Gulf Coast Giselle
In the fourteen years of Iain Webb’s tenure directing Sarasota Ballet, the company has made its mark with insightful renditions of ballets by Frederick Ashton and other British choreographers. The troupe also performs works by Balanchine, as well as more contemporary fare. But until a performance of Giselle yesterday, I had never seen them put on a nineteenth century work. These old ballets are revealing; through the prism of their familiar choreography, one quickly gets a sense a company’s style, its depth of talent, its strengths, and its weaknesses.
The Sarasota Giselle is based on a 1965 staging by Peter Wright, re-staged by the company’s assistant director, Margaret Barbieri. (It was last performed here in 2019, with Wright in attendance.) In many ways it is a typical Giselle, comparable to so many others performed around the world. The curtain opens on a picturesque, autumnal scene (un-credited in the program), and rolls along to mostly familiar music by Adolphe Adam. However, some orchestrations do sound slightly different from the ones used in other productions. Count Albrecht’s entrance in the second act, for example, is accompanied by a clarinet, rather than the usual cello.
Wright makes a few changes to the look and manner in which the story unfolds. There is activity onstage even during the overture. We see Count Albrecth (the young Giselle’s suitor) changing into plain clothes in order to look like a commoner. Giselle’s hair hangs down instead of being pinned up. Hilarion, the local youth who is in love with Giselle, is depicted as a likeable fellow, the apple of Giselle’s mother’s eye. The celebratory “peasant pas de deux” in the first act is cut and replaced by a more complex sextet, later in the act. And so on. But the changes don’t significantly alter the feeling or flow of the ballet, though I did find it confusing when Giselle, who has gone mad because of her betrayal by Albrecht, both stabs herself and appears to die of a broken heart. Does she kill herself or does her heart give out?
I saw two casts, both led by principals in the company. On Friday evening, Giselle was Victoria Hulland, with Ricardo Rhodes as Albrecht. At the matinee the following day they were replaced by Danielle Brown and Luke Schaufuss, the latter of whom is the son of the Danish dancer and former artistic director of the English National Ballet (and Royal Danish Ballet) Peter Schaufuss. The younger Schaufuss joined Sarasota Ballet in 2019.
Both casts gave clear, well-articulated performances. Everything about this staging is clean and crisp. The corps, made up of what look like quite young dancers, is well rehearsed and musical. It is a production the company can be proud of. With one caveat: Like the musical interpretation of the score by the Sarasota Orchestra under the baton of Jared Oaks, this is a rather polite Giselle, lacking in urgency and élan. Seldom does the music accelerate breathlessly to communicate the characters’ delight or distress, or linger to underscore a moment of tenderness.
This leaves all the heavy lifting to the dancers. The dancing on both occasions was admirable. Hops on pointe, turns in attitude, beaten jumps, and partnering were unproblematic. Like all the dancers in the company, both Hulland and Brown use their upper bodies beautifully, with attention to epaulement – the twist and tilt of the torso – which adds shading and grace to the upper body. But a memorable performance of Giselle requires vulnerability, bravery, risk, qualities that were sometimes missing, particularly in the pairing of Hulland and Rhodes. The pacing a was a bit too leisurely, too safe. Added to that, their somewhat bland acting – lots of smiles in the first act – made for a less-than-dramatic arc. For example: toward the end of the ballet, when Albrecht is literally dancing for his life, Rhodes looked almost leisurely. This is the climax of the ballet, but the desperation was missing.
At the matinee, Danielle Brown and Luke Schaufuss were more connected, in movement and expressiveness. Brown danced with greater expansiveness and emotional contrast. There is a lovely lilt to the way she connects the steps into long phrases. Schaufuss has that naturalness in acting and mime that comes with Danish training. In the first act their dancing was playful, while in the second, the two exuded great tenderness. Schaufuss’s beaten jumps are spectacular – clear and forceful, with the legs crossing and re-crossing in the air. Theirs was a more exciting performance all around. I suspect it could be even more so with more risk-taking and speed.
The corps performed admirably throughout; in the second act, it achieved the poetry that makes Giselle such a beloved work. In this production, the Wilis, or spirits, that dominate this act wear long veils that sheathe them from head to knee at the start. The effect is haunting and beautiful. Myrtha, the queen of the Wilis, was commandingly danced by both Janae Korte and Lauren Ostrander. (Korte should perhaps soften her shoes a bit more to avoid the tap-tap-tapping of the pointes against the stage.) As one of Myrtha’s deputies, Ryoko Sadoshima stood out for the pliancy and expressiveness of her upper body. She might make a good Giselle someday. In the pas de six, Yuki Nonaka executed a series of impressive double tours, in which the dancer turns twice in the air, landing in a clean fifth position.
The one jarring element in the production is the cartoonishly snooty behavior of the group of aristocrats who show up in the village where Albrecht has been wooing Giselle. They are so haughty, so unsympathetic, that it is hard to believe that Giselle and Bathilde (to whom Albrecht is officially engaged) could ever strike up a conversation, as they do, or that Bathilde would deign to take shelter in Giselle’s house, as she does. There is obviously a class difference, but the aristocrats’ behavior needn’t be so exaggerated.
It is the one false note in an otherwise effective version of Giselle. That Sarasota Ballet, a relatively small company, performs it so well is a testimony the dancers’ hard work and Barbieri’s abilities as a stager. Now if they could just go a little bit further, let their hair down, and take a few risks, it could be even better.