4 Stars out of 4
There are some works of classical art from other times that are so lusciously beautiful that seeing them projects you to another time and space. The story ballet Giselle, first performed in 1841, is one of those experiences. The Joffrey Ballet company unveiled an exquisite new production of Giselle at the Auditorium Theatre this week to kick off their new season and to celebrate Ashley Wheater (it’s his tenth anniversary as Artistic Director) This is a must see rendering of the pinnacle of romantic ballet.
Giselle can be a museum piece with its long tulle skirts and identical corps de ballet maneuvers. Current versions are styled after original choreography by Marius Petipa at the Imperial Ballet in St. Petersburg in the late 1800’s, and handed down from dancer to dancer like DNA through muscle memory. Petipa allegedly copied from the original by Jean Coralli and Jules Perrot. But because the work is made from and of the bodies of the dancers of the era you see it, the work can stay fresh and meaningful. Lola De Avila has staged this honoring every aspect of its history and tradition while keeping it vital and alive. The ballet also has the marvelous Adolphe Adam score going for it, at the Joffrey magnificently realized by the Chicago Philharmonic under the artistic direction of Scott Speck whose able conducting allowed us to hear the most delicate passages and most stirring crescendos.
The libretto is based on writings by Heinrich Heine and Victor Hugo. The story begins in a medieval village, portrayed at the Auditorium by a fairy tale set by Peter Farmer who also designed the ethereal costumes. A young peasant girl, Giselle, falls for the charming lad she knows as Loys who is staying across the way. He is actually the nobleman Albrecht (danced by the handsome and self assured Temur Saluashvili) disguised as a grape harvester to enjoy the last few days of his bachelorhood before he is married off to the daughter of a duke. His servant Wilfred (earnestly danced by Raúl Casasola), tries to talk him out of the deception, but privilege gets what it wants. Loys has a rival in the village fellow Hilarion (danced by a passionate Rory Hohenstein) who is also in love with Giselle and doesn’t trust this new guy. Giselle’s mom Berthe (sweetly portrayed by Olivia Tang Mifsud) doesn’t want her daughter getting too excited: apparently she has a health condition.
Albrecht’s future father in law and the fiancée come through town on a hunting jaunt. Albrecht/Loys hides. Giselle and the soon to be wife meet. When the bejeweled hunting party heads back out of the village, Hilarion appears and reveals a sword and horn found in Loys’ cabin, outing him as a noble. Hilarion sounds the horn and all the hunting party returns. In a confrontation, Giselle learns she was a premarital dalliance and she goes mad and dies.
In act two, we meet the Wilis, Slavic undead creatures, all women, who are cross between zombies, virgin ghosts and St. Vitus’ dance. They are maidens jilted and dead before their wedding day who raise from their graves each night and dance young people to death. They are a fascinating idea, this week of #MeToo when I have just finished Naomi Alderman’s powerful and disturbing novel The Power, where women seek revenge for years of misogyny. The Wilis float sideways across the stage in ghostly veils. They are lead by the terrifying Martha, Queen of the Wilis, danced by the stoic and cruelly beautiful April Daly. The ensemble is impeccable in this production. They take on the tradition corps de ballet patterns with the precision of a drill team and the beauty of tradition. Everything really is beautiful at this ballet. Hapless Hilarion is murdered by these vengeful souls. Giselle, who even in death still loves Albrecht, intercedes on his behalf, and saves him from their wrath by putting her body in harms way. Her active of forgiveness keeps her from becoming a Wili and she is able, at last, to rest in peace.
For many ballerinas, playing Giselle is the role of their career. It’s one of the toughest acting gigs in the entire classical ballet repertory, and requires pantomime skills as well as realistically transforming from a youthful, sweet, trusting country bumpkin in the first blush of loveto going stark raving mad, then becoming a badass who saves Albrecht in the second act. That second act has some wickedly tough dancing which must be performed with other worldly lightness and delicacy as well as precision since those of us who know the ballet kinda know the steps. I have seen many Giselles: Natalia Makarova and Gelsey Kirkland among my greats, but Victoria Jaiani joins my personal pantheon. Exactly ten years ago, when Ashley Wheater first joined Joffrey as artistic director, I saw Jaiani do Giselle that year. She was athletic, earthy, really excellent. But now she is a master, exhibiting a range from naïve to wise, and her performance has transcended to an ineffable quality that leaves audiences breathless.
The Joffrey was always a modern fresh company, creating some of the most dynamic contemporary ballets in America, but this Giselle shows that this is a ballet company that can go toe to toe shoe with any company in the world, in any repertory.
Ballet seasons in Chicago are short. The casting you see when you attend may differ from what I saw opening night. Giselle is playing at the Auditorium Theatre, 50 East Congress Parkway, Chicago until October 29th. For tickets and information go to www.joffrey.org or call 312-386-8905 or go tohttps://www.theatreinchicago.com/giselle/9483/