Don't peasant maidens know better than to dally with noblemen?
In Giselle's case, apparently not.
It's an old story, and put into ballet form it looked both dated and remarkably relevant. Girls do fall in love with men out of their league, bad things happen, and everyone pays the price.
Giselle (1841) is one of the oldest ballets still performed, created at the height of the Romantic era in a period tantalized by the supernatural and yearning for the unattainable. It was also an era where ballet explored the possibility of elevation and the development of pointe work to add the illusion of weightlessness.
Although there are many versions of Giselle, including radical ones like Mats Ex's for Culberg Ballet that is set in an insane asylum, and not-so-radical ones like Dance Theatre of Harlem's Creole Giselle, set in Louisiana in the antebellum period, Texas Ballet Theater keeps close to the original production choreographed by Jean Coralli and Jules Perrot, and staged by the company's artistic director, Ben Stevenson.
As performed Friday night, the dancers made the story—ridiculous on one side and touching on the other—almost believable. From small roles like that of Giselle's mother (Anna Donovan)—stricken with horror as she cradles her dying daughter—to the larger ones, the cast is perfect.
As a prince in peasant guise, Albrecht has to be reminded by his friend Wilfred to leave his sword out of view, he has no idea of what havoc he will wreak. When Giselle finally responds to the gentle knock on her door, he hides and watches Giselle dart about, full of anticipation. When he catches her, she first evades his grasp, but later they dance together with joy.
As Giselle, Leticia Oliveira conveys with every little hop and beat the breathless eagerness of a girl in love. Albrecht (Lucas Priolo) seems equally smitten, if more bold. But when a hunting party brings the Duke, his daughter and a retinue into the village, the truth is out: Albrecht is engaged to a princess.
In one of those great, telling gestures, Albrecht greets his betrothed at first casually, as though she is only an acquaintance, but then turns away from Giselle to embraces Bathilde. From the time that Giselle grasps her hands on her head, Oliveira conveys disbelief, despair, and a painful reawakening. But when she goes mad and grabs Albrecht's sword, she is a little too over the top.
That is remedied in the second act. Transformed into a Wili who pays revenge by enticing men into the graveyard to dance to their death, Oliveira is as tender and delicate as a flower. Unlike the other Wilis and the vengeful Queen Myrtha, Giselle has forgiven Albrecht for his betrayal, just as he has discovered where his real love lies.
Just as in the village where Giselle scampered away from his grasp, she does so again, but this time the meaning is different. She is really out of reach, and he is despondent.
He is also terrified when the Wilis surround him, and Myrtha, flashing baleful black eyes and gesturing with an impervious hand, causes him to slink backward. Played brilliantly by Katelyn Chenaghan, Myrtha is an inhuman force, fire burning under a cold exterior. The 18 Wilis are formidable too, as they form long diagonals as barriers, or as they crisscross the graveyard hopping with one leg in arabesque and heads and torsos held horizontal. The effect of both is riveting, and contrasts to Giselle's delicate and tiny jumps.
As improbable as the story is, you could not tell where the line was drawn between dance and mime. They were as one.
◊ The Saturday night and Sunday matinee performance of Giselle has a different cast, with Carolyn Judson playing Giselle and Carl Coomer as Albrecht.
◊ Margaret Putnam has been writing about dance since 1980, with works published by D Magazine, The Dallas Observer, The Dallas Times Herald, The Dallas Morning News, The New York Times, Playbill, Stagebill, Pointe Magazine and Dance Magazine.