Pennsylvania Ballet artistic director Angel Corella has been polishing up story ballets over the past five years with revivals including Swan Lake, Le Corsaire, Don Quixote, Cinderella, et al., all ballets that Corella himself had starred in at American Ballet Theatre and guest starring in on stages around the world. At Pennsylvania Ballet, he has had varying degrees of success re-staging and streamlining these classics for contemporary audiences. Corella also wants to showcase several emerging stars from the company’s full roster, with every production, rotating dancers in different roles during the performance run, to highlights the company’s uniform technical artistry in the classical canon.
With Giselle, Corella leaves the 1841 original choreography by French classicists Jean Coralli and Jules Perrot, for all intents, under glass, and at the same time, doesn’t allow it to become a museum piece. Aside from the fact that it looks gorgeous in the Academy of Music, Giselle may even have renewed appeal with millennial dance fans by virtue of its gothic atmospherics with the tragic Giselle initiated into the netherworld of the Wilis.
The story unfolds as Prince Albrecht secretly tries to court the beautiful young Giselle by posing as a country lad. But Hilarion, Giselle’s local suitor catches on and confronts the Prince as the spring festival dancing commences and the royal hunting party decamps in the village square. The drama plays out as the peasant dances commence and the highlighted extended pas de deux danced by Thays Golz and Jack Sprance. By design without a lot of ballet fireworks, but Golz and Sprance have precision and chemistry that completely charms.
In the March 9 performance, Principals Lillian Di Piazza and Sterling Baca as Albrecht and Giselle, have immediate star power, but they are above all fine actor dancers that bring dimension to these mythical roles.
Hilarion and Albrecht continue fighting and when swords are drawn it is too much for the frail Giselle and she goes mad and collapses of a broken heart. Until that fateful scene, the first act of Giselle can be heavy going with all of its archaic dance pageantry and pantomime choreography. Some of which for contemporary ballet dancers can be a more technically challenging than 36 fouettes.
Buffering that static feel, Corella creates more animated background characters who in countless productions just stand around as scenery watching the principals fly. Corella makes sure the men’s corps depicting the villagers, for instance, looking particularly sharp and not just filler for the ensemble festival dances by the peasant women. Actually, in this performance, the PAB corps de ballet women struggled with unison and looked a little atypically rote, which they make up for the big time in Act II.
The ballet thunder of Giselle and the appearance of the full women’s corps de ballet are those lost Brides, the Wilis, floating over the stage en pointe, in a voluptuous tulle and veils over their faces, that fly off simultaneously before they dance in cross streaming arabesque over the stage. Whatever struggles the corps de ballet women had in ACT 1, they were electrifying every minute in Act II as the haunted Wilis.
Myrtle, queen of the Wilis, Alexandra Heier solo flawlessly executed in its steely precision as she summons the Wilis to initiate Giselle into the afterlife and commands them to cast Hilarion out when he visits Giselle’s grave. Corps dancer Austin Eyler captured Hilarion’s machismo, without making him an over the top bully. He struggled with some transitional pantomime choreography but made the most of the pure dance elements.
Albrecht appears in is velvet cape to bring flowers to Giselle grave and mourn. Myrtle summons Giselle to him, he feels her presence, but cannot see her as she dances near him. DiPiazza enters from her grave ramp and starts her manic reverse arabesque spin and from there, she is completely luminous as the phantom Giselle. Baca conveying pathos expressing Albrecht’s grief during the ballet pyro-techniques of the role.
With its academic score by ballet composer Adolphe Adam, admirably conducted with balance and flair by Peter Stafford Wilson. Among the outstanding soloists, harpist Mindy Cutcher and violinist Luigi Mazzocchi and not to forget PABallet orchestra’s blazing horn section. And what lusty applause erupted in the Academy when the curtain rose on the corps de ballet for their transcendent conjuring of the Wilis.