As the American Ballet Theatre (ABT) artistic director, Kevin McKenzie, reminded us in a short curtain speech before the opening of the company’s fall season at the Koch Theater, it has been two years since ABT’s last performance in New York. And almost as long since a story ballet has been performed at Lincoln Center. The return of the company’s Giselle is a return to a kind of normalcy, even if the performance itself contained reminders that this time is anything but normal.
This was a safety-conscious Giselle, in which supernumeraries – the extras who fill out the village scenes – were eliminated, replaced by noticeably younger company-members. Some of the dancers in secondary roles, including the one performing Hilarion (Andrii Ishchuk), Giselle’s thwarted village suitor, wore masks. McKenzie had explained earlier that the masks were being worn “out of an abundance of caution.” But why some, and not all? Companies are doing what they can, coming up with their own protocols, but it was a bit of a head-scratcher.
This week, ABT performs no less than six Giselles, featuring as many casts, most of which contain débuts. Tuesday’s show, however, was led by a seasoned pairing, Hee Seo and Cory Stearns. Both tall and elegant, Seo and Stearns have danced together countless times. They guarantee a reassuring quality, a solid if somewhat generic understanding of the story and of the characters.
Seo, in particular, is lovely: delicate, willowy, vulnerable and shy in the first act, remote and sorrowful in the second. Her lines are as long and singing as ever and she has a wonderfully light jump. But her interpretation of the character comes in and out of focus. Her best dancing was in the allegro portions of the second act, in which the floating quality of her jumps imbued her Giselle airiness and energy. She added a pretty wrist undulation to a series of floating hops across the stage. Earlier, in the mad scene, she pointed the sword directly at her neck, a chilling gesture. Stearns, always an excellent partner, gave his Albrecht aristocratic haughtiness and command. But his dancing was underpowered – he may still be finding his stamina after the long break.
The evening found its footing as it progressed. The first act, with the exception of Katherine Williams in the “peasant pas de deux,” was a little pallid, as if the company were becoming reacquainted with the feeling of being onstage. Williams, in contrast, looked storng and confident.
The second act, with its poetic, sorrowful dances for the corps de ballet, paradoxically had more life. The moment in which the ensemble of female spirits, in their long diaphanous tutus, began swaying to the music, the ballet found its inner pulse. One of the pleasures of this company, especially after four weeks of New York City Ballet, is the three-dimensional way they use their backs and shoulders. Epaulement – the through-the-body twist of classical ballet – is something of a disappearing art. Not at ABT.
Some of the most exciting dancing of the evening came from Devon Teuscher, in the role of the queen of the spirits, or Myrta. Teuscher emerged from the wings with a string of tiny, smooth steps (bourrées) on pointe that made her appear to be gliding on a cushion of air. Her side-to-side tilts were excitingly off-balance, her jumps strong and sleek. I understand why she hasn’t been cast as Giselle this week – she’s not the classic waif-like dancer – but boy, would it be exciting to see her try.
Save for a few out-of-tune notes in the strings, the Adolphe Adam score cast its usual spell, setting the scene with alpine tunes and ghostly effects. Like Giselle itself, it tells the story in simple, clear terms. And sometimes that is enough.