Paradoxically, the Dance Theatre of Harlem's already celebrated Creole version of "Giselle" -- the focus of the company's program at the Kennedy Center Opera House last night at the start of a week-long engagement -- seemed at once a remarkable triumph and a letdown.
The conception, by DTH artistic director Arthur Mitchell and designer Carl Michel, is truly wonderful. The production, in all its graphic and theatrical aspects, is superb. The stage picture, the ambiance and much of the acting are awash in romantic atmosphere.
But romance itself was absent, or nearly enough so to rob the performance, as seen last night, of all but tepid emotional impact. Missing too was the sense of tragic doom and spiritual redemption that has made "Giselle" the very emblem of balletic romanticism.
It wasn't the concept, the setting or the acting that was at fault. It was the dancing and the music -- dancing that fulfilled the outward requirements of Frederic Franklin's circumspect choreographic reconstruction but left the ballet's inner needs unattended, and music, under the direction of Charles Darden, that skipped along at such a brisk pace it was almost impossible to imagine anything melancholy in relation to it.
The DTH "Giselle" is the realization of Mitchell's longstanding dream to breathe new life into a shopworn classic, and thereby inspire his company, by giving the ballet a credible American background. Hence, the story takes place not in the medieval Rhineland but in antebellum Louisiana, the first act on a farm, the second in the bayou. Giselle is daughter of a freed slave in a community of free blacks -- the social gulf between her and her lover Albert (Albrecht in traditional versions) isn't that between peasant and noble, but between a farm girl and a wealthy plantation owner. Not only does all this -- based on painstaking historical research -- make perfect dramatic sense, it also seems natural enough to have been the original dramatic scenario.
Moreover, in many ways the new treatment does inspire the troupe, and revivify the ballet. The transposition to America, the believable social stratification, the place and the period -- all handsomely wrought in visual terms by Michel's sets and costumes -- are a real source of refreshment.And the DTH cast goes at it with a contagious gusto -- it makes you feel you're watching the premiere of a "period" ballet that was composed yesterday. The mime sequences in Act 1, as one example among many one could cite, have a conversational directness about them that dispatches all thought of museum-piece artificiality.
The problem was at the core of the ballet, in its principal players. Virginia Johnson, last night's Giselle, is an exceptionally gifted and appealing dancer who's performed exquisitely in countless DTH productions. But for all her elegance and warm presence, she seemed technically, stylistically and artistically unequal to this role. Mitchell has said he didn't want his "Giselle" to be just another vehicle for a ballerina, but rather an integral ensemble drama -- a laudable objective. But Giselle is a role in which nothing can take the place of technique and style, which are its indispensable means of tragic expression -- Giselle is her dancing. Her turnout, the shape of her arabesque, the contour of her steps, the line of her arms -- these aren't adornments, but visible embodiments of Giselle's love, her despair, her courage. Besides, we have all those images in our heads -- from prints, films and the stage itself -- of dancers who have made these poses and movements into transcendent poetry.
The weakness wasn't Johnson's alone. Eddie Shellman danced with a great deal of authority and e'lan as Albert, but neither his dancing nor his acting had much ardor -- he seemed aloof, and nothing much in the way of emotional current was detectable between him and Giselle. Lorraine Graves had an aptly regal look as Myrta, queen of the Wilis, but her dancing lacked a matching rigor, grandeur or fury. The best dancing, aside from some fine contributions from the ensembles of farm folk and Wilis, came from Judy Tyrus and Joseph Cipolla in the "Peasant Pas de Deux," but the piece remained what it's always been -- a dramatically extraneous diversion. In any case, much of the dancing throughout the ballet had to work against the uncomfortably rapid tempos of the Adolphe Adam score in conductor Darden's interpretation.
Be all this as it may, it doesn't detract from the DTH achievement -- Mitchell and Michel have given us, at the very least, a framework for a splendidly rejuvenated "Giselle." Another cast (there'll be one for Sunday's matinee), or even, conceivably, the same cast on another occasion, may supply the requisites that appeared missing last night -- the prerequisites are furnished by the production.
"Troy Game," the evening's superfluous opener, was notable mainly for displaying the gallant bravura of some newer and lesser known DTH males such as Cubie Burke, Tyrone Brooks and especially Carld Jonassaint.