Just before the curtain rose on the Joffrey Ballet’s indescribably beautiful production of “Giselle” on Wednesday night, the company’s executive director, Greg Cameron, paid homage to Ashley Wheater on the occasion of the 10th anniversary of his tenure as artistic director.
The ravishing performance that followed would prove to be tribute enough — evidence of the meticulous training of the dancers, and the many collaborations undertaken with internationally renowned contemporary choreographers.
THE JOFFREY BALLET IN ‘GISELLE’
When: Through Oct. 29
Where: Auditorium Theatre, 50 E. Congress
Tickets: $34 – $174
Run time: 2 hours, with one intermission
But ballet, much like classical music, has its crucial foundational works — the showpieces that exemplify the most defining elements of the art in terms of both style and technique, and which in many ways remain the ultimate tests of the artists who interpret them. A case in point is “Giselle,” which debuted in Paris in 1841 with original choreography by Marius Petipa (after Jean Coralli and Jules Perrot), and has been staged here in a fresh, delicate, yet fully traditional way by Lola de Avila, the Spanish-born dancer and former associate artistic director of the San Francisco Ballet School.
This exquisitely danced production, arriving after several seasons featuring a slew of distinctly modern works, reconfirms the company’s enduring connection to its deepest roots. Watching it was akin to seeing Picasso’s supremely beautiful realistic drawings after looking at his many boldly fractured modern works.
The story of “Giselle” possesses all the elements of a classic Romantic ballet. Set in a Rhineland village, Giselle (danced on opening night by the incomparable Victoria Jaiani), is a naive peasant girl of exceptional beauty, charm and modesty who is much loved by a local, Hilarion (the ever elegant Rory Hohenstein). But she instantly falls head-over-heels in love with a dashing stranger, Albrecht (Temur Suluashvili, a sublime actor and partner), who blithely pursues her while hiding the fact of his noble status and his engagement to Bathilde (Jeraldine Mendoza) a woman of his own class. This revelation will send Giselle into a state of total madness and grief, and to a quick, tragic death.
The ballet’s second act finds Albrecht in a state of intense grief and remorse as he visits Giselle’s grave. Overseeing the graveyard is Myrtha, Queen of the Wilis (an ideally stoic and self-possessed April Daly), the leader of an army of female spirits, all of whom were abandoned by their lovers before their wedding day. Still dressed in white gowns and veils, these spirits gather to seek revenge by having their betrayers dance to death. But in this case, although Myrtha refuses to pardon Albrecht, Giselle’s love saves him, and the two find peace in their separate worlds.
The reunion of Albrecht and the ghostly Giselle was so breathtakingly danced by Jaiani and Suluashvili (a real-life married couple whose physical and emotional connection make for an unparalleled partnership on stage) that a palpable hush enveloped the audience.
The choreography for “Giselle” is a combination of exuberant peasant dancing as only ballet can evoke it, paired with fiendishly difficult technical challenges for Giselle and Albrecht. Jaiani, who moves like a gazelle, is simply astonishing — as light and effortless as a flower petal blown in the wind. Just watch her making a diagonal line of jumps on pointe, or whirling in a wide array of turns as if set spinning by some unseen force, or swooning in Albrecht’s arms as if truly an otherworldly spirit. And Suluashvili’s ideal line, soundless jumps, impeccable footwork and strength (he lifts Jaiani as if she were a feather) are exceptional.
The ballet’s second act is a genuine test of the skill of the female corps whose synchrony and ghostliness must be sustained in a slew of classic formations including a long sequence of meticulously controlled cross-hatched lines of arabesques. The statuesque Daly captured Myrtha with a most restrained perfection, employing impeccable technique and look of chilly calm and suppressed pain.
Peter Farmer’s sets and costumes possess a dreamy, fairy tale-like aura. And, as ever, conductor Scott Speck leads the Chicago Philharmonic in Adolph Adam’s richly lyrical score in a way that enhances every element of the dancing. Pure enchantment.