American Repertory Ballet Giselle Review
March 4, 2023 | New Brunswick Performing Arts Center – Brunswick, NJ, USA
Originally premiered in 2012 at the Royal New Zealand Ballet, Johan Kobborg’s and Ethan Stiefel’s co-choreographed Giselle was recently resurrected at the American Repertory Ballet.
A dual leadership team is not a new phenomenon for the supernatural ballet. In its original creation in 1841, the ballet was formed under the leadership and choreography of both Jean Coralli and Jules Perrot. Marius Petipa would put his stamp on it as well to create the version traditionally danced across the globe today.
The Stiefel/Kobborg team also put their own, fresh mark on the production with logical exposition, relatable humanism, and a special twist to the ending.
I trained in from the city on the New Jersey Transit for the Saturday matinee and after a brisk 5-minute walk through quaint New Brunswick, entered the spacious lobby of the New Brunswick Performing Arts Center. Not only was the theater packed, but the audience was also excited to be there. Every variation, suspended lift, and impressive turn sequence was met with supportive applause from the audience.
And rightfully so. The delightful twenty-three-member company, including apprentices and ARB2 members, is a vibrant and effervescent bunch, a wellspring of talent.
Likewise, the artistic team behind the company has impressive dancing chops too, the effects of which can be seen in the dancers’ approach to their roles.
One of the most important aspects of Giselle is highlighting the difference between Act 1 and Act 2, the physical world and the supernatural – visually achieved through Joseph R. Wells’ mystical red, green, and blue lighting and the opposing pastoral and ominous set designs by Howard C. Jones.
The dancers’ physicality also reflected the opposition. The villagers of Act 1 bound across the stage with huge jetés and bendy balancés, fingertips nearly touching the floor. The Wilis (women who, like Giselle, died of broken hearts before their wedding nights) on the other hand were cold, sharp, and lateral-moving, like mist gliding over an eerie lake. Every dancer was in character, from their facial expressions to their bounding sautés.
It’s evident the coaching from the A-list artistic team was approached with a wholistic vision for this interpretation.
American Repertory Ballet Giselle Review
The Kobborg/Stiefel version starts with a tormented dark figure on center stage, lamenting as Adolphe Adam’s weepy score swirls around him. We are witnessing a reminiscence from an older Albrecht, Giselle’s summertime love and cause of all her pain and joy.
We see him again at the end of Act 1 just after Giselle dies and finally at the end of the ballet, after his past self bids adieu to her grave. Older Albrecht then kneels on the ground and succumbs to the wrath of the Wilis at long last, ending his self-afflicted torment.
In the classic Giselle interpretation, it ends with Giselle forgiving him and saving him from the man-killing Wilis. And without an epilogue, we assume he moves on or marries his rich fiancée, but this brings a level of humanism into the antique fairytale.
Who hasn’t stayed up late at night going over old mistakes and bad memories, letting ripples of guilt wash over them? That is Albrecht.
I love that this version ends on the Wilis terms, making it a true ghost story.
Along with adding a new character, the team also revisited Hilarion’s role in the debacle. Hilarion is the antagonist of the story.
In the classic, he is the recipient of Giselle’s unrequited love and thus, feels compelled to reveal Albrecht’s true identity (he is a Duke) which then has a domino effect, further revealing that he is already engaged to the snooty Lady Bathilde.
Both are true in this version as well but this is not a superficial Hilarion, a dancer simply hitting their marks on stage. This Hilarion is scorned, burned, vengeful, and has motive.
Kobborg and Stiefel roll with that and create a competition for Giselle’s love between Hilarion and Albrecht during the famous Peasant Pas.
Typically, this dance serves as an interlude for us viewers under the guise of entertainment for a passing group of royal hunters. In this version, a young married couple dances to celebrate their nuptials followed by a pas de deux between Giselle and Albrecht, which serves to solidify their love beyond a simple flirtation (in the classic they do not have a proper pas de deux until Act 2) and builds tension as we compare their love to the wedded couple.
The solos are danced by Hilarion and Albrecht, vying for their love’s attention. Of course, Hilarion does not win and thus, has his motive. It is simple, it is human, and it fits so perfectly in the score without disrupting the essence of the story.
Choreographically, this Peasant Pas utilizes shapes from the original but is revitalized through serpentine weaving upstage, mirrored steps between male and female counterparts, and chasing pas de chats (adorable).
The wedding couple was danced by Tomoya Suzuki and Misaki Tajima (an ARB2 member and school trainee, respectively) on Saturday matinee. These two were like spark plugs in their technical work and endearingly sweet as they shared glances. It’s wonderful to see young performers succeed and be cheered on by the audience.
Our jilted Hilarion was portrayed by Anthony Pototski, another young dancer only in his first season with ARB2. Pototski is an exceptional actor, bringing nuance to Hilarion’s frustration, anger, and regret as he begs for his life in Act 2.
For Nanako Yamamoto, this was a revisit of the role of Giselle and for Andrea Marini, it was his premier as Albrecht. Although the pairing was new for the duo, they suited each other well.
When we open on Act 1, Yamamoto is tender and demure while Marini is playful and flirtatious. When he breaks her heart, literally and figuratively, Yamamoto is wild in the infamous mad scene. Searching for Albrecht among the crowd, she touches the male villager’s faces as if she can’t remember what her love looks like.
Marini is physical in his reactions, either needing to be held back at risk of attacking Hilarion or when he desperately reaches for Giselle’s lifeless body.
In Act 2, Albrecht is sentenced to dance to death and the pair are resilient in the demanding choreography; Yamamoto with sparkling pointe work and Marini pummeling through challenging sissones and double tours.
I do want to give a special shout out to the corps of Wilis.
Their arabesque hop sequence was hypnotizing and the pose in arabesque on the sides of the stage (not easy in rocky pointe shoes!) was well-accomplished by all.
Leading the pack of man-hunters was Annie Johnson as Myrtha, Queen of the Wilis. It’s always fun to play a bad guy and Johnson plays icy cold vengeance very well. Myrtha is also a technically demanding role, usually cast on a dancer adept at grand allegro, which Johnson is. She ate up the stage with bounding fouéttes and flying sauts de basque.
As the curtain closed, and tears welled up in my eyes, I felt like I had finally seen a fresh revisit of a classic. Superbly coached, curated, and danced, ARB’s Giselle is everything the original had and more.
Featured Photo for this American Repertory Ballet Giselle review of Ryoko Tanaka as the title character. Photo by Rosalie O’Connor.
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