PNB gives “Giselle” its local premiere this weekend

Pacific Northwest Ballet principal dancer Kaori Nakamura as Giselle. Photo Angela Sterling

By R.M. Campbell

Pacific Northwest Ballet has taken three decades to come to glories of “Giselle,” which it did this weekend at McCaw Hall. Nothing much compares with this ballet, which has iconic status in the canon. It must succeed not through fortissimo gestures but pianissimo ones, those that hold us through subtlety and sheer beauty. Nearly all the great ballerinas of the past 150 years have taken on the title role — the list is astonishing. It represents “a superb chance to captivate, to dazzle, and to touch the heart,” to borrow a description from eminent dance critic Edwin Denby.

While the production — that is, sets and costumes, designed by Peter Farmer, for Houston Ballet — is well-worn, the concept is unique — a variant of the traditional one by virtue of newly employed historical sources. While differences in text and choreography are minimal — they will seem of little consequence to most ballet patrons — the professional dance world is fascinated, enough that the Dance Critics Association is holding its annual meeting in Seattle this week in order to see for themselves. It is this “new” version that makes PNB’s production novel.

There are many beautiful moments in the production. One is grateful because the decor is tired. The beauty comes from the dancing alone. Indeed, one could ask whether the company should have waited until it had sufficient resources to mount something entirely new. Even though PNB is financially healthy — it will end the season with a surplus — it can be argued that it will be sometime before freshly minted sets and costumes can be afforded. So, the question is the following — wait for the money to arrive or proceed as is. For a town that has never had a “Giselle” of its own, there is plenty of reason to venture forth, which PNB has done.

The company has put all of its energy into this production. The corps — some 16 Willis — in the second act has been coached with sophistication and meticulous care and knowledge, by people like Elaine Bauer of the PNB faculty, who danced the role of Giselle at Boston Ballet. While Peter Boal, artistic director, is responsible for pushing the project forward, and is given credit in the program for staging the ballet, he never danced the piece. New York City Ballet, where he spent most of his dancing career, does not do “Giselle.” But he has taste. That kind of influence told the tale in the second act with its poetic grace and articulation.

Despite all the discussion of the new contributions to this ballet, being danced for the first time by PNB, the essential credits still go to Jean Coralli and Jules Perrot, choreographers of the original “Giselle,” in 1841 in Paris, and Marius Petipa who came up with his version (additions and subtractions of the original) in St. Petersburg 43 years later. The choreographic reconstruction of the new discoveries is credited to Doug Fullington, who is listed in the program as assistant to the artistic director. He is really PNB’s resident intellectual and scholar, who has spent much time over the past decade researching archives of Russian ballet. For this “Giselle” there are three manuscripts — Titus, Justamant and Stepanov — all of which make individual contributions to the fabric of the ballet. These do not change the essence of the ballet, but they enrich and amplify and clarify with added details and particularly additional mime, which Marian Smith, a “Giselle” expert from the University of Oregon, set on the company. A dollop of comedy with low-life characters has been added which gives some relief from the other worldliness and sense of tragedy in the second act. It was well-done.

Carla Korbes danced Giselle opening night. She has poise and finesse as well as airy lightness. Her movement is highly controlled but doesn’t seem that way. It would appear she cannot make an ugly gesture. She has undisputed power but it is wrapped in silk. One can hardly imagine that anything she does could be remotely difficult. Everything is organic. She is a virtuosic dancer but that never seems the point in her reading in this role. Karel Cruz was Albrecht. The two dancers look well together, the right scale and the right human dimensions for each other. He is tall with very long legs which he uses to create enormous extensions and to give power and stability to his partner. The other main character is Myrtha, Queen of the Willis. Carrie Imler gave the character resonance and eloquence and meticulous dancing.

Batkhurel Bold was Hilarion, the jealous game-keeper. He did not have the weighty presence for the role. Melanie Skinner was a well-cast Berthe, Giselle’s Mother. Laura Gilbreath, as Bathilde, was dressed in such a dumpy, middle-aged manner, she appeared to be more Albrecht’s mother than his financee. No wonder he went wandering. The Peasant Pas de Deux in the hands and feet, of Chalnessa Eames and Jonathan Porretta, had ebullience and character.

Emil de Cou, who becomes music director of the company in the fall, conducted. There were a few mishaps but, in general, the orchestra had character and shape.

Performances continue through June 12. They should sell-out. Nothing else in the Seattle cultural horizon can compare.

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