Revenge Is Sweet in Ballet’s Preeminent Ghost Story
The classic story ballet Giselle greets the future while keeping its history in Pacific Northwest Ballet’s stunning staging. It performs through this Sunday, with a streaming version available through February 20.
“Oh gee,” sighed my friend as the curtain came down on Duke Albert of Silesia, flung prostrate on the grave of his beloved Giselle. “He got what he deserved!”
The audience leapt to its feet on the opening night of Pacific Northwest Ballet’s Giselle, hundreds of ballet fans apparently also pleased that the two-timing duke, danced expertly by PNB principal dancer James Kirby Rogers, regretted his disastrous philandering in Act I.
Giselle premiered in Paris in 1841 and has since been performed on hundreds of stages around the world. Based loosely on a Slavic folk tale, the story follows the tragedy of a young peasant girl who falls in love and promises to marry a handsome duke disguised as a commoner. When the duke’s other fiancee arrives with a squad of fellow noble men and women, Giselle goes mad with grief at her betrayal and dies of a broken heart. When the curtain rises on Act II, the duke and his friends are lost in the forest and besieged by a group of Wilis, ghosts of maidens who have been wronged by their lovers. The Wili queen, Myrtha, commands Giselle’s ghost to engage Albert in a passionate dance to the death, but Giselle’s undying love for her duke overpowers the queen and the duke lives to dance another day.
On opening night, Giselle was performed by veteran principal dancer Lesley Rausch. Now in her 22nd year with the company, Rausch has danced the role of Giselle before but this season her artistry is at its finest. Rausch’s playful, girlish Giselle transforms so convincingly into madness and grief that the theatre was silent during her performance in the latter half of Act I, the only sounds coming from the mournful streams of Alexander Grimes’s viola and the soft patter of Rausch’s pointe shoes on the stage.
Myrtha, Queen of the Wilis, performed by principal dancer Elle Macy, was deliciously evil. Macy bourrees onstage into Act II’s foreboding forest scene, her feet hidden by thick clouds of white mist so she appears to float, erstwhile staring at the audience with such an expression of ill intent that the forest appears darker with her arrival. The role of Myrtha, to quote a post from Macy’s Instagram, is a “technical beast,” but Macy dances it with the strength of an Olympic athlete.
Scenic and costume designer Jérôme Kaplan’s Act II set, lit by lighting designer Randall G. Chiarelli, is a treat unto itself. Intricate foliage winds through life-size tree trunks, bushes, and marshes. An abandoned church sits on top of a far-off hill in the distance; in between the church and the trees, a glittering pond gives astounding depth to the McCaw Hall stage. Kaplan is one of a small army of artists involved in the company’s production of Giselle. With two historical advisors, choreography from four dance makers spanning three centuries, music from three composers, and two librettists, Giselle is a labor of love and commitment to both artistic innovation and historical accuracy.
“[Giselle’s] creators really knew what they were doing,” said dance historian Marian Smith during a pre-dress rehearsal panel discussion. Combining elements from the original choreography gleaned from three separate historical sources allowed Smith and fellow historian Doug Fullington to embrace the compelling characters while exploring the current dance artists’ own technical and artistic nuances.
Whether it’s an ancient tale of true love or an early incarnation of the #MeToo movement, PNB’s revival of Giselle is a victory for classical ballet in the 21st century. Currently celebrating its 50th season, the company was built on a solid foundation of American classical ballet but has a diverse contemporary repertoire as well as an increasingly diverse company. Black and Filipina principal dancers and soloists are among the performers in the roles of Giselle, Albert, and Myrtha, and non-binary dancers flitted through the corps of Wilis and Act I villagers. At some point, casting like this will no longer be a rarity. But for now it is but one of the many reasons PNB’s Giselle is a story of victory over hatred and heartache.
Giselle runs through 2/12 at Pacific Northwest Ballet (in McCaw Hall, Seattle Center/Mercer side). Tickets ($44-$202) here. Accessibility notes: main restrooms are gendered and multi-stall, with gender-neutral, single-stall restrooms available by most of them. Theatre and common areas are wheelchair accessible. Financial accessibility note: Pay-what-you-choose tickets available for Thursday night’s performance (2/9); see info here. A streaming version is available 2/16-20; see info here.
Melody Datz Hansen is a freelance dance writer in Seattle. Her work is published in The Seattle Times, The Stranger, City Arts, and on her blog at melodydatz.com.