It’s not hard to love Grettel Morejon’s Giselle, as she embodies the qualities that make Cuban dancers so appealing: power and technical purity informed by an almost spiritual modesty. Her footwork, in particular, is a delight, her working foot always moving through a correct sur le coup de pied or passe, pausing just enough to show you the clarity of her intermediate positions, as her foot wends its way to grander things. From the first of her act one ballonnes and ballotes to her second act ronde de jambes en l’air, I sighed just a bit whenever her working foot left the stage; it was a tonic for the eyes. Indeed, to varying degrees this was the case with all the Cuban dancers in Alicia Alonso’s venerable production of Giselle, and I realized just how much I’ve missed watching Cubans.
I wish I could say the same about the production itself: old-fashioned and mannered, not always charming and only intermittently magical. The sets and costumes have a bargain-basement roadshow look to them, the music’s recorded, and despite bits of clever, even insightful, staging, long stretches in the first act that were over choreographed, as if Alonso needed to leave her imprimatur on every instant each dancer is onstage. In the first act, the villagers arrange themselves into tableaux or responding as one to the drama about them. Instead of the peasant pas de deux, we get its fussy reincarnation as a suite for ten villagers. It’s hard to maintain an illusion of spontaneity when every peasant’s smallest gesture looks as if it had been set in stone years ago. Alonso even choreographs the villagers’ reaction to Giselle’s death, tidily roiling them about in the background behind the grieving Berthe and Albrecht. In the second act, the Cuban wills are a marvel, dancing as one with a nonchalant brilliance which almost muted the effect of their arabesques voyagees by making them look too effortless. But, for all the corps’ strength, their iron unity sometimes felt stifling as the dancers arrayed themselves in exquisite, Romantic-style poses, or ran down poor Hilarion. Even dead girls need to breathe sometimes, and the canned music didn’t help.
And, as much as I adored Morejon (whose acting was on a par with her dancing), it was hard to escape the feeling that her performance in every particular was the same as she’d been giving, and would give, for years.
The storytelling is either thoughtful or naive, sometimes simultaneously. While delivering her first-act warning in mime to Giselle, Berthe doesn’t just make the gesture for “death,” but grabs a hapless villager for an instant to demonstrate a wili dancing him to death — showing, not just telling. Given this narrative clarity, perhaps it was not absolutely necessary to have a wili cross upstage, behind a scrim, as this was going on. After Giselle dies, Albrecht (Dani Hernandez) throws himself at her feet as the curtain falls. It then rises again on this tableau not once, but twice. At the ballet’s end, Giselle poses on her grave in a deep penchee, bending down to deliver a farewell kiss to the kneeling Albrecht. She folds down into a split, giving the illusion of physically sinking into her grave, handing Albrecht a last flower before someone in the wings must grab her back leg and whisks her offstage. This sudden disappearance is certainly more dramatic than the way most Giselles these days simply step backwards offstage, and I honestly can’t decide if it’s brilliant or corny.
This isn’t to say this production is without moments of great beauty. Morejon’s pas de deux with Hernandez in the second act, as Giselle’s ghost slowly materializes before Albrecht, was haunting yet understated, with Morejon never taking it as an occasion for showing off her extension (as can happen these days), and it’s hard not to feel a certain joy as Hernandez leaps towards her as she poses in arabesque, plucking a lily out of her hand, to cradle it reverently as he lands upstage. Hernandez is a fine partner and clean dancer, but the veteran Morejon’s the star of this show. At their finest moments, the wilis evoked a nineteenth century style redolent of gaslights and moonbeams, and, finally, Ginett Moncho was a regal Myrtha with a stage-devouring jump.
Ultimately, the best thing about Alonso’s Giselle is that it’s danced by Cubans, and that’s good enough for me.