When the contemporary-centric Washington Ballet started putting on old-school full-length productions a few years ago -- "Romeo and Juliet," "Cinderella," "Coppelia" -- the results were serviceable but unremarkable. None of the story ballets has been a particularly good fit for this troupe of able dancers with uneven acting skills.
"Giselle," which the company is performing for the first time in its 27-year history, is a significant step up. The modesty and gentleness of this work's mid-19th-century origins have been preserved, even as the dancers have endeavored to inject some potency into its tale of scorched innocence and transcendent forgiveness.
Artistic Director Septime Webre and Charla Genn, a teacher and choreographer who collaborated with Webre on this production, set out to stage an earnest, traditional "Giselle," which opened Thursday at the Kennedy Center's Eisenhower Theater. This is a good thing. The ballet has endured for more than 160 years for a reason -- and wisely, the directors did not muck up its winding ensemble formations, folkloric peasant dances and musically cued mime. In fact, what pulled this production together was the profoundly lyrical, time-tested choreography.
The corps de ballet was not up to every challenge. The footwork got sloppy in the up-tempo ensemble sections, primarily among the men. Opening night featured some unfulfilling dramatic moments. But the overall concept is sturdy and clear, and with experience this ballet ought to serve the company well.
It is also one of the company's more visually appealing productions, fitted out with rented sets and costumes. The first act's woodsy hamlet, with a castle looming in the distance, was lit with a coppery glow. The first-act costumes -- rich earth tones with elegant trim details -- were handsome, if a bit too chic for the rustics who wore them. When the corps ladies first gathered onstage, there was a lot of excited "don't-you-just-love-this-dress" mime that would be more fitting for the natty partygoers in "The Nutcracker." In these moments as in others, the dancers had little idea what to do with themselves when they were not dancing, which was one of this production's chief faults. But they looked terribly attractive just the same.
In the title role, Michele Jimenez demonstrated that one of her most precious assets is not her sterling technique or beauty, but an endearing generosity of spirit that draws in the audience whatever her role. Her Giselle lacked the frailty that foreshadows her tragic end, but was a deeply sympathetic and appealing creature. You could believe she had captivated every peasant boy onstage, which is why they all seemed genuinely distraught during her well-acted "mad" scene.
Less successful was Rasta Thomas, making a guest appearance as Albrecht, the nobleman who hides his identity to woo Giselle despite being already betrothed. Thomas has the looks and impressively sculpted build of a heartbreaker, and he dances on a grand, sweeping scale. But his Albrecht was starchy and unfeeling, unable to hold the audience's attention when he wasn't moving. At the climactic end of the first act, when his character is exposed as a two-timing fraud and Giselle suffers a fatal breakdown, Thomas stands blandly rooted in place, waiting for his next cue.
As Hilarion, Albrecht's rival for Giselle's attentions, Duncan Cooper was also an odd casting choice. He replaced company member Jason Hartley, who has undergone knee surgery. Like Thomas, Cooper is a refugee from the shuttered Dance Theatre of Harlem. Unlike Thomas, he is a veteran of that company, and having been groomed in its dramatic tradition, would undoubtedly have brought more texture to the leading role. In the secondary role of the snubbed boyfriend, he made a poignant and deeply felt case for Giselle's heart, yet his talents were largely wasted.
As a model of a well-matched, harmonious couple -- in contrast with Giselle and Albrecht's doomed upstairs-downstairs love affair -- Laura Urgelles and Jonathan Jordan danced a bright, crisp peasant pas de deux that was animated without being too showy.
The second act was especially fine. Erin Mahoney brought a tranquil, pearly melancholy to her role as Myrta, commander of the vengeful Wilis, the phantoms of dead virgins who welcome Giselle's ghost among their number. The corps shone here, and with Thomas having more dancing to do as he sought redemption from Giselle's spirit, and Jimenez as soft and pliant as a contented cat, this act achieved some moments of thrilling grandeur.
The taped orchestration of the Adolphe Adam score was an unfortunate and pervasive off-note; it boomed and crashed as if this ballet were about Armageddon instead of the delicacy of the human heart.
This is far from a perfect production, but it is a promising one. It seems clear that Webre and Genn wanted not only to stage a "Giselle," but also to stage a lovely "Giselle," and for the most part, they have succeeded.
This production continues through tomorrow, with cast changes.