October 18, 2007

Joffrey right en pointe with Giselle

I felt nervous for Gerald Arpino. On Wednesday night, he sat watching the Joffrey Ballet dance the opening night performance, as he has done for the past 50 years—but this time was different. The 2007–2008 Joffrey Ballet season, which opened on Wednesday with a captivating rendition of the classic ghost story Giselle, will be the first in which the company is helmed by someone other than Arpino or Robert Joffrey, who co-founded the company in 1956.

During their tenure, the company acquired the much-deserved reputation of ingeniously marrying classical vocabulary and contemporary sensibility. When the reputation is sterling, there’s a lot to lose. Wednesday night, the pressure was on as Chicago balletomanes had their first opportunity to gauge the new leadership of one of America’s foremost ballet companies. Judging by the premiere, it appears that Arpino can relax, as the company—now under the direction of veteran Joffrey dancer Ashley Wheater—is in good hands.

Giselle, first performed by the Paris Opera Ballet in 1841, is a haunting story of betrayal and redemption. Set in a small Rhineland village, the ballet tells the story of a young peasant girl who falls in love with Loys, who is really the already-betrothed Prince Albrecht masquerading in peasant’s clothes. Giselle does not return the affections of local gamekeeper Hilarion and instead becomes Loys’s second fiancée. When a hunting party led by the Duke and his daughter Bathilde enters the village, the royal girl and Giselle forge a friendship based on their shared experience as engaged maidens. Unbeknownst to them, they are engaged to the same man. In the conclusion of the first act, Bathilde identifies Loys/Prince Albrecht as her fiancé, and Giselle, driven mad with grief, stabs herself through the heart and dies.

The second act opens in a deserted churchyard, where Hilarion goes to visit Giselle’s grave. He is intercepted by the Wilis, specters of young girls betrayed in love who are fated to prowl the forest at night, seeking vengeance on any man they meet. The beautiful, tragic virgins attempt to drive Hilarion to his death and initiate Giselle into the sad sorority. The girls also intend to kill Albrecht, who is overwhelmed with guilt and pays a visit to Giselle’s grave. Giselle forgives Albrecht for his betrayal and protects him, and, as dawn approaches, all of the girls return to their graves. As the curtain falls, a devastated Albrecht is left alone.

This piece is one of the most famous in classical ballet but has never previously been performed by the Joffrey. It was well worth the wait.

From the gorgeous Turner-esque backdrops and sumptuous velvet costumes to the sensitive, passionate performance of principal dancer Victoria Jaiani, the Joffrey’s version of Giselle is an exquisite production. Though the company has often been criticized for lacking technical proficiency, in this instance, their famed artistry more than compensates for any technical limitations.

Jasmine Heiss, a dancer with UBallet and my date for the premiere, agreed. “What I like about the Joffrey is that they are artists,” she said. “The dancers do so many things wrong, but I’d rather watch them than any Russian company. A Russian Swan Lake is perfect, but that’s all it is. When Calvin Kitten performs a petit allegro, he may never close his feet in fifth position, but he’s smiling so big and dancing so completely that it doesn’t matter anymore.”

Indeed, Kitten may be diminutive, but his dynamic stage presence as a Pea is larger than life. Certainly, his tense, clenched hands detract from his powerful petit allegro, but he is positively radiant. Similarly, his partner and fellow Pea, Jennifer Goodman, demonstrates a generosity of spirit, effortless musicality, and unaffected grace that render her technical limitations unimportant.

Less impressive were the performances that were both technically uninspired and artistically empty. I was really disappointed in Erica Lynette Edwards’s portrayal of Zulma, one of the lead Wilis. Edwards’s passionate performance was one of my favorites in last spring’s Light Rain, but in Giselle, she doesn’t seem emotionally invested in the role.

Other writers have argued that this ballet was an unusual addition to the Joffrey’s repertoire, but I disagree. It makes perfect sense: Giselle is one of the few truly psychological ballets, in which the prima’s mental state disintegrates before our eyes. The “Mad Scene,” in which Giselle descends into the depths of delusion, is one of the most famous and most artistically demanding moments in classical ballet.

In desperate, lurching, affected movements, Giselle recreates the first brief moments of her fleeting love affair, and her face must project depression and disturbance that is visible from even the back row. Victoria Jaiani, last seen as one of the Season’s Fairies in last year’s production of Cinderella, performed the role with grace and gusto.

Jaiani, at her best in the final pas de deux with Prince Albrecht, is an ethereal waif reminiscent of two of the most celebrated ballerinas of all time. She has the body and gravity-defying leaps of Gelsey Kirkland and the expressive epaulement and gorgeous feet of Natalia Makarova. Jaiani was perfectly cast—her performance captured all of Giselle’s girlish humility, exuberance, and innocence. I can’t speak for Prince Albrecht, but I know that Giselle haunted me long after the sun came up.