The Louisville Ballet ends its 2017-2018 season Saturday night with an exceptional production of Giselle at the Brown Theatre. As Producing and Artistic Director Robert Curran notes in the program, this is his second Giselle in Louisville, having staged the production in his first season here in 2014.
This year’s production benefits from being at the Brown. The 19th century intimacy of this theater is far more conducive to the emotional tenor of this iconic Romantic ballet than is the Kentucky Center’s Whitney Hall where I’ve seen two previous productions.
Although Giselle was originally staged in 1841 with choreography attributed to Jules Perrot and Jean Coralli, production choreographers Curran and Ballet Master Harald Uwe Kern have taken their inspiration from the Russian revivals of Marius Petipa later in that century. While there are parallels with the 2014 version staged by the “artistic staff” of the company, this iteration has more focus, stronger technique, and is grounded in a psychological realism that makes more accessible and palpable the emotions of the original Romantic ballet.
The one disappointment in the evening is that the Louisville Ballet is reliant on a recorded version of the music. Audiences have become spoiled by live music for all productions in recent seasons. I have to wonder if this is what gave audience members license to talk through the overtures to both acts on opening night…Nonetheless, the unaccredited recording worked well.
Natalia Ashikhmina and Mark Krieger, as Giselle and Albrecht, are charming together and well matched technically. There is a moment in Act One when the two are completely smitten with each other, gazing in to each other’s eyes and, seemingly unconsciously, they step forward together, absolutely synchronized in tone and technique. Truly Giselle and Albrecht are soul mates. The dividend of this moment is immanently realized when in Act Two, Albrecht is kneeling, his fate in the balance, and the shade of Giselle glides into, almost through, him and the two are in suspension together bridging their two worlds. A breathtaking moment of simplicity and power.
Krieger has brought strong acting skills to his work since debuting in The Lady of the Camellias. This version of Giselle allows him to show his comedic as well as dramatic skills together with impressive elevation in his solos. Ashikhmina too gets to embrace some light comedy before demonstrating Giselle’s inherent frailty which leads to her death. Her mad scene is disturbing in its quietness and simplicity, the unraveling of an unsophisticated girl’s world.
Hilarion (Ryan Stokes) is too frequently played merely as a simple comedic foil to the noble Albrecht. Here, Stokes and choreographers Curran and Kern find his humanity, thus grounding the two swains’ conflict over Giselle in a way that is recognizable. Too, Wilfred, Albrecht’s squire is often a mere cypher. Rob Morrow makes tangible the risks of being in the employ of one used to getting his own way.
Curran and Kern also establish an almost musical comedy environment in early Act One — a familiar triangle of the shy young girl, the assured suitor, and the “boy next door” — ably supported by the bright, up-tempo accompaniment. Ripples of chuckles throughout the auditorium demonstrated that the audience was falling for the relationships. No forebodings of tragedy until Bathilde’s unexpected warning.
Leigh Anne Albrechta and Benjamin Wetzel are highlighted in the Act One Peasant Pas de Deux, bringing a crisp brio to the variation. Their joy and pride in dancing for the visiting court was palpable, their smiles reflected in those of the audience.
Giselle is, of course, female-centric and the women’s corps was impressively cohesive in both acts, highlighting the stylistic differences in each one. There is a sequence in Act Two in which all of the Wilis — a group of supernatural women who dance men to death — exit in multiple lines in a low arabesque; its precision earned the corps one of many rounds of applause during the evening. Earlier, in the village, the women’s clean and sharp footwork, balanced with elegant, flowing arm work is a mark of the strides the women’s corps has made in Curran’s tenure.
Kateryna Sellars always brings magnificent presence to her roles, and this is true of her as Myrtha, Queen of the Wilis. On opening night it took a while for Sellars to find the otherworldly regality of this role; early variations appearing too effortful and earth-bound. Shelby Shenkman and Leigh Anne Albrechta as Myrthe’s attendants are appropriately ethereal.
Story ballets are always a strong component of the Louisville Ballet’s wheelhouse. And this Giselle exemplifies that strength. With both Romeo and Juliet and Cinderella in next season, here’s to keeping that tradition alive.
Featured image: Natalia Ashikhmina as Giselle.