Eisenhower Theater, JFK Center for the Performing Arts, Washington DC; November 13, 2013

Carmel Morgan

Maki Onuki and Jared Nelson in "Giselle" Photo © Carol Pratt

Maki Onuki and Jared Nelson in “Giselle”
Photo © Carol Pratt

There are a number of reasons to perform “Giselle,” but dancing it as a Halloween box office draw never occurred to me.  However, as Septime Webre, Artistic Director of the Washington Ballet (“TWB”) pointed out, “Giselle” is a ghost story.  A pretty spooky one at that (the veils of the female ghosts in Act II flew simultaneously off their heads with the yank of a few nearly invisible strings)!

To be honest, I had plenty of reservations about seeing TWB’s version of “Giselle.”  I feared it might be another kind of scary – scary bad.  I feared this because “Giselle” is a difficult ballet to tackle with a smaller company.  I’ve always thought TWB’s strength was its skill at presenting contemporary pieces.  “Giselle,” at 175 years old or so, is hardly a contemporary ballet.  It requires depth, sensitivity, and dazzling technical dancing, with a truly romantic touch.

I hate to see ballets I love ruined by a poor performance.  “Giselle” has always been special to me.  It’s probably the first ballet I fell in love with as a girl.  I smiled at seeing dozens of young girls in pastel dresses, including one wearing her pink ballet shoes, at the Sunday matinee.  Yet I worried for them, as I worried for myself, that TWB’s “Giselle” would be lackluster.  Thankfully, those little girls were not disappointed, and I wasn’t either.  I admit, to my surprise, that TWB continues to be the little company that could.  Their “Giselle” exceeded my expectations in every way and deserves to be called both impressive and inspiring.

First, we lucked out in seeing TWB veteran Maki Onuki in the lead role.  She pulled off a remarkably touching Giselle.  Sweet and tragic, it’s the kind of part Onuki does best.  I’ve seen “Giselle” by the Paris Opera Ballet and the Mariinsky Ballet in recent years at the Kennedy Center.  I’m not suggesting that TWB’s “Giselle” topped the amazing artistry of those much admired companies.  However, Onuki danced with every bit as much beauty and charisma and heart as some of the world’s best ballerinas, including Diana Vishneva.  Onuki’s Giselle, dying of heartbreak, with her wild hair and desperate gestures, could rival Vishneva’s performance.

We were also treated to the scraggly haired Jared Nelson as Hilarion.  Nelson is another TWB veteran whom I never tire of watching.  Nelson knows how to sink himself into a part and really have fun.  His acting, in particular, excelled.  In fact, the entire company did a fabulous job with their acting.  This “Giselle” was not campy or cold; it was heartfelt, and the dancers took it seriously.  Webre directed them extremely well.  I’ve rarely seen a company give as much attention to the passion of this ballet, and that’s what made TWB’s performance so memorable and so impactful.  There was tension, there was joy, there was sorrow, even humor.  If only every “Giselle” production had all of this!

As Count Albrecht, at the Sunday matinee the audience did not get to see TWB star Brooklyn Mack, who is quite a powerhouse.  Instead we saw Hyun-Woong Kim, in his second season with TWB, as the royal flirt.  Kim and Onuki made a comely couple.  They displayed genuine chemistry, and I felt they were very well matched.  Kim gave more of an expressive performance than many in that role, and although his dancing didn’t rise to the same heights as Onuki’s (he sometimes seemed slow and rather mechanical), he appears to have a lot of potential as a lead male.  I’m so glad this tall and handsome man from Seoul, Korea, chose ballet as his career path, and I look forward to seeing him again.

In the peasant pas de deux we saw Tamako Miyazaki and Andile Ndlovu.  Both flashed high wattage smiles.  Ndlovu perhaps danced too freely and easily, but in his jumps, his legs snapped together tightly.  These two young dancers, like Kim, also have room to grow, and I’m confident they will do so.  Morgann Rose had the stone cold stare of Myrtha down pat, and she danced with a hint of evil.  She, too, though, needed to step things up a notch in order to reach Onuki’s resplendence.

Overall, TWB’s “Giselle” oozed Bavarian charm rather than cheesiness.  I was happy that my fears of a possibly subpar performance did not come true.  To the contrary, I’ve decided I should see TWB more often.  I’m a believer that they can do almost anything with hard work and Webre’s great direction.  Could there have been more precision and more polish?  Yes, but this “Giselle” still earned an A from me, especially because TWB doesn’t have the budget or the recruiting power of companies like the Mariinsky and the Paris Opera Ballet, and yet they delivered a professional praiseworthy “Giselle” with the kind of superlative drama that keeps an audience involved in the story from beginning to end.