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

July 5 afternoon and evening, July 8 afternoon, 2023

Jerry Hochman

American Ballet Theatre completed the second week of its four-week Met 2023 season with eight performances of one of the most famous, and long-lasting, ballets in the classical canon, Giselle. I was able to see three different performances, and would have seen more had I been able to teleport myself to the Met; the production, staged by Kevin McKenzie, and the ABT dancers performing it, are that good.

Giselle, which premiered in 1841, is and the oldest continuously-performed Romantic ballet (the original version of La Sylphide was created earlier, but has not been continuously performed). It’s tight as a drum both musically (by Adolphe Adam) and choreographically (after Jean Coralli, Jules Perrot, and Marius Petipa), with not a step too many or too few, and none of the “dead spots” common to many classical ballets. And it continues to pack an emotional wallop.

I’ve reviewed and summarized Giselle many times, both ABT’s incarnation and other companies’ “standard” versions, as well as those that in one way or another reimagine it. Consequently, I won’t burden the reader with yet another synopsis. Rather, this review will focus almost exclusively on the individual performances.

During my more than fifty ballet-going years, I’ve had the privilege of seeing a plethora of great Giselles, including many role debuts, but I’m still amazed at how, in a role debut or even in subsequent outings, each Giselle and each Albrecht can make the role her or his own without changing the choreography. So it was with the NYC role debuts of Catherine Hurlin and Daniel Camargo, as well as with refined performances by Skylar Brandt and Herman Cornejo, and Cassandra Trenary and James Whiteside. [Unfortunately, I was unable to attend Devon Teuscher’s role debut earlier in the week.]

Catherine Hurlin and Daniel Camargo in “Giselle”
Photo by Rosalie O’Connor

I’ll discuss the lead and several featured performances in detail below, including Hurlin’s magnificent Met debut. First, however, three exceptional NYC role debuts in the Peasant Pas de Deux merit discussion up front.

Added subsequent to its first dress rehearsal on demand of an influential dancer (and to a different composer’s music), the Peasant Pas is such an integral part of Giselle’s choreography that its absence is unthinkable. Aside from being a welcome performance change of pace, it’s one of those rites of passage through which most young ballerinas and danseurs must pass before moving on to roles that are a greater test.

Peasant Pas performances usually aren’t especially noteworthy beyond the fact that, more often than not, they’re well-performed. However, of those I saw this season, three individual New York role debuts were exceptional, although one was negatively impacted by the ABT Orchestra’s unusually slow tempo.

I’ve written many times that I agree with Balanchine (who famously said that “ballet is woman”), and consequently I tend to gravitate toward ballerinas rather than to danseurs; usually the latter have to have arrived with already established reputations or have danced several featured roles before I pay sufficient attention to them or even have the ability to distinguish one from another. But then there’s Jake Roxander.

I’d heard buzz about Roxander, who didn’t join the company until about a year ago and didn’t come through ABT’s affiliated Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School. The buzz was right. Roxander’s NYC role debut in Wednesday evening’s Peasant Pas (opposite Zimmi Coker, also in her NYC role debut) broke the mold, forcing me (and, judged by their vocal reaction, other members of the audience as well) to take immediate notice.

It’s not that he added anything to the role or dazzled with lots of tricks (which wouldn’t be appropriate here anyway); it’s just that what he did was more perfectly executed than any I can recall in a very long time. Everything he danced was squarely on the mark, with appropriate youthful and confident demeanor and fine partnering ability. But it was his tours landings that took his performance here to another level. Most of the time, at least at ABT performances, the danseur “cheats” a little – starting as much as a quarter way around and/ or fudging the landings. Roxander did neither. He started each with his turned-out feet facing forward, and nailed each landing in perfect fifth position. Every. Single. Time.

He’s very young, and I suspect isn’t yet ready for leading roles. But don’t miss an opportunity to see Roxander even at this early stage in his ABT career. And you won’t have to wait long: he’s been cast as Mercutio (already?!) in several Romeo and Juliet performances during the last week of this season.

Chloe Misseldine in “Giselle”
Photo by Rosalie O’Connor

His Peasant Pas partner, Coker, is one who I (and most everyone else) picked as a dancer to watch even while she was with the ABT Studio Company. As has been the case with her subsequent performances with the company, her execution here was flawless too. But the conducting for her Peasant Pas solos (and often in the rest of that July 5th evening performance, as I’ll note later) provided a sure cure for insomnia, with every phrase slowed and drawn out without any regard, it appeared to me, for what the ballerina was doing. As a result, impeccably executed though they were, Coker’s solos at times looked labored (especially compared to Roxander’s, whose solos were conducted at proper tempo) because, with more time to fill, the same choreography had to be slowed to synchronize with the musical flow.

That other exceptional Peasant Pas NYC debut was on Saturday afternoon, performed by Léa Fleytoux.

As I’ve credited myself with several times, I noticed Fleytoux the first time I saw her on stage, soon after she joined the company – in 2019 – and subsequently wrote that she was a dancer to watch. [A few weeks later, when ABT appeared at the Kennedy Center, my CriticalDance colleague in the D.C. area made the same observation.] Even then, there was something about her stage presence – a glow – that compelled me to focus on her even though the choreography for the corps in that ballet was the same for all of them. Everything I’ve seen Fleytoux perform since then confirmed that initial impression: her technique is whistle clean, she’s consistently engaging, and she still has that irresistible inner incandescence. With her Peasant Pas, she showed all that and a lot more (including, significantly, that she’s capable of being more than an ingenue).

The ballerina’s role in the Peasant Pas doesn’t allow for much individuality beyond whatever her stage personality brings to it. But Fleytoux found room. Where appropriate, she stretched time – holding balances en pointe longer than I can recall previously seeing, but not so long as to be showing off, then catching up with the musical phrase naturally, without missing a beat. It was a superb outing (and the conducting tempo at this performance was on target); another stepping-stone climbed.

As long as I’m on the Peasant Pas subject, Tyler Maloney danced the male role Wednesday afternoon and Saturday afternoon, partnering Betsy McBride and Fleytoux respectively. His was a relatively typical ABT execution, with skillful partnering and appropriately upbeat stage demeanor, but his technique lacked Roxander’s perfection. At the Wednesday afternoon performance, McBride’s execution was top-notch and endearing without being flashy. Hers was a very fine performance, as her performances consistently are.

Betsy McBride and American Ballet Theatre in “Giselle”
Photo by Rosalie O’Connor

That’s a convenient segue to the lead performances, beginning on that Wednesday afternoon.

I admit that when it comes to certain leading ballerina roles I have a deep-seated preconception of an ideal, justifiable or not. With respect to Giselle, my mind automatically defaults to a village maiden who’s both youthful and dark-haired (e.g., brunette). I certainly can appreciate performances by those who don’t fit that purely subjective model (e.g., Natalia Makarova; Amanda McKerrow), but they don’t come as quickly to mind. I don’t know why – ask Freud.

Hurlin’s performance broke that preferential prejudice.

From her first ABT performance while still a young student, as Young Clara in the world premiere of Alexei Ratmansky’s The Nutcracker (opposite Gillian Murphy’s adult Clara) Hurlin impressed with her ability and stage personality. As I’ve watched her grow as a dancer, that observation has been augmented by one superb performance after another. In addition to the natural technical evolution to the point where it appears that she can dance any role to which she’s assigned, her performances feature an unusually natural-looking stage personality (nothing ever looks forced unless it’s supposed to) and a well-honed sense of humor and timing that, where appropriate, looks as natural as everything else. [As I recall, at one point I dubbed her ABT’s Carol Burnette.]

Her Giselle displayed more of the same brilliance. Hurlin may not yet have all the character nuances that will grow over time, but there were enough in this performance to make it one of the more memorable Met role debuts I’ve seen. In every way, she was every inch a Giselle.

I have only two minor critical comments, neither of which was her fault, and both of which probably went unnoticed. Her Act I diagonal, with its characteristic hops en pointe, was executed somewhat independently from the musical accompaniment. That is, she set her own tempo, which didn’t match the orchestra’s tempo: after the first few hops, she was ahead of the music. At this stage in her performing evolution I think it was more incumbent on the orchestra to increase the tempo to meet her execution than to expect her to slow it down. With increased experience she’ll be able to accommodate a lagging score (as Brandt did that evening), as well as add more ports de bras variety to the hops. Nevertheless, since she otherwise danced the diagonal without flaw, my guess is that no one noticed, nor cared if they did.

The second observation, even more minor, occurred during the Act I mad scene. At the point just before she discovers the discarded sword, when she first spies it on the stage floor, there are a few steps Giselle takes before she picks it up – accompanied by comparable transitional phrases in the score. But Hurlin was too close to the sword (perhaps because it wasn’t quite tossed far enough), and at the moment she saw it, from my vantage point it looked like she was already almost on top of it. So those additional few steps were executed like baby steps, to keep pace with the score.

That’s all. I said they were minor. Every meaningful aspect of the role she delivered at or above expectations – including the Act I “mad” scene and as a spirit in Act II, where her demeanor struck a realistic balance between stoicism and expression without over-emphasizing either.

Among those nuances that all great ballerinas add to a performance to make it their own (and which may vary from performance to performance, even by the same ballerina) was one Hurlin added that I had no recollection of ever seeing previously. After her first Act I dance, when her mother emerges from the house, Giselle hides behind Loys/ Albrecht before springing her little surprise appearance for her mother. All Giselles do that. But Hurlin didn’t just hide: while she was behind Albrecht, and in character knowing her mother would disapprove of her dancing, she noticeably and endearingly wiped and hand-fanned away her faux sweat in an attempt to conceal what she’d been doing. Of course, in narrative context, her mother discovered it anyway, but it was such a “real” moment (as well as a low-level comic one) that it ratcheted up the likeability level even higher than by that point it already was. I hope she keeps this in future portrayals (nuances evolve over time) – this one’s a keeper.

But to me the most surprising aspect of her performance was her ability to move an audience. I’ve seen so many Giselle performances over time that only the finest make an impression beyond respect, appreciation, and at times, awe. Hurlin’s portrayal was so well done that I found myself choking back a reflexive tear or two.

As her Albrecht, Camargo’s New York role debut was quite good as well, and the two make a good stage pair (though the best, which ABT apparently doesn’t want to pursue, is Hurlin/ Bell). But although his Act II was very well done, Camargo’s Act I needs some work. Entering the opening scene haughty, full of himself, and acting like a noxious cad is nothing unusual in an Albrecht, but at some point before Giselle dies Albrecht needs to show something resembling love, or as good as it may be, Act II looks false. Until she was dead, Camargo’s Albrecht showed nothing except anger (in general as well as at Hilarion) – and regret at being found out.

On the other hand, Camargo’s Act II was quite good; his entrechats solo was executed well, and his closing image, walking backward horizontally and ultimately kneeling while looking mournfully at Giselle’s grave as the curtain came down, was a very fine individual conception.

Skylar Brandt and Herman Cornejo in “Giselle”
Photo by Rosalie O’Connor

At Wednesday evening’s performance, Brandt delivered another superb Giselle portrayal, but one that was slightly different from her 2021 NYC role debut at the Koch Theater. At that time, I noted some extraordinary nuances that she had injected into the role; none of them was repeated here (although it’s possible, since nuances can last a matter of fleeting seconds or less, that I just missed them). Most significantly, in her prior outing, Brandt’s Giselle acted downtrodden and a bit petulant (just a bit) when her mother tells her to leave Loys/ Albrecht and get inside the house (in the moment before the first of the two hand waves): the image, lasting maybe two seconds, looked like: “aw ma, you never let me do anything.” I thought it made perfect sense as a somewhat updated slant on Giselle’s inherent Act I natural demeanor, but I saw nothing similar at this performance. [Perhaps it was a coaching decision. I noted following her 2021 NYC role debut that Trenary’s portrayal added a similar nuance, but it too is now gone. If so, that decision should be reconsidered; it helps make Giselle look real to a contemporary observer, and does no harm.]

The other change, also in Act I, was in how her Giselle responded to the visiting nobles. Instead of displaying natural awe, here Brandt exaggerated the awe by moving in almost slow motion as she directed the nobles to the table that had been prepared for them. Being awestruck and afraid to do anything wrong isn’t inappropriate in that situation, but looking unnaturally so is – especially since I can recall seeing no one else who handles this moment in that way. And it conflicts with the moment immediately afterward when her Giselle can’t help but touch Bathilde’s dress.

But, as with Hurlin’s portrayal, neither of these nit-picky criticisms really matter. Her performance overall was very natural and real in every respect.

That being said, as was the case with Coker’s Peasant Pas solos at the same Wednesday evening performance, Brandt’s Giselle was marred by the extraordinarily slow conducting of every solo she danced. Indeed, the conducting at this performance  (as opposed to the Wednesday afternoon and Saturday afternoon performances) appeared pre-planned to be more spiffy and concert-like than attuned to the needs of the ballerina; not only was the tempo for the ballerinas’ solos slowed to a relative crawl, but also at certain moments the music’s decibel level was lowered to the point where I, sitting in the orchestra, could barely hear it – only to be increased in volume as the variation proceeded to provide a more musically dramatic effect. Again, nice for a concert, but not for a ballet when stage action is taking place. To her credit, Brandt adjusted and delivered perfectly-timed execution, albeit at a slower pace than she had in her prior outing.

Since the male variations were conducted at a normal tempo, her Albrecht had no such problems. Nor did his portrayal display any apparent faults. I’ve been critical of Cornejo’s performances recently for one reason or another, but credit where it’s due – here his combination of technique and characterization was spot on in every respect; to me, this was his finest overall performance in years.

Cassandra Trenary (center)
and American Ballet Theatre in “Giselle”
Photo by Rosalie O’Connor

On Saturday afternoon, Trenary’s Giselle showed considerable improvement from her initial effort, and was very much in keeping with the quality of the other Giselles I saw this week. Her Act I built on the lessons she learned so well in Like Water for Chocolate a week earlier; like her Tita, her performance was perfectly appropriate and natural in every respect.

The only significant flaw in Trenary’s performance was that her hops en pointe weren’t en pointe; rather, they were hops to the beat from what appeared to be a flat-footed position. As I recall, the diagonal hops were problematic in her 2021 Giselle as well, but I think the problem here might have had a different cause: on the very first hop, en pointe, I noticed what appeared to be an instant reaction – as if she’d felt a twinge in her ankle or otherwise recognized that her ankle wouldn’t support hops en pointe, and abandoned the rest of them as a protective measure. I don’t know whether that’s what happened, but she faked the diagonal hops well, and whatever problem there was did not impact her overall performance in the least.

And although I missed the nuances Trenary included in her 2021 performance (including the one referenced above), she included others. Most significant, to me, was her response to receiving the necklace from Bathilde. All Giselles react with surprise or elation or disbelief (or, in the case of one recent extraordinary debut, Sarah Lane’s, that she didn’t deserve it), but Trenary carried that through to the nobles’ departure at the end of that scene, when she thanked Bathilde a second time, and shortly thereafter cradled the pendant looking as if it she’d received an unexpected blessing as she followed her mother through her door. Nice touch. And Trenary’s was the only Giselle, during this round of performances, who recognized the meaning of the church bell at the end of Act II and visibly reacted accordingly.

Her Albrecht, James Whiteside, proved a huge surprise – at least to me. I was turned off immediately when he first entered at the beginning of Act I: his way of acting noble was to stick his chest out, but doing so looked awkward and an over-compensation for the absence of a noble bearing. [It was something akin to what Daniil Simkin used to do (but not anymore): simulating a noble bearing by sticking his nose into the air.] But everything Whiteside did thereafter was pitch perfect, and his is the only Albrecht I can recall seeing, ever, who clearly apologized to Giselle before her mad scene even began. This was a shocking moment, in a good way, and one that seems so appropriate that it’s inexplicable that, to my knowledge, it hasn’t been done before.

All three of these pairs of performances were delivered at exceptionally high levels, and I doubt that the average audience-member would have noticed anything worth criticizing at all. I mention them because that’s what critics are supposed to do … and I suppose to prove I was there.

[An aside that I still feel compelled to note where appropriate. The only recent ABT Giselle I’ve seen whose performances were different in quality from other recent Giselles was Sarah Lane’s. While appearing natural and emotionally compelling is an imperative that all great Giselles bring to their portrayals (including the three I saw this week), I’ve seen no one who delivered the depth of soul or the panoply of emotions that Lane’s Giselle did. It’s a shame, and to me something of a disgrace, that she’s no longer among the superb mix of Giselles that ABT now has. But it’s a problem with a remedy.

Life isn’t fair, and neither is ballet. But fundamental fairness is a different consideration, and appears, at least on the surface (I must emphasize that I have no first-hand knowledge whatsoever) to have been denied here. It’s the observation of the lawyer I was in my previous life, as well as the ardent balletomaniac I remain now. I have no idea whether at this point Lane would want to return to ABT even if the opportunity were offered, or would be in a position to do so. But the effort should be made to right a wrong.]

Fangqi Li in “Giselle”
Photo by Rosalie O’Connor

The supporting casts in the three Giselle performances I saw were also noteworthy. Each of the Myrtas (Fanqi Li on Wednesday afternoon and Chloe Misseldine at the other two performances) delivered highly credible performances. Li, in her role debut, was shockingly good – she looked the ideal venomous Wili, as well as a technically capable one, throughout. Her performance was a knockout. In comparison, Misseldine’s that evening was very well done, but not quite at the same lethal level. Perhaps it was a consequence of having to replace the originally-scheduled Myrta for that performance, because any deficiency was thoroughly remedied in her Saturday afternoon performance. In that outing, Misseldine’s Myrta was exceptional in every respect.

Each of the three Hilarions I saw (each, to my understanding, a NYC role debut) delivered highly refined performances. On Wednesday afternoon, Jarod Curley was the perfect foil for Camargo’s Albrecht, as was Patrick Frenette on Saturday afternoon for Whiteside. On Wednesday evening, Andrii Ishchuk assumed the role opposite Cornejo. I don’t recall seeing him in a featured role previously, and he acquitted himself very well. None of them was the stereotypical country bumpkin or rough-edged lout who frequently populated past ABT Hilarion portrayals. These three were very strong and ardent suitors, whose only flaw was sensing the truth and acting on it. None deserved their fate. [But an unanticipated consequence of playing Hilarion this way is to seriously wonder whether, and why, Giselle picked the wrong guy — aside from the obvious fact that the story requires it.] And as Wilfred, Albrecht’s squire, Frenette and Duncan Lyle executed the role well on Wednesday afternoon and Saturday afternoon respectively, but Luis Ribagorda, on Wednesday evening, has honed this role to perfection. Finally, I must note that the ABT corps, at each performance, lacked nothing whatsoever in performance quality. They’re a highly impressive group.

As I’ve written previously, Giselle is my favorite ballet, and the favorite of most everyone I know. Behind its story of a village maiden’s eternal love for a man who doesn’t deserve it is a cathartic story of love and redemption that never loses its appeal and never fails to melt the heart and sear the soul. I look forward to another round of Giselles the next time ABT returns it to the repertory.