How does a choreographer approach reconfiguring one of the foundation story ballets? If you're Stanton Welch, it's by making the narrative stronger than it already is. Such is the case with his shimmery new Giselle, a tale of love and betrayal and the power of the supernatural Willis, spirits of young women abandoned before their wedding day.
The heroine, who in fact is dead for half the ballet, is a peasant woman who is deceived by noble blood; Giselle thinks Albrecht is a commoner, like herself, but he's in fact betrothed to the Duke of Saxony's daughter. Despite his situation, he has no qualms about playing dangerously with Giselle's heart, which is weak and untried. Easily manipulated, she shuns the genuine affections of Hilarion and professes her love for Albrecht. When his lie is revealed, madness consumes her and she dies of a broken heart.
Traditionally Act II comes as a bit of a shock for the unfamiliar viewer. The characters are no longer in a storybook German landscape punctuated by piquant village life, but find themselves in the ominous spirit world of the Willis, where trespassing men come to die. The transition between acts is much more seamless in Welch's retelling; in fact, the ballet opens with the startling image of one of these lethal spirits seamingly floating above the stage floor.
The Willis seem to be omnipresent in Act I, and even Berthe, Giselle's mother, hints at their mythos. In Act II, they don't just appear onstage. They materialize, just as spirits should. Handsome visual effects enhance the story's fantastical elements and create a true fairy-tale realm, which is more attuned to the narrative's thematic content than traditional romantic interpretations. And Roberta Guidi di Bagno's gold-tinted sets once again work in harmony with Welch's layered choreography, giving the ballet a three-dimensional quality reminiscent of an artful pop-up book.
On opening night Yuriko Kajiya danced the role of Giselle. The character is a slight one, both literally and figuratively. With no worldly experience, Giselle is a girl who's no match for the impudence of an entitled nobleman. Kajiya takes this one-dimensionality and creates a performance of noted substance. She's entirely believable and endearing in the flighty mannerisms and sudden bursts of emotions she imbues her Giselle with. The commitment with which she delivers the madness scene creates a frightful image of a girl unhinged.
Kajiya is the force that keeps Act I moving. Just as in Stanton's other evening-length story narratives, the entire ensemble is called upon to dance, but even so, the pacing of this Giselle is quite slow, and it never really picks up until after intermission. The group harvest dances are sumptuous in quality, and the variations of individual characters are wonderful morsels of movement, but there's too much acting to stay connected to the central narrative, which is unfortunate because Act I of Giselle is really just a setup for the more magnificent second act.
Connor Walsh, ever the versatile actor, made for an entertaining Albrecht. The audience is in on his game every step of the way, but Walsh plays him as a good-natured noble taking advantage of a situation that any other man in his position would take. The athleticism of his Act II performance underscores the shift in his character arc. In this powerless position, he must rely on Giselle's forgiveness, which he receives with much humbled gratitude.
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The most powerful performance of the evening came from the dancer portraying the most interesting character: Katherine Precourt as Myrtha, Queen of the Willis. Her dancing is always stunning, but here her imperial presence lends Myrtha an authority that demands not only attention but understanding. The Willis aren't manhunters for nothing, after all. As their Queen, Myrtha acts on behalf of every woman who has been ruined by the man that she loves. The force of Precourt's dancing not only speaks to Myrtha's power, but hints at Myrtha's own pain and tragedy.
Welch stays true to this classic ballet by not altering the plot. However, in watching this gorgeous production, I couldn't help but wonder if anyone will ever dare to create a Giselle stripped of all its romantic keystones. I just can't help feeling that a story about an innocent girl who dies of a broken heart, only to save the life of the very man responsible for her undoing, is so very un-2016. And I've never found Hilarion's death to be satisfying, even if his bid for Giselle's heart was unfounded. Not lying has to count for something.
Canonical traditions aside, I don't think it would hurt for someone to create a Giselle for a 21st-century audience that understands and appreciates the limitations of a romantic aesthetic.
Giselle continues through June 19. 7:30 p.m. June 17 and 18, 1:30 p.m. June 18, and 2 p.m. June 19 at the Wortham Theater Center, 501 Texas. For information, visit houstonballet.org or call 713-227-2787. $20-$168.