It's been a year since the Dance Theatre of Harlem brought its Creole "Giselle" to Washington, and last night's performance of the ballet -- the first of this season's Kennedy Center Opera House run -- reaffirmed the impression that this is a production that has more than novelty to recommend it.
This award-winning production, with its masterful designs by Carl Michel, sets the ballet in the freed black society of 1880s Louisiana. While changing the setting of a classic is more common in drama than in ballet, this production shows there is no reason for that to be the case. For this "Giselle" works. If anything, the squarely faithful staging by Frederic Franklin of the original choreography could have provided more touches acknowledging the change. There are, for example, some annoying anachronisms. However, when the production does adapt to its locale, there are some memorable touches, such as opening Act 2 with a crapshoot in the bayou cemetery where Giselle is entombed.
This opening cast of Virginia Johnson as Giselle and Eddie J. Shellman as Albert proved rather reticent. Shellman's Albert seemed buffeted by events, and his motivations, particularly as Giselle's lover, were unclear. Johnson is a translucent beauty who believably captures the heart of Giselle as a naive young girl in the throes of first love. However, her limpid dancing lacked amplitude, and her allegro passages were decidedly weak. Her mad scene, though, was quite effective -- she already seemed a wraith, foreshadowing the Wili she would become.
It was the secondary roles that were gripping, distinguished by persuasive mime and acting. Lowell Smith's Hilarion was just about perfect. The sympathetic blunderer of Act 1 became the terror-stricken captive of the Wilis in Act 2, kowtowing in vain for his life. Cassandra Phifer's Berthe suffused Act 1 with her warmth and openness, and the majestic Myrta of Lorraine Graves was a frighteningly formidable specter driven to paroxysms by Giselle's protection of Albert. Even Theara Ward's Bathilde was spunky and willing to fight for her man. The corps, too, was remarkable for its supreme discipline.
The program also included "Troy Game," Robert North's wry celebration of macho competition and body-building camp, he-man curtain calls and all.
The program will be repeated today at 2 and tomorrow at 7:30, as well as next weekend, with cast changes in "Giselle" today and next Saturday.