Real Magic at Pacific Northwest Ballet

Written by Kristen Legg


On Friday, June 3, 2011, Pacific Northwest Ballet opened its highly-anticipated premiere staging of Giselle. Using the original choreography of Jean Coralli, Jules Perrot, and Marius Petipa, Peter Boal staged a powerful rendition of this historic work.
Pacific Northwest Ballet company dancers
 as the ghostly Wilis in PNB’s world premiere staging of
 Giselle

Photo © Angela Sterling

For those who don’t know the story of Giselle, here’s a brief overview: Girl meets boy. Girl falls in love with boy. Girl finds out boy is a Duke. Girl finds out boy is a Duke who is engaged to be married. Girl dies of a broken heart. All that in Act I. Act II is where the magic happens. The now-dead heroine, Giselle, rises as a specter and joins other young spirits who haunt the woods. The philandering Duke visits her grave site, truly regretful of what he has done, and Giselle protects him from the Wilis, who had planned to dance him to death. True love prevails.

It is not, however, this beautifully romantic (and Romantic) story that lead many audience members—including one usually less-than-emotional SeattleDances writer—to tears. Pacific Northwest Ballet has taken Giselle to a place the ballet hasn’t been in years.
The original choreography is from days when pointe shoes were little more than fabric shoes heavy on the fabric and long pointe sequences were unheard of. It was not the norm to stand on one leg while the gesture leg moved through three or four positions, or to turn en pointe four, five, six times before landing. Even by the mid- to late-1800s, pointe shoes were simply used to elevate the dancer, making her appear to float above the ground. Over the years, Giselle variations and pas de deux have been developed, tempos changed and steps added, to allow the more trained dancer the opportunity to shine, but Boal’s staging of the ballet, though filled with an excruciating number of jumps, doesn’t showcase the tricks and extreme talents of the company, it has something even better. It has heart.
What makes ballets like Giselleso challenging for today’s dancer is the theatrical ability needed. The role of Giselle moves from innocent and in love, to heart-broken and mad, then finally to somber and other-worldly. Myrtha, Queen of the Wilis, is extremely dynamic in her hatred toward men, her silent sisterhood with the other broken-hearted specters, and her regal demeanor, which must outshine all the other royals in the ballet. As a general statement, current professional dancers’ training revolves around technique, precision, and everything being higher, straighter, and more flexible. Performers receive little to no acting training in their classical technique, making a ballet like Giselle, which was first staged in 1842 when Classical technique had not yet been developed, almost foreign to 21st century dancers. Or so it has seemed.
PNB has proven that performance quality is alive and well in the ballet world. Carla Körbes was playful in her ballottés in Act I and didn’t lose an inch of her technique in her death scene. With the help of Boal’s staging, Karel Cruz as Duke Albrecht was able to create a surprisingly likeable cheating lover, his lines and energy creating a character who longs to be something he is not. Former PNB Soloist Melanie Skinner portrayed Berthe, Giselle’s mother, with the skill of a true thespian.
Pacific Northwest Ballet soloist Chalnessa Eames
 in the Peasant pas de deux, in PNB’s world
premiere staging of
 Giselle
Photo © Angela Sterling

In Boal’s staging of Act I, the corps seemed to have been given some leeway, allowing the different movement styles, heights, and appearances of peasants to make the village scene come to life. The well-matched pas de deux between Chalnessa Eames and Jonathan Porretta gave the audience a look at what Giselle imagined her life with Albrecht to be—a loving, equal (and peasant-like) partnership. The pas de deux included a well-executed pass in which Eames moved into an inward pirouette and is caught mid-rotation by Porretta, who continued to promenade his love around in a beautiful arabesque. At the end of this flawless adagio, there were a few forced rotations, but all was forgiven with Porretta’s beated jumps.

Up to this point, the cast had succeeded in elevating the spirits of the audience members. The well-known tragedy in the storyline was almost forgotten, when suddenly the Duke was faced with his fiancée and his “girl on the side” in the same village. With one simple shake of the head, Körbes went from joyful and in love, to broken and vacant, and the audience went with her. As Act I ended with a dramatic tableau depicting the village’s grief over a young woman’s death, an image that was mirrored at the end of Act II, one would swear they could hear the Duke screaming, “She’s dead!”
Act II is what makes Gisellegreat. Filled with darkling woods and beautiful, haunted spirits, this act brings true love to the forefront. Francis Mason and George Balanchine wrote:
Giselle’s innovation is its summing up of what we know as the Romantic ballet. To be romantic about something is to see what you are and to wish for something entirely different. This requires magic. The mysterious and supernatural powers that romantic poetry invoke to secure its ideal soon became natural to the theatre, where dancers attired in billowy white seemed part of the world and yet also above it.” (101 Stories of the Great Ballets1954)
Boal’s Act II opened with a reminder from some local hunters that the woods are haunted. As they fled, Myrtha could be seen, as it is almost midnight and she must awaken to call her fellow Wilis to dance. Carrie Imler was spectacular in this role. Entering upstage as if behind some distant trees, even the veiled Imler commanded the audience’s attention. In her breath-taking variation, she hovers in her bourrées and promenades with no bobbles, conjuring a sense of all-knowingness. Then, with the slightest movement, her malice shines through and it becomes clear that she is more than she appears.
With a moan from the audience, Imler’s band of Wilis entered and, save for a somewhat silly bit of special effects used to remove the veils from the dancers’ faces, the unfeeling, passionless corps had everyone captivated. While it is difficult not to stop and think of Leslie Browne’s drunken performance of this section in The Turning Point, PNB’s Wilis were able to create an eerie atmosphere, perfect for Körbes’ whirling entrance into Wili-dom and the corps’ murder of Hilarion, game-keeper and Giselle stalker, played by the powerful Batkhurel Bold.
Pacific Northwest Ballet principal dancers
Carla Körbes as Giselle and Karel Cruz as Albrecht,
 in PNB’s world premiere staging of
 Giselle
Photo © Angela Sterling

The tissues came out in full force as the Duke entered the forest to visit Giselle’s grave. Boal’s staging of this scene showed Albrecht’s true sorrow over his love’s death. Körbes enters, longing for Albrecht to see her and bourrées alongside him. Her expressionless, yet radiating, energy made it seem like she was otherworldly—the dead walking amongst the living. Körbes and Cruz then performed what may have been one of the best renditions of this tender pas de deux. It was utter perfection. Even the two cell phones that went off during the romantic duet couldn’t break the magic. (Come on, Seattle.) The sweeping lift series that zigs and zags across the stage was truly ethereal. Not only was Körbes light and airy in her port de bras, but Cruz managed to lift her effortlessly and watched with wonder as she floated around him. The partnership, though strange to imagine pre-show, was spectacular.

The ballet came to a new and surprising close, with Giselle releasing Albrecht’s heart, allowing him to move on from the pain and find solace with his future wife. There were a few key Giselle moments that were missed: the flying “V” at the end when the Wilis realize it’s time to go back to their graves, the Duke stumbling backward away from Giselle’s tombstone trailing calla lilies. Yet none of this mattered because of what Boal added to the ballet. PNB’s Director has brought the love back to this beautiful, magical love story.
Pacific Northwest Ballet’s Giselle can be seen June 10-12, 2011 at McCaw Hall. Tickets are available at www.pnb.org, or at the door.
Related links:
For a look at the theatrics of older versions
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KCxbafmWkqE
Natalia Makarova and Mikhail Baryshnikov Act II pas de deux (sweeping lift series is at 4:22)
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pHRQ6Gx-f-k
An article on pointe shoes that includes interesting facts on their development through ballet history
http://balletnews.co.uk/2011/01/20/pointe-shoes-deconstructed/

PART TWO

PNB’s Giselle Continues to Thrill in Week #2
Written by Rosie Gaynor
I’ve been gorging myself on the reviews of Giselle Week #1, as I haven’t been able to get to McCaw Hall to see this favorite ballet of mine. Until last Friday, the second week. What I had read coincided with what I saw onstage. Pacific Northwest Ballet did a lovely job.
First mention must go to the women’s corps, which has been struggling for a few years to reclaim their former status as a group of perfectly lined-up individuals who can, when called upon, dance togetherwith a uniform style, mood, and grace. In the June 10 and June 11 (matinee) performances of Giselle, these women were wonderful. Quirks and swoops have been smoothed out; chins did not jut; heads did not push forward; lines were straight. Most importantly, these women moved with each other. So much was right that the occasional blip didn’t even register. Even the iconic Act II series of unison hops in arabesque looked beautiful (especially on Saturday): back legs impossibly at the same height, criss-crossing lines straight. How unfair that this ridiculous perfection is the expected minimum from the corps. And how wonderful to see it! A special call out for Liora Reshef, whose beautiful arms and quiet grace are so perfectly suited to this ballet.
And the male corps? We see them a bit in Act I. And in Act II, they have some fun moments. But this ballet is not really about them. So it goes. You win some, you lose some.
For the principal roles in Giselle, PNB had four casts over the two weeks of performances. One of the down-sides of casting so broadly is that those in lead roles only get to dance them two times, which can’t be satisfying for the dancers. It also stunts potential growth, as dancers learn so much in performance. However, quadruple casting also means that more dancers get a chance at the prime parts and that the audience gets to see multiple interpretations (emotional and physical) of the same role. It can be a good trade-off. I’d hate to have to be the one who chooses between depth and breadth.
I wish I could have seen all four casts, but I’m happy to have seen two at least. I’m guessing I’m not the only double-dipper: PNB Artistic Director Peter Boal mentioned that the company made its single-ticket sales goal about an hour before the June 11 matinee.
Kaori Nakamura, Lucien Postlewaite, and Jerome Tisserand danced the triangle of lovers on June 10. Even from the middle of the first tier where I was sitting, their emotions read clearly. Their dancing was superlative. Maria Chapman was their implacable, ethereal Queen of the Wilis, her tiny, near-seamless bourrées allowing her to skim across the stage. Rachel Foster and Benjamin Griffiths danced the Peasant Pas de Deux: precise and clean, their technique so beautiful to watch. It was sad to see the departing Chalnessa Eames and Stacy Lowenberg in character roles; in spite of the fact that they’re both superb actresses and so lent a great deal extra to the story, I would rather have seen them dance, given that it was one of our last chances to do so.
Lesley Rausch, Batkhurel Bold, and Jeffrey Stanton danced the lovers for the June 11 matinee. My seat was much closer to the stage, so I had a chance to really see the effects of  Rausch and Bold’s efforts to express with the face (as opposed to only with the body). In this performance, Bold’s face was mobile, conveying believable emotions, some of them complex. We don’t often see smiles from this dancer (I remember the first I saw, still, in In the Upper Room with Carrie Imler), but they’re contagious. And Rausch is becoming the kind of warm-blooded dancer who can make you cry. In the second act she seemed to float; who needs those old-fashioned fly wires anyway? The powerful Bold mentioned in the post-show talk that this was some of the hardest dancing he has ever done; I wasn’t able to tell, as he seemed to have no trouble hanging in the air. Stanton’s performance made me hope, once again, that he plans to do some musical theater after he leaves PNB this season, as his acting, too, was effective. Lindsi Dec was their stern, cruel, beautiful Queen of the Wilis. Reshef and Tisserand danced the Peasant Pas; she shy and sunny, he enjoying the difficult jumps, both correct and clean. 
That’s it for PNB this season. Or, nearly. On June 18 they have their school performance and NEXT STEP, which presents works choreographed on PNB School’s students by Andrew Bartee, Kiyon Gaines, Barry Kerollis, Margaret Mullin, Seth Orza, Sean Rollofson, Price Suddarth, and Ezra Thomson. For more information, visit http://www.pnb.org/Season/10-11/NextStep/.