[all photographs are from prior performances]

American Ballet Theatre
Metropolitan Opera House
Lincoln Center
New York, New York

May 16 (afternoon and evening), 17, and 18, 2018
Giselle

Jerry Hochman

Of the eight Giselle programs in this year’s American Ballet Theatre’s Giselle marathon, seven different ballerinas and six danseurs performed the lead roles. In addition to the opening night program that featured Hee Seo and Roberto Bolle, which has already been reviewed, I was able to see four more casts: Sarah Lane and Daniil Simkin, Isabella Boylston and James Whiteside, Stella Abrera and Cory Stearns, and, last night, Guest Artist Natalia Osipova and David Hallberg.

It’s tempting to say that all of these Giselles and Albrechts have their own merits and are worth seeing. That would be true, but also a cop out. If you were only able to see one Giselle performance per season, or per lifetime, any of them would have allowed you to walk out thinking that you’d seen a great performance. And for such “normal” audience-members, that would be true also. But there are differences, at times significant, between one dancer and another, as to each of the two lead roles which one only able to see one performance cannot know. I’ll try to explain these differences below.

Sarah Lane and members of American Ballet Theatre in a prior performance of "Giselle" Photo by Erin Baiano

Sarah Lane
and members of American Ballet Theatre in “Giselle”
Photo by Erin Baiano

Last night’s program was the most anticipated of the week’s Giselles, and it produced the anticipated sold out house. It was also considerably different in temperament from the others. I’ll address that performance initially.

First, however, there are two other portrayals to highlight: Lane’s performance showed that her two Giselles last year were not flukes – and, simply put, she delivered the finest “mad scene” I’ve seen in what seems like hundreds of Giselles and dozens of portrayals over 40 plus years. Seriously. Gut-wrenching doesn’t sufficiently capture it; because all the great ones are. Scary, shocking, and stunning come closer. I’ve previously described the ballet, overall, as delivering a lightning bolt to the heart. With Lane’s mad scene, that observation is more than an extravagant metaphor. The second is that ABT has a new Queen of Mean: Katherine Williams’s debut as Myrta on Thursday night was emotionally volcanic: even in a role that demands a minimum of overt emotional texture, if any, she managed to find dramatic ways to show nuances of character.

Friday, May 18

Last night’s pairing of Osipova and Hallberg was the “Event of the Season.” Their unofficial partnership has been oft celebrated, and with the (hopefully temporary) demise of the stage partnership between Diana Vishneva and Marcelo Gomes, they may be the closest thing to ballet royalty (at least on this side of the pond) as one gets.

Natalia Osipova, here with Steven McRae in a prior performance of "Giselle" Photo by Gene Schiavone

Natalia Osipova (here with Steven McRae)
in “Giselle”
Photo by Gene Schiavone

The performance was highly anticipated for other reasons as well. It was Hallberg’s first stage reunion with Osipova since his “previous first reunion” with Osipova this past winter following a years-long period of injury recuperation – in London, in Giselle – was cut short when he suffered yet another injury. This, then, was to be their first complete performance together since that initial debilitating injury. And it was made even more noteworthy because it was Osipova’s first performance with ABT since she herself was injured in 2015 in an ABT performance – in Giselle (with Steven McRae as her Albrecht). And if that wasn’t enough, this performance date coincided with both their birthdays.

So the stage was set.

It’s rained consecutively in New York for seemingly forty days and forty nights, so it was good to see the sun return finally, albeit radiating from the stage. In part the luminescence was the reflection of audience expectations arising from years of hype, but in Osipova’s case, as I wrote upon seeing her initial ABT Giselle in 2009, the hype is right.

But (there’s always a “but”) that observation comes with a caveat. In her initial Giselle, I noted that in Act II she tended to make her suffering a little too visible, with unnecessary facial gestures that made her less of a spirit as to which one occasionally suspends disbelief than a temporarily exhumed living being. That character portrayal was far more prevalent in her performance last night. Hers is a high-decibel Giselle; a vivacious, albeit mournful, spirit – there was nothing subtle about it. Some may consider it an example of quality projection, but it’s not projection at all (although the result might be greater visibility); it’s qualitatively and quantitatively different. To me, in Giselle, less is more, and Osipova’s Act II characterization came perilously close to being over the top melodramatic. [She acted up a storm in Act I as well, but that didn’t alter the essential character of the role – and she, like Lane earlier in the week, delivered nuances I’d not previously seen – expertly executed.]

Her technical ability is still prodigious, but in contrast to her acting, and to her credit, she moderated it somewhat. [If technical strength is a major interest, Isabella Boylston provided more sustained balances and more perfect attitude turns in Act I (what, in appearance, look like consecutive double pirouettes, which is how I’ll reference them hereinafter).] That being said, Osipova still can jump and leap higher than anyone else I’ve seen: her initial jumps preceding the backward moving entrechats in Act II, and continuing throughout that sequence, were gasp-inducing extraordinary.

Quibbles? A few. Her Act I diagonal hops en pointe were perfectly done, but she executed them at breakneck speed. That’s crowd-pleasing, but doing them so fast actually is less difficult than moderating them. And she was determined to get them done quickly: the ABT Orchestra, conducted by Music Director Ormsby Wilkins, slowed the tempo as it always does as the sequence began, but Osipova would have none of that – she very obviously pushed Wilkins to pick up the pace. But in this sequence, to me Wilkins’s tempo is right. The diagonal hops aren’t a race. Speeding up the tempo, although it looks exciting, precludes the complex port de bras because there’s insufficient time to produce them(Osipova didn’t do the “blowing kisses to Albrecht” that most Giselles at this level do), and it eliminates the speed contrast between the slower hops en pointe and the series of pique turns that immediately follow it. [This tendency to “speed things up” also impacted her circular chugs in Act II (lightning fast, but cut short a bit too soon), her Act II “backbend,” which barely existed, and her perfectly executed Act II penche arabesque and developpes that were completed in a relative instant.] And I’ve mentioned Osipova’s commendable attention to nuance detail in Act I – but if you’re going to show off your gift from Bathilde to your boyfriend, you’d do it at the first opportunity, not wait until a scene or two later.

Again, though, these are quibbles that few could, or necessarily should, care about. And regardless of technique or acting, it’s undeniable that Osipova has a stage magnetism that far outweighs any perceived flaws. Hers was a marvelous, exhilarating performance. And despite some technique quibbles that in his case matter even less, so was Hallberg’s. This was Hallberg’s finest performance (that I’ve seen) in his already illustrious career.

David Hallberg, here with Gillian Murphy, in a prior performance of "Giselle" Photo by Khalid Al-Busaidi.

David Hallberg (here with Gillian Murphy),
in “Giselle”
Photo by Khalid Al-Busaidi

Getting the minor nit-picking out of the way first: Hallberg very obviously omitted the cabrioles (“leg beats”) that other Albrechts routinely do during their solo diagonal in Act II. And his solo Act II entrechats were finely done but abandoned too soon (compare, for example, Whiteside’s execution of that sequence in his Albrecht opposite Boylston, and Bolle’s on Monday opposite Seo, both of which continued in perfect form for a very, very long time). And in the final series as he “dances to his death,” Hallberg just meandered around before collapsing to the stage floor long before he was supposed to, converting what is usually Albrecht’s relatively sudden collapse after a last ditch effort to pull himself up into a Mercutio-style drawn out process.

But none of this really mattered; everything else about his performance was magnificent.

Watching Hallberg evolve over the years has been a privilege. At one point (October, 2004), I wrote that “Hallberg is becoming a danseur noble before our eyes.” He’s long past that now, but this performance took things to another level: where his acting can be relatively stolid (but not ever wooden), last night he created a full-blown character. I’ve never seen Hallberg so animated, or so warmly human. Every emotion was ratcheted up a notch or two. Perhaps it was in response to, or to balance, Osipova, but for whatever reason, Hallberg’s Albrecht was alive, culminating in a most moving post-ending denouement.

And then there was that ending. It may be common now for Osipova performances, or for the Bolshoi or the Royal, but I’ve not previously seen it. After the church bells ring and Albrecht’s life is spared, and after the wilis exit, Giselle and Albrecht are alone. Nothing unusual about that. But instead of the usual presentation of Albrecht lifting and cradling the Giselle/spirit and then both gradually making their way to the gravesite, where she gives him a final lily (or two, or ten) before departing, at last night’s performance Osipova leaned against Hallberg briefly, and instead of circling to center stage and then departing to her grave, she moved to center stage and whipped out a single lily that she’d secreted somewhere (maybe under her arm – which might be why Hallberg didn’t lift and cradle her), gave it to Albrecht, and then they kissed. Not passionate (overtly), but an undeniable kiss on the lips, after which she slowly retreated back to the grave, and Albrecht, not returning to the grave with her, walked slowly downstage dumbstruck.

I’m not sure how I feel about this – again, to me, it’s another example of making Giselle more of a corporeal being than a wili, but I cannot dispute that it was perfect for this particular performance. If one hadn’t melted up to that point, one would have then.

And then the curtain came down, and the house, predictably but deservedly, exploded. Osipova and Hallberg both looked ecstatic, and relieved (after all, neither got injured), flowers were tossed, kisses were exchanged, and “happy birthday” songs were sung. In a lot of ways, this was ABT’s Gala before its annual Met Spring Gala (scheduled on Monday), the royal “wedding” before the royal wedding, and the rough equivalent of a “farewell” without being a farewell.

In other roles at this performance, Christine Shevchenko reprised her sublimely powerful Myrta, and Skylar Brandt and Joseph Gorak repeated their Peasant Pas de Deux (that they had also performed on Monday and again on Thursday night). Brandt executed as well as she did on Monday, and the phrase-ending open-mouth that I complained about in my review of Monday’s performance was gone – as if someone had whispered in her ear to control it before it became an affectation. Brandt milked her balances en pointe far too long in this performance – but I can’t really fault her for showing off in front of a sold out house. Gorak was back to his usual form from being “off” on Monday: his performance was top flight in every respect. And Nancy Raffa’s Berthe (Giselle’s mother) was also top flight (as it was on Thursday night) – the only “mother” who raised the decibel level of anger at Albrecht to where it needed to be.

Thursday, May 17

On Thursday night, Stella Abrera repeated her Giselle, partnered by Cory Stearns, and the results were somewhat disappointing.

Stella Abrera in "Giselle" Photo by Rosalie OÕConnor.

Stella Abrera in “Giselle”
Photo by Rosalie O’Connor

Shortly before the performance I received information from a reliable source that Abrera has been nursing an injury for some time (she’s withdrawn from several announced roles this season), but went ahead with this one. I can understand why she pushed it (she may have felt that she’d not get another opportunity to dance the role), but the Act I result left a less than optimal memory.

Something was obviously wrong from the beginning – Abrera doesn’t usually have pasted-on smiles, but to me, she did here. Sometimes that’s nerves, sometimes poor characterization, and sometime it’s to mask pain. In Abrera’s case, I suspect it was pain, real or anticipated. And although her execution and characterization were both well done, it all came apart during her Act I diagonal hops when she intentionally modified the choreography (obviously, to avoid the pain and/or exacerbating the injury), and in the culmination of the subsequent series of pique turns ending in one-kneed position downstage right, which she was unable to keep upright. The audience gasped – this was so un-Abrera-like. But that’s part of the point here: it was an aberration with a cause. Be that as it may, her Act II was quite well done, and the audience reacted with appropriate enthusiasm.

Stearns did a fine, albeit unexciting job as Albrecht – technically adequate, with a more developed characterization (admirably aristocratic without being a bully) than I’d previously seen from him, and considerate and competent partnering (he doubtless helped Abrera get through it). My only serious concern is that in his solo diagonal in Act II, his brises looked like an afterthought. I don’t know why Stearns chose to do them rather than entrechats alternative (he’s taller than other dancers who I’ve seen dance the brises), but whatever the reason may have been, the sequence is too important to be forgettable.

However, the most significant event in Thursday’s Giselle was not the performance of the two leads, but Williams’s Myrta. Her opening diagonal bourrees were clean as a whistle though slightly less rapid-fire than those of more experienced Myrtas, and her opening arabesque promenades were more than adequate but appeared a bit less secure than others – though nothing that a typical audience member might notice. For a role debut – indeed, for any Myrta performance – slightly less than technical perfection is considerably more than anyone would have a right to expect. And everything thereafter was impeccable.

Even more noteworthy is her fully developed characterization. For many years I’ve highlighted Williams’s clarity of execution, focus, and, most emphatically, her ability to transmit what appear to be “real” as opposed to feigned emotions. Myrta isn’t supposed to be a role in which visible emotions are conveyed (they’re conveyed, if at all, more subtly), but Williams’s execution in this respect is already top tier. She doesn’t just “look” mean; she shot daggers through her eyes and thunderbolts flowed from her arms. When Giselle disobeys her, she doesn’t simply let it pass, expressionless, because she knows she’ll inevitably prevail at the end – she’s visibly annoyed (but regally, like the Queen of the Wilis her character is), communicated through a slight roll of her eyes, a barely expressed snicker (as if to say: “another lovesick novice that I’ll have to train”), and an outstretched arm that says “go do your thing, but don’t get in my way.” It was a very powerful debut. ABT now has yet another in a strong stable of Myrtas. Williams’s Peasant Pas de Deux on Wednesday evening was similarly well executed: crystal clear technique, and more subtle emotional communication, delivered through facial expression, than would be expected in that role. Williams is still in the corps, but based on these performances, that rank may not last much longer.

Stephanie Williams as Zulma, with members of American Ballet Theatre in "Giselle" Photo by Gene Schiavone

Stephanie Williams as Zulma,
with members of American Ballet Theatre in “Giselle”
Photo by Gene Schiavone

Another Williams also delivered a noteworthy performance. Stephanie Williams’s Zulma was finely and securely executed.

Wednesday evening, May 16

On Wednesday evening, Boylston and Whiteside assayed the lead roles, with mixed results. Boylston is the strongest of the Giselles I saw, at least overtly, with the most solid and extended balances and perfect Act I double pirouettes (each of the others touched ground before completing the phrase – both times). But being strong isn’t a substitute for overall style and acting.

Let me backtrack. The “usual” portrayal of Giselle, at least of those I’ve seen (I wasn’t around in the mid-late 19th Century, rumors to the contrary notwithstanding), is as a youthful, virginal village maiden for whom Albrecht/Loys is her first (and only) love. I’ve seen some portrayals that, for whatever reason, paint Giselle as less youthful (I described one such portrayal as being like the village maid, for whom Albrecht is her last hope). I don’t have a problem with either interpretation – Giselle, to me, isn’t bound to particular age or body type – but my preference is the sweet maiden that I think most viewers familiar with the ballet expect. To a lesser or greater extent, all the Giselles I saw last week attempted to convey this impression.

But Boylston’s portrayal was different. In addition to acknowledging her strength, I’ve described her previously as commanding the stage whenever she’s on it. Her Giselle reflected this. There was nothing shy, fragile, or sugary about it. From the moment she stepped out of her cottage with a knowing huge smile on her face (which she maintained throughout most of Act I – not pasted on; this was the character), she was Giselle as party girl. And it wasn’t just the smile – when she emerges from her cottage to be recognized as “harvest queen,” it wasn’t a surprise: she expected it. Who else could it possibly have been?

I don’t mean these observations disparagingly. I think that Boylston perhaps felt that she wouldn’t be able to pull off “demure,” so she played to her strength (she did pull it off in Ashton’s La Fille Mal Gardee – except there’s more “strength” to the character of Lise than Giselle). I think the decision, if in fact it was a decision, was an admirable one … for her. But it’s risky, and has consequences – most significantly, I couldn’t for a moment believe that she’d gone mad after becoming aware of Albrecht’s perfidy – she’d have found someone else in a heartbeat (that she executed the mad scene in her own way, and less effectively, didn’t help – though it was interesting to see Giselle penetrate the village crowd from stage right moving to stage left as opposed to the other direction in every other Giselle I’ve seen).

Boylston’s Act II, in terms of power, was very well executed also. But of greater concern and consequence is that to me her Romantic style was wrong. Those iconic Romantic images of Giselle seemingly weightless and ethereal don’t work when the arms are extended straight out from her body as if they’re stretching and pulling her body out of shape. The result is an image of Giselle reaching out toward the heavens while her body is bound to the ground. While there may be some thematic basis for that (she is, after all, a released spirit otherwise buried), it’s not Romantic style.

All this being said, like the characterization, I don’t think this was a mistake; I think Boylston intended it to be danced this way, for whatever reason. It doesn’t work for me; it may to others, but in any event it doesn’t distract from the ability to appreciate the quality of the overall presentation.

Whiteside’s Albrecht is another matter. His was the strongest of the Albrechts I saw: crisp, superbly executed cabrioles, for example; his solo entrechats in Act II were impeccable; his landings clean and secure. But, like Giselle, the role of Albrecht is more than strength. Whiteside’s characterization was … well, it wasn’t. This Albrecht was a bully, and beyond that, a block of solid wood. If he changed his facial expression at any time during the course of the ballet, I didn’t see it. Even when Giselle the wili swore her eternal love to him at the end of Act II, he had no reaction at all. So although his was the strongest of the Albrechts, overall his was the weakest of the Albrechts.

At this performance, in addition to the Peasant Pas de Deux with Katherine Williams and Blaine Hoven (adequate, but less secure than he usually is), Devon Teuscher repeated her strong Myrta.

Wednesday afternoon, May 16

At Wednesday afternoon’s performance, Simkin’s Albrecht seemed somewhat distracted, compared to last year. For example, his pensive, mournful attitude in Act II came across, at this performance, more like repetitive representations of Rodin’s “The Thinker.” It was a very fine performance nonetheless, with the emotional emphasis intact. I commented last year that this is an Albrecht who loves Giselle from the outset, and is lost without her, and it bears repeating because his portrayal is so emotionally strong (and his emotional intensity complemented Lane’s).

Sarah Lane and Daniil Simkin, in a prior performance of "Giselle" Photo by Erin Baiano

Sarah Lane and Daniil Simkin
in “Giselle”
Photo by Erin Baiano

In the Peasant Pas de Deux, Catherine Hurlin and Gabe Stone Shayer danced flawlessly. Shayer danced with rock solid precision. Hurlin, ABT’s first “young Clara” in Alexei Ratmansky’s The Nutcracker, is already a compelling stage presence who might well eventually become a memorable Giselle. And, as I observed several years ago, Luis Ribagorda remains ABT’s most dynamic and effective Wilfred.

Obviously, I’m saving the best for last.

Lane’s Act I was better, technically, than her Act I a year ago (although this time she didn’t quite nail the pair of double pirouettes). Her Act II, overall, wasn’t quite as perfectly honed as last year’s performances, but was so close to it that what I saw as less “perfect” than last year’s perfection amounts to a distinction without a difference. Where in Act I she held her balances significantly longer than Seo did on Monday (but not longer than appropriate), in Act II she wasn’t quite as steady – and her penche arabesques and developpes, though commendably taken much more slowly and deliberately and effectively than others (Osipova, for example), were also less smoothly executed as she secured her balance. And Act II overall was marred by a flawed initial overhead lift (Simkin lifted her high overhead, but it was aborted too quickly, possibly because of a poor grip).

But Giselle, perhaps more than any other classical ballet, is far more than technique. And Lane is the epitome of what a Giselle should be – not only because of the way she looks (to me she’s the stereotypical Giselle) or her stage persona, but because she makes her Giselle real rather than a “character.”

I noted in my extensive review of her performance last year that, in her role debut, she included nuances I’d not previously seen. I saw yet more at this performance (equaled only, of those I saw this week, by Osipova – except Lane’s were far less obvious). In Act I, when Albrecht first touches her, it’s not excitement or thrill or fulfilled expectations that she’s feeling: somehow, she made you know his touch sent chills up and down her arms, if not her spine – you could almost see the goosebumps. When Albrecht/Loys swears his love for her, it’s a sacred highpoint in her life (as opposed to “you can’t really mean that” or “hold that thought until later” or simply “wow”). When Bathilde gives Lane’s Giselle her pendant, Lane’s reaction isn’t a response to how big/expensive it is (“look what she just gave me, ma”) but a combination of “I don’t deserve this” and “I’m just a poor peasant girl and [wide eyes dominating her face] look ma, I’ve never seen anything so beautiful.” When Albrecht gives her the “grape bouquet,” she seemed ready to burst into tears because she didn’t expect it (Osipova was appropriately grateful; Boylston communicated nothing in particular). Those are just limited examples.

And then there was the mad scene. I’ve seen more Giselles than I can count, but nothing prepared me for this. All Giselle mad scenes are basically the same, but each is different from dancer to dancer, and from performance to performance. In part because the ballet, and Adolphe Adam’s score (orchestrated by John Lanchbery), are constructed so well, I’ve rarely seen one that isn’t to some extent effective and moving.

I highlighted Lane’s mad scene in my review of her debut performance last year. In her second, unscheduled, outing last year (with Herman Cornejo) it was even more compelling. But this year’s incarnation was, somehow, on another level entirely: eyes flaring; arms flaying, but all consistent with a girl not acting crazed, but having been mentally and physically destroyed – and her mental and physical destruction was what she compelled the audience to believe. [And how on earth did she manage to get strands of her hair lodged in her mouth? However she did it, the image added even further to the overall intensity.] In the process of conveying this destructed soul, she effectively destroyed, emotionally, any in the audience with a beating heart.

And it wasn’t only Lane – in order to carry it off completely, the rest of the cast has to respond to what she’s doing, and at Wednesday matinee’s performance the rest of the cast, from Simkin to Alexei Agoudine’s compassionate Hilarion to her mother (Kelley Potter) to the friends and villagers, all enhanced the agony, and the ecstasy, of the scene.

I could go on awhile (not that I haven’t done so already), but a young woman sitting a few rows behind me, who I overheard whispering to her friend, said it best when Act I concluded: “Oh. My. God.”

But there was an additional noteworthy, and unforgettable, performance image.

When the “church bells” ring signaling that Albrecht’s life will be spared, most everyone in the audience is focused, appropriately, on Albrecht and Myrta, not at Giselle. Been there, done that, so I quickly switched my view to Lane stage left. Her character heard the bells also, and knew their significance. But without moving a muscle, Lane conveyed something far deeper.

Unlike Osipova’s Act II Giselle, Lane’s Giselle is far more controlled and subtle, ethereal and fragile – a spirit without corporeal form, which to me is what her visage is supposed to be at that point: there’s not an extraneous gesture incompatible with the characterization of Giselle as a wili. Again, in Giselle, less is more.

When Lane’s Giselle heard the bells, she somehow communicated, very clearly, that a weight had been lifted from her otherwise weightless body. [After Lane’s performance, I made it a point to check the reaction of the other Giselles – Osipova was the only one who responded with more than a recognition that bells had sounded: in keeping with her more obvious approach, she lifted her head and gently smiled.] In the abstract, that doesn’t sound like much – but it’s extraordinary. In one moment of non-movement, the inevitable was no longer inevitable, her faith was restored, and she could rest in peace. The last time I saw anything comparable to what Lane did with this almost throwaway image was when one could see the light bulb turning on in Diana Vishneva’s head during the “edge of the bed” scene in Sir Kenneth Macmillan’s Romeo and Juliet, without her Juliet moving a muscle – just by the expression in her eyes. Nothing. And at the same time, everything.

That’s what Lane accomplished here. Without excessive drama, hers was the most dramatic, cathartic Giselle I’ve ever seen. [Well, ok, at least comparable to Vishneva and Alina Cojocaru. And Gelsey Kirkland.] Not only a new Giselle for our time, as I wrote last year, but a Giselle for the ages.