It was a real pleasure to welcome the National Ballet of Canada back to Washington last night, in the first of a week of performances at the Carter Barron Amphitheatre. Though this troupe of some 65 dancers, founded in 1951, is one of the most ambitions and widely traveled ballet companies of our continent, it has been many years since it was last in this city. The current visit also marks its first appearance here under the aegis of its present artistic director, the former Royal Ballet (of England) dancer Alexander Grant, who assumed his post in 1976. About 2,500 spectators gave the troupe a warm reception.
The opening night fare was the company's production of "Giselle," with Veronica Tennant and Peter Schaufuss as the tragically deluded peasant girl and her princely suitor. This is not the "Giselle" to which we are most accustomed. Staged by Peter Wright, who also mounted the romantic staple for the Stuttgart Ballet and other companies, it isn't exactly a revelatory version, like the one Mary Skeaping did for London Festival Ballet, seen here a few years back.
But the ways in which it diverges from the David Blair production for American Ballet Theatre -- the "Giselle" Washingtonians know most thoroughly -- does throw intriguing new shadings onto the ballet as a whole. The unfamiliar elements range from a wind machine to add to the ghostly atmosphere of the scene with the Wilis, to sundry details of dramaturgy and choreography. In general, this is a more intimately scaled "Giselle" than ABT's both in its formal outlines and actual steps.
The opening night performance was respectable and interesting, rather than stirring. Almost inevitably, its most impressive aspect was the performance of Albrecht by Schaufuss, since he is the company's one indisputably "world class" dancer. Reared in the Royal Danish Ballet, a former member of the New York City Ballet, and a guest with virtually every major Western troupe, he now dances regularly with both the Canadians and London Festival Ballet.
Schaufuss is without question one of ballet's foremost male stars. He couples a brilliant, immaculate technique to an enormously forceful presence -- in many ways he's long seemed the Danish Villella, and at 31, he's at the very peak of his powers.
He was a spendid Albrecht indeed, last night. In Act I, his eyes scarcely ever left Giselle, convincing us from the outset that this was no casual flirtation for him but a deeply serious affair -- not the only way to color the role, but certainly a viable one. His was also a very youthful, not quite confident Albrecht, rather than the assured man-of-the-world one often sees. Technically, his dancing seemed restrained, reined in, but it was unerring in line and dramatic import.
Next to him, Veronica Tennant's Giselle seemed rather pallid. It was a refined, neatly schooled performance with some very nice touches, particularly in Act I. But it lacked urgency somehow, and the lugubriously slow tempos she took in Act II didn't make up for the missing ethereality. Her mad scene, moreover, looked woodenly schematic, as if every pose and gesture were rigidly programmed.
Though the performance as a whole was well groomed, few other individual protrayals bore much distinction, aside from Karen Tessmer's charming contribution in the Peasant Pas de Quatre (it's set for four rather than two in this production), and Jacques Gorrissen's saturnine Hilarion. Nadia Potts' Myrtha was on the blank side, and the corps de ballet, which was very sprightly and rhythmically pointed in the peasant dances of the first act, was less persuasive in the more challenging, unearthly Wili sequences. Desmond Heeley's decor and costumes are both appealing and effective, but conductor George Crum's revision and reorchestration of the Adolphe Adam score does nothing but meretricious mischief for the music.