How fitting it is that the effects of the Washington Ballet’s leadership under Julie Kent should first be seen — and felt — in “Giselle,” a ballet about transformation and devotion.
One expects change when a new artistic director takes over, as Kent did half a year ago. But in Thursday’s opening-night performance at the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater, marking the start of the company’s spring season, it was clear that Kent’s touch is a subtle and sensitive one, apparent in such artistic intangibles as musicality, an apt quality of airiness and an overall attention to detail.
It’s tempting to equate the changes she has brought to the company to the refinements of Giselle herself — and it’s an equation that works. Just as the ballet’s heroine transforms and ennobles her capricious lover through the force of her devotion, so have Kent and Associate Artistic Director Victor Barbee molded and polished their dancers in nuanced but perceptible ways. They’ve done this through their devoted connections to “Giselle” (Kent was one of the country’s standout interpreters of the leading role), forged over their long careers with American Ballet Theatre.
Kent and Barbee have made large, concrete improvements as well. They have returned the Washington Ballet orchestra to the pit, with Charles Barker, ABT’s principal conductor, wielding the baton for this production. And they have put Maki Onuki, who was Thursday’s Giselle, on the path to becoming a great ballerina.
Onuki has long been the company’s technical star, but she is not a natural Giselle, the physically frail yet spiritually transcendent peasant girl who dies when her lover betrays her, then rises from her grave to protect and forgive him. Onuki’s interpretation is not yet complete; in the first act especially, she has not yet developed Giselle’s inner story, though she comfortably sails through the buoyant physical demands and should even downshift her power. After all, she is supposed to be hyper-vulnerable. Yet I cannot recall seeing a ballerina improve so quickly. Onuki looks longer, lighter and more emotionally responsive. In Act II’s graveyard setting, she steps down from her tomb as a fleshly whirlwind, then grows more spectral, more a thing of spirit and mist, as the act progresses. In her final pas de deux with Albrecht (Rolando Sarabia), the dishonest lover who seeks forgiveness in the moonlight, Onuki seems to leave the world of the body, nearly drifting out of Sarabia’s arms, leaving behind only an impression of tenderness.
As Albrecht, Sarabia possesses a sure yet soft-edged romantic style, but on a dramatic level he remained bewilderingly subdued and unknowable on opening night, giving little sign he was living the ballet along with the rest of the cast.
Kent’s influence is felt mostly among the female dancers all down the line, from Onuki’s weightless carriage of her arms to the distinct charm and liveliness of the corps de ballet and their feathery, well-shaped footwork, particularly apparent among the Wilis, the white-gowned ghosts of jilted virgins. There were several small, memorable moments, such as when Sona Kharatian, as Bathilde, the noblewoman to whom Albrecht is engaged, steps threateningly toward Onuki’s Giselle. Albrecht’s truth has been exposed, Giselle won’t believe it, and Bathilde, in a flash of chesty intimidation, means to shove it down the peasant girl’s throat.
Later, Kateryna Derechyna’s excellent Myrta, queen of the Wilis, echoed this same broad-shouldered, imperious body language, icily shaded with aggression.
This production is evolving. With beautifully chosen sets and costumes, it stands now as an appealing visual, musical and movement experience, but it is not yet entirely compelling as a drama. Albrecht’s longing for escape from royal confines, and Giselle’s ill health — these essential character qualities beg further exploration. The tensions between Hilarion (Gian Carlo Perez), the rival for Giselle’s love, and Albrecht don’t feel consequential, not enough to cause the plot to wheel toward tragedy.
“Giselle,” which premiered in 1841, may not be the most technically demanding ballet, but it demands stylistic unity. Massaging a small ensemble into a multidimensional company capable of performing historic and modern styles of ballet is a task that requires time and repetition. I hope the Washington Ballet will return to “Giselle,” to allow the progress made for this brief run to bloom.
The Washington Ballet performs “Giselle,” staged by Julie Kent and Victor Barbee, through March 5, with cast changes. Tickets: $33-$130. 202- 467-4600. kennedy-center.org.