Washington Ballet’s ‘Giselle’ overcomes first-act weaknesses with chilling brilliance

Sona Kharatian in the Washington Ballet's 2013 production of "Giselle." (Carol Pratt/Carol Pratt)

Is there a more perfect ballet than “Giselle” to see on Halloween?

In its second act, the ghosts of jilted women haunt a graveyard, killing one visiting mourner and bringing another within inches of death. It’s the kind of eerie fare that, when danced and staged right, can send a chill down your spine.

And in its Thursday performance at the Kennedy Center of the classic 19th-century story ballet, the Washington Ballet delivered an effective and appropriately unsettling take on that scene.

The Wilis, as the spurned women are known, dance against a backdrop in which a full moon slices through a smattering of ominous clouds, bathing Giselle’s imposing gravestone in a low light.

From their first entrance, when they barrel onstage with a headlong run that calls to mind a charging bull, they project a mercilessness that helps build suspense. Each bourree strikes so intently against the floor, and each arabesque is so rigid and precise, that a feeling builds in the pit of your stomach: Surely such an unforgiving flock will never let these men live.

Aurora Dickie danced the role of Myrtha, queen of the Wilis, with a serviceable icy chill, but it was really the collective power of the tightly rehearsed corps de ballet that set the tone in this section.

There’s one specter, though, who doesn’t share their vindictiveness. That’s our heroine, Giselle, who died of a broken heart in the first act after nice-guy suitor Hilarion reveals that Albrecht, her splashier second suitor, is an imposter who has been two-timing her.

You wouldn’t blame her ghost for wanting revenge, but instead, the benevolent Giselle attempts to use her powers to save her beloved Albrecht from the Wilis.

Maki Onuki, in the role of Giselle, and Brooklyn Mack, playing Albrecht, were at their best in this act. There was urgency each time Onuki reached for Mack, and there was authenticity in the way he seemed to crumble with guilt at her touch. Both dancers’ technical prowess was finely displayed in their solo variations, with Onuki harnessing remarkable control in her turns and Mack beating his legs like a hummingbird’s wings in his jumps.

The first act, however, lacked some of the persuasiveness of the second. Onuki wasn’t quite as believable as a gushy, fragile young woman of the earthly world. Her flirty gestures to Albrecht seemed a little put-on, and her carriage and movement were almost too assured, offering no foreshadowing of her forthcoming meltdown. (It should be noted, though, that Onuki was brilliant in the scene of her death, descending into a crazy-eyed, loose-limbed despair and madness that was so raw it almost made you want to turn away.)

Mack’s first-act portrayal of Albrecht was also a bit flawed. Albrecht is a have-it-both-ways fraudster whose lies break his lover’s heart. We’re not supposed to like him. And yet Mack is so magnetic and charming, you kind of feel bad for the guy. He comes off more as a clueless dude in a rom-com than a selfish jerk deserving of scorn.

For both lead dancers, the acting-heavy nature of the first act seemed outside their comfort zones. But that was not the case for Jared Nelson, who played Hilarion. Nelson was highly believable, from his jealous lurches at Albrecht to his longing glances at the obviously unimpressed Giselle. From the moment he steps on stage and makes small talk with Giselle’s mother and helps her with chores, you can tell why this man ends up as an also-ran: He’s a little too earnest and strait-laced for the heart-on-her-sleeve heroine.


The Washington Ballet. Performances through Sunday at the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater, 2700 F St. NW. Call 202-467-4600 or go to www.kennedy-center.org.

Sarah Halzack is The Washington Post's national retail reporter. She has previously covered the local job market and the business of talent and hiring. She has also served as a Web producer for business and economic news.



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