s, Perrot had returned to France,and Petipa did not slow down. In his seventies: he supported a large family and restaged older works with increasing regularity. His revivals of Le Corsaire (1880), Giselle (1884) and Coppélia (1885) serve as the models for nearly every version staged thereafter.

    Comment by Laura Prichard — September 21, 2019 at 9:26 pm

  2. With this review you’ve made me want to go. Thank you.

    Comment by Nathan Redshield — September 22, 2019 at 1:35 pm

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