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Washington Ballet’s ‘Giselle’ brims with charm and musical delights

In production at the Warner Theatre through Sunday, the emphasis is on fine dancing, while storytelling could be sharper

The Washington Ballet's Eun Won Lee as Giselle and Gian Carlo Perez as Albrecht on opening night Thursday at the Warner Theatre of “Giselle.” (xmb Photography)

The charm factor is off the charts in the Washington Ballet’s production of “Giselle,” which immerses its Warner Theatre audience in the sun-splashed hills of medieval Germany, and a village so picturesque that the royal family finds itself there on an outing, mingling easily with hospitable commoners.

Even as things fall apart, when the romantic hero who’s been wooing sweet, oblivious Giselle turns out to be a two-timing duke in disguise, there’s little disruption in the gentle quality of this production. On Thursday’s opening night, both Eun Won Lee as Giselle and Gian Carlo Perez as Albrecht, the dishonest duke, shared a soft quality, as if moving through water. Gestures were unhurried and sustained. Their jumps landed silently, as if their bodies were weightless. (There are alternate casts throughout the run, which continues through Sunday.)

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In fact, you barely heard a footfall throughout this two-act ballet, significant considering how close one sits to the action in the Warner’s relatively compact hall, and the fact that rapid and frequent jumps are a hallmark of the choreography. Conveying an otherworldly quality of flight is essential, and the Washington Ballet excelled in this, especially in the second act, when the ghost of Giselle rises from her grave after succumbing to a broken heart and whirls about to save Albrecht from the vengeance of her similarly light-footed and spectral sisterhood.

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The Washington Ballet Orchestra, under the baton of Charles Barker, principal conductor at American Ballet Theatre, offered a sparkling account of Adolphe Adam’s music, underscoring its lyricism and operatic churn. Barker and Ormsby Wilkins, ABT’s music director, orchestrated the score; it is a perfect match for the ballet’s small but deeply talented orchestra.

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The quality of dancing in this production is high, a credit to the attention to the technique and details of the ballet’s romantic era that Artistic Director Julie Kent and Associate Artistic Director Victor Barbee brought to their staging. (They are both former, long-serving artists with ABT, hence the conductor connections.) They unveiled this production in 2017, in their inaugural season at the company.

At that time, the respectful care of the directors and dancers was evident. But the drama of “Giselle,” the storytelling part, was underserved. That’s still an area for improvement. The tone is so evenhanded throughout the two acts that the story loses focus here and there. It’s not that tension and high emotion don’t exist in “Giselle,” one of the oldest ballets that’s still regularly performed — they do, but the dancers need help in conveying to the audience what’s going on and what’s at stake for this attractive pair of lovers.

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It’s telling that for all the clean buoyancy of the opening scenes of Act I — Giselle’s bashful encounter with Albrecht, their well-mannered dances together and with the villagers — the ballet truly came to life when Sona Kharatian swept on. On Thursday, she played the character role of Bathilde, the princess to whom Albrecht is engaged — a dangerous little fact that he’s kept secret from Giselle. Kharatian, a veteran company member and rehearsal assistant, has always been a dancer of keen dramatic fire and stage-filling charisma. Those qualities electrified her non-dancing role here: Her expressive transition from blithely condescending royal to authentically captivated admirer of Giselle anchored the ballet in something real.

It was Kharatian’s moment in this scene — watching her hard heart melt — that cast Giselle in a new light. Kharatian’s Bathilde helps us see through the class distinctions, as this ballet boldly instructs us to do, to open up and view a person different from oneself with sympathy and affection. How revolutionary. After all, “Giselle” premiered in Paris in 1841, amid growing social unrest.

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Oscar Sanchez, as Hilarion, the rustic villager who vies with Albrecht for Giselle’s affections, also added necessary texture to his character. He walked differently from Albrecht and the royals, with more shouldery, lateral movement. He slumped heavily when he knelt in devotion at Giselle’s feet, in contrast to Perez’s upright control.

As it is, the dancing in this production reads quite beautifully as abstract patterns and period mannerisms and flourishes of clean technique. Yet it is, of course, designed to do much more than that. It is intended to depict human vulnerabilities and pierce the heart. The story is timeless, as resident scholar Natalie Rouland writes in the program booklet, pointing out the ballet’s themes of upper-class corruption and the (terrifying) power of organized women, as embodied in the second act’s ghostly Wilis.

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Then there’s the moral injustice of “Giselle.” Albrecht’s philandering has a high cost: The girl he has wronged dies, and so does her most loyal suitor. Her mother is left brokenhearted, the village is put in an uproar, the royal court is scandalized. And Albrecht? He’s showered in lilies and love beyond the grave, offered a metaphysical forgiveness by the ghost of his dead honey. He’s alone, to be sure, but spiritually improved, with his future before him.

So many flames wait to be stoked here. A dance dramaturge might help this company mine the dramatic potential, sharpen the narrative impact and lift this production just that much higher from where it stands now: an appealing portrait of a bygone time, tenderly preserved.

The Washington Ballet performs “Giselle” through Sunday, with cast changes, at the Warner Theatre, 13th and E streets NW. $56-$124. According to the company, select seats are available for $40 (plus fees) using the code SPRING. washingtonballet.org.

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