But it's just when the action seems to be ending that things get interesting. In the second act, thanks to beautiful sets and costumes by Peter Farmer, the Wortham Center stage becomes an eerie but wonderful window onto the spirit world. As the full moon appears over the shadowy forest, the mysterious Wilis float in with the mist, looking for men whom they will dance to death in their vengeance. Simultaneously robotic and ethereal, the Wilis hop slowly past each other, their legs all aloft in perfect arabesques. The corps de ballet is a marvel of technical precision, a mass of white tulle. Their merciless queen Myrtha is played superbly by Lauren Anderson. Her supple bourrées make her seem to glide across the stage as if it were ice. It may sound trite -- magical creatures frolicking in a moonlit glade -- but the effect is captivating. Precisely 160 years after its premiere, Giselle will make you understand the Romantic era's fascination with the supernatural.
While the corps work is certainly impressive, Giselle has remained popular over the decades because of its meaty lead roles. The ballet was created for Carlotta Grisi, then a rising star of the Paris Opéra, and nearly every ballerina of note has left her interpretive mark on the role. More of a swan song than even Swan Lake, Giselle is often chosen by retiring ballerinas for their final performances. This is exactly the case at the Houston Ballet, where Barbara Bears, Dawn Scannell and Kathryn Warakomsky were all scheduled to take their last curtain calls with Giselle. But because of an illness in the family, Bears was unable to appear on opening night with visiting superstar Carlos Acosta. This led to yet another classic story line: Understudy gets her big break. Unfortunately, like Giselle, this story doesn't have a happy ending.
This is Mireille Hassenboehler's first season as a principal dancer, and while she has done some remarkable work, especially in the company's contemporary repertory, she is simply unseasoned as an actress. Her Giselle is too naive, too coquettish, too doe-eyed, too ditsy to convince the audience that she has any depth of emotion. Why should she go mad over Albrecht's betrayal when theirs was such a light flirtation? How could she summon the strength to try to save him from the Wilis when she has shown not a speck of will? It is true that Giselle should be an innocent, but innocence is not the same thing as childishness.
Hassenboehler continues to misunderstand the role when Giselle rises from her grave to become a Wili. While Acosta registers his agony and exhaustion on his face and in well-timed moments of breakdown, Hassenboehler overdoes it -- her face flat, her chest concave, her arms limp. It is a difficult task to be fragile in character, commanding in stage presence and sharp in technique all at the same time, and it is a good bet that the talented Hassenboehler will master the combination with more experience in leading classical roles. But in the meantime, Acosta has to save himself from the evil Wilis.
He is clearly up to the challenge. Though he appears to be compensating at times for some awkward timing with Hassenboehler, Acosta is quickly earning his media-bestowed title of the next Baryshnikov. Unleashed from the pas de deux to dance on his own, he explodes into gorgeous tour jetés, floating entrechats and finally a leap that spirals up and up into the air -- was that three, four spins? -- until he collapses on the floor in a heap of limbs. Even more impressive is Acosta's much-improved acting ability. He is casual, comfortable and confident, playing down the pantomime so much as to make it appear natural. Acosta also manages the rare achievement of giving Albrecht a believable emotional arc. He turns the flirtatious boy into a man who learns a horrible lesson in love, loyalty and consequences. In his final scene he kneels alone by Giselle's grave, overcome not just with grief over lost love but with guilt over his actions.
The men outshine the women in the supporting roles as well. Dominic Walsh brings complexity to the role of Hilarion, the devoted suitor who is driven to cruelty by Giselle's attraction to someone else. But in the featured pas de quatre, Sally Rojas is jerky and remarkably ungraceful. Sara Webb, just promoted to soloist and noted as one to watch, looks positively terrified in the same variation. Giselle is the epitome of the story ballet, and it requires veteran performers. Unfortunately, with three female principals retiring this year, this performance may be a sign of shaky seasons to come.