“Giselle” tells its story in circles. Looping paths and echoes course throughout, one scene mirroring another. This is underscored visually by circular dance motifs that were made exceptionally clear on opening night of American Ballet Theatre’s production at the Kennedy Center.
It was neither an especially suspenseful nor dramatic account of the tale of betrayal and salvation. Instead, it was deeply lyrical. Seo set the tone right away with her supple precision, a combination of effortless technical command and musical shading. As Giselle’s conflicted beau, Albrecht, Cory Stearns matched Seo’s refinement in his buoyancy and understatement.
For both dancers, the sweet sadness of Act 2’s moonlit graveside setting was a more natural home than the colorful realism of the first act’s wine festival, where the dancing was lively but the drama somewhat subdued. Yet this ballet doesn’t need to be forcefully acted out to be successful. The quiet, delicate touch of the leading performers allowed the story’s echoes to come forward. To name one: Seo and Stearns created a Giselle and Albrecht who are much alike, more so than in other versions. They’re both in denial — Giselle about her poor health, Albrecht about his poor judgment in hiding his true identity as a nobleman who’s got another girl.
The strongest circular story line loops Giselle’s love of dancing in Act 1 with her reappearance in Act 2 as a Wili, one of the spirits of dead virgins who dance at night. She couldn’t satisfy her love of dancing in life; now she is consigned to dance for eternity. Yet while dancing is partly to blame for her death (that and the shock of Albrecht’s betrayal), it is the means by which she saves Albrecht’s life when he visits her grave and is set upon by the vengeful Wilis. Without a touch, Seo seemed to lift Stearns into the air with her beseeching, sweeping arms, raising him from exhaustion. The emotional power of this ballet hinges on such moments, when gesture and music are carefully aligned.
A victim falling to the ground after a crazed, breathless dance — this image circled through the ballet, from Seo’s mad scene at the climax of Act 1 to Stearns’s choreographed collapses in the Act 2 finale. Weaponized dancing is a potent motif: Seo’s stunning series of turns after she rises from her grave are tinged with frightening fury as well as ecstasy. And Devon Teuscher’s decisive Myrta, queen of the Wilis, delivered the message that dance has a dark power here in her own series of supernatural-looking turns, so smooth and airy as to be chilling.
Teuscher also brought out a passionate quality in Myrta, as a ghostly woman who remembers living and loving, and regards Seo’s Giselle with a touch of sympathy, even as she condemns Albrecht to death. Watching her, my thoughts circled back to the Act 1 character of Bathilde, Albrecht’s royal fiancee. Vividly portrayed by corps member Brittany DeGrofft, Bathilde foreshadowed Myrta, depicting a proud authority figure who is lovely to Giselle at first, only to shift quickly to cold hostility.
At the time of the premiere of “Giselle” in 1841, ballet and opera were close cousins, and you hear that in Adolphe Adam’s score. It ripples with melodies that feel like arias, from the moment Giselle steps out of her cottage to a silvery tune that brings birdsong and breaking dawn to mind. Conductor Ormsby Wilkins brought out this singing quality in the music; the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra has never sounded clearer or more animated. From the lyricism of the music and dancing to the movement motifs that deepened the story, this was a seamless performance.
Giselle Presented by American Ballet Theatre through Sunday at the Kennedy Center. $49-$295. kennedy-center.org.