When Julie Kent, a former principal dancer at American Ballet Theatre and one of the most notable ballerinas of her generation, took the helm as Washington Ballet’s artistic director last July, she made it clear that her primary goals were to set higher artistic standards and to achieve greater national prominence for the chamber-size troupe. Judging by Washington Ballet’s new production of Giselle, which the company brought to the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater for a seven-performance run, Kent, and her team, are off to a great start.
This production of Giselle was staged by Kent and her husband, Victor Barbee, who joined the Washington Ballet as associate artistic director. (Barbee is also an ABT’s former principal dancer and had been that company’s associate artistic director for nearly 13 years.) In their version, the ballet’s familiar story is told in a traditional manner, unearthing the choreography’s poignant drama and romantic poetry with sensitivity, nuance, and intelligence. I admired the attractive costumes by Galina Solovyeva, particularly the stylish attire for the royal hunting party; and the stage decorations by Simon Pastukh – a picturesque medieval cottage in Act I and an eerie mystical forest in Act II – gave this production a storybook feel.
It was a treat to experience this ballet with live music and I applaud Kent for her determination to return the Washington Ballet orchestra to the pit. The musicians were expertly led during the performance by Charles Barker, principal conductor of ABT. But the chief pleasure of this production was the insightful and polished dancing by the entire cast – I have never seen this company in a better form; the unified and well-rehearsed female corps de ballet was particularly impressive, turning the second act of the ballet into genuinely compelling drama.
On Friday night, the title role was danced by EunWon Lee, a new name on the Washington Ballet’s roster. A former principal dancer with Korean National Ballet, she is one of Kent’s new hires, who joined the company this season. Petite and lissome, with a pliant body, beautifully articulated arms and delicate features, Lee makes a natural Giselle. She played the heroine – a young peasant girl who loses her heart to a young man (a nobleman disguised as a commoner) only to lose her life when his deception is uncovered – with an astute understanding of the role’s multiple dramatic intricacies and inflections.
In Act I, her Giselle was happily upbeat and delightfully charming, her smile never leaving her beautiful face. There was nothing demure about her character; yet she was anything but a flirt, projecting a sincere feeling of love and admiration for Albrecht. Lee’s performance was so animated and full of fizzing energy you would never suspect that Giselle suffered from a weak heart.
When Albrecht’s identity was revealed, Lee’s sunny face was instantly shadowed by clouds of shock, disbelief, disillusionment, and sorrow; her features turned pallid, her gaze hollow. Her transformation from a vibrant and full-of-life girl to a shattered soul during the mad scene was harrowing and painful to watch. Awkwardly slumped forward, with her head buried in her hands, she stood motionless as if frozen. When she finally lifted her head – you could hardly recognize her. I have never seen a ballerina’s facial expression go so utterly dark or seen desperation and grief rendered so realistically. When this Giselle attempted to dance again, her movements looked disjointed; her torso was convulsing, arms twitching. With her tousled hair streaming down her shoulders, she looked like a ragged, broken doll.
In Act II, Lee underwent yet another remarkable transformation, turning into a serene and ethereal Wili, her dancing becoming poised, delicate and soft. In her final pas de deux with Albrecht (Brooklyn Mack), she projected an air of quiet melancholy and tranquility. You could feel that she was at peace with her tragic destiny, her every gesture spoke of consolation and forgiveness rather than burning passion.
Mack is feted by the Washington audience for his athletic and flamboyant virtuoso dancing. Alas, his dramatic acting skills are still a work-in-progress. In the ballet’s first act, his portrayal of Count Albrecht came across as oddly dispassionate and dry. Yet the dancer came into his own in the second act, when the emotional drama of the story is essentially conveyed by dancing rather than pantomime. His partnering prowess was competent throughout and when his hero was ordered to dance by the murderous Wilis, this Albrecht looked as if he was more than happy to oblige. In fact, it seemed as if Mack could leap and turn for a few more hours without any visible sign of exhaustion.
The excellent Corey Landolt aptly balanced passion with aggression as a love-sick Hilarion, Giselle’s unfortunate suitor, who uncovered Albrecht’s duplicity and paid the ultimate price for his devotion to Giselle in the end. His acting in Act I was convincing and genuine, his jumping ability in Act II thrilling.
There were a number of winning performances from the supporting cast. Francesca Dugarte infused the role of Myrta, the merciless queen of the Wilis, with commanding authority, solemn grandeur, and a touch of glamour, her soaring leaps mighty and crisp. Looking both spectral and stern, Nicole Graniero and Stephanie Sorota danced with admirable skill as her loyal attendants, Moyna and Zulma. Michele Jimenez, a former dancer with the company and now its ballet mistress, was wonderfully expressive and dramatic as Giselle’s mother; and the dazzling Morgann Rose had a scene-stealing turn as an arrogant and capricious Bathilde, Albrecht’s royal fiancée.