It's an age-old story: Boy meets girl, boy woos girl, boy wins girl -- and then his fiancée shows up to prove him a lying, cheating cad. Girl dies, literally, of a broken heart. There's one reason why the name Albrecht doesn't have the same connotations as the name Don Juan: redemption. By dying, the wronged Giselle saves not only the body but the soul of the false Albrecht.
Giselle is the most popular of the 19th-century Romantic ballets. And Houston Ballet's production by artistic associate Maina Gielgud, which ends the company's 35th season, does the work justice. All the elements necessary for a successful Giselle are in evidence, especially the incredible talent of the dancers, who must not only move effortlessly but act dramatically (there's a reason Giselle is known as the Hamlet of ballet).
Opening night, Mireille Hassenboehler turned in a stellar performance as the innocent village girl whose taste of first love goes bad when her sweetheart turns out to be royalty -- engaged royalty, no less. Not only does Hassenboehler have the long, delicate limbs and technique needed to portray Giselle's girlish dancing, she also has the acting chops to transform, without chewing the scenery, into a deranged, heartsick woman whose frantic dancing causes her weak heart to give out. In Act II, when she becomes a Wili -- which is a ghostly spirit of a wronged woman, dead before her wedding and doomed to dance men to death -- she is ethereal and floating, yet strong in her resolve to save Albrecht from his doom (additional Wilis are played by the corps). Giselle is one of the most coveted roles in ballet, and Hassenboehler holds up well against those who have danced before her. Gielgud should be proud.
The gorgeous-legged Andrew Murphy looks every inch the royal Albrecht, with precision beats and long lines in his jumps. Although we're initially unclear about his intent -- is he in love with Giselle, or is this just a pre-wedding fling? -- his dramatic skills kick in at Giselle's gravesite, and we see through his movements his genuine remorse, his longing for the ghost Giselle before him, his fear and exhaustion at the hands of the Wilis and, finally, his abject misery as Giselle sinks into her grave. During Act II, Albrecht must portray a roller coaster of emotions, not to mention some technically demanding and strenuous dancing, and Murphy handles it well.
The injured Lauren Anderson was missed opening night. Corps member Jaquel Charlesworth took her place as Myrtha; although talented, she lacked the maturity and presence needed to portray the queen of the undead.
Of course, the true test of a full-fledged Giselle is the perfection of the corps in Act II -- the Wilis must be in sync, each arm held just so, each head turned just there. They must move as flying vampires in tutus, but with an elegance that is ghostly and heartbreaking. In this Giselle, the corps de ballet shows how far it has come. We are in the presence of a truly first-rate company.
The village is peopled with peasants of distinctive personalities whose use of mime to tell the tale is much less broad and vaudeville-esque than it was under the company's former direction (think Ben Stevenson's The Nutcracker). To the credit of Gielgud -- a former acclaimed Giselle herself -- this production is authentic, harking back to the original 1841 version with the Act I peasant pas de deux intact, without being staid or boring. With Gielgud's vision and coaching, the company creates a living, breathing Giselle that's one of the best ever staged in Houston.
Tony Tucci's lighting and Peter Farmer's designs create believable worlds. The fairy-tale forest village is like an old German painting, and the blue-lit midnight glade is as eerie as a walk through a graveyard. And Adolphe Adam's score, arguably the most beautiful and recognizable in ballet, is handled with emotion and delicacy by the Houston Ballet Orchestra under the baton of Ermanno Florio. Be warned that you may spend days humming ta-da-da-da-da-daaa-dia.
Also on the program is the company premiere of director Stanton Welch's 1996 Maninyas, a sexy, abstract ballet set to Ross Edwards's Maninyas Concerto for Violin and Orchestra. Juxtaposed with the classic Giselle, Maninyas showcases the technical versatility the company has achieved.
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