You could feel the anticipation in the air on opening night at Houston Ballet’s premiere of its revised Giselle—the beloved, ethereal production that originally took the stage in Paris in 1841.
Artistic Director Stanton Welch’s new staging of the classic is a feast for the eyes as Giselle brings to life a wistful entwining of love and regret, with a high dosage of supernatural elements that were popular in many 19th century productions. It also touches on social commentary, with Giselle—performed by principal Yuriko Kajiya—at odds with the sophistication and entitlement of the women of the court with whom she cannot compete for the love of noble Albrecht, performed by Connor Walsh.
Act One is almost a ballet in and of itself, with a depiction of Albrecht socially passing as a peasant (Marie Antoinette style) for his own pleasure, then falling in love with the naïve Giselle in spite of social pressures against such a romantic entanglement. The feel of the Old World was palpable as the audience caught a glimpse of Giselle’s fate as a ghost in a Saxon forest during Renaissance Germany. She will become an initiate of the Queen of the Wilis, Myrtha, who reigns over the souls of jilted young girls. Heartbroken Giselle will haunt her beloved Albrecht as he sadly realizes the high stakes of his rejection of her. The foreshadowing of this shadowy world is just one of the innovations of this new interpretation.
Yet the story of Giselle’s courtship is fueled by the ballet’s reputation for its demands on the dancers themselves. It is a challenging ballet that requires a striking blend of delicacy and athleticism in scenes that range from the exuberant to the ethereal. The audience witnesses the joys of new romance, the pain of betrayal and rejection and the sublimity of tragic death and love beyond the grave. It is a heady mix of challenging choreography and a moving story, both dovetailing with each other in a way that feels simultaneously seamless and refreshing.
The day before opening night, trustee and Giselle underwriter Lynn Wyatt said she loved working with Welch, who has led the Houston Ballet since 2003. “Stanton Welch has always wanted to do a new Giselle. I’ve been talking to him for a long time about this,” Wyatt said. “He loves the story and themes of love, betrayal and forgiveness.”
She credits Welch with continuing to elevate the Houston Ballet as a world class company. “The dancers have been challenged by Stanton,” Wyatt said. “Very small or very grand, his critiques make a difference. He is detail oriented, but he also sees the whole picture.”
Wyatt also notes the superlative designs by Roberta Guidi di Bagno, an award-winning, internationally-acclaimed costume and set designer. “Audiences will gasp when they see the costumes,” Wyatt shared. “And the sets alone are just incredible.”
Guidi di Bagno said the inspiration came from a beautiful piece of leather she discovered in a specialized factory in Rome. “That same item became Giselle's bodice for Act One and inspired my entire color palette for both sets and costumes,” Guidi di Bagno said.
She went on to explain the correlation between the visual world of Giselle’s village and the trajectory of the story in Welch’s new version of the ballet:
“Stanton and I wanted Act One to visually and smoothly connect to Act Two so that they didn't look like two separate worlds. Both sets and costumes harmonize well in spite of being created separately—the sets in Italy and the costumes here at the Houston Ballet.”
For opening night, principal Yuriko Kajiya did not disappoint as Giselle, and it is easy to see how she has been Welch’s muse for the reimagining of the classic ballet. Her grace and technical ability were aided by her underscoring of Giselle’s youth and innocence, her intense emotions in both love and betrayal, and her profound vulnerability. Connor Walsh as Albrecht was electric as her lover—particularly in Act Two when he is temporarily forced to dance to the death by Myrtha’s curse, one which requires a tremendous skill and stamina with repeated entrechat vertical jumps that were thrilling to watch as they were so elevated and energetic, underscoring the excessive demands of the vengeful Wilis.
In addition to Kajiya and Walsh, other performers were especially notable. First Soloist Katharine Precourt reigned supreme as Queen Myrtha. Her self-possession completely spellbinding as she stoically performed as the ruler of an ethereal underworld dedicated to the souls of rejected and heartbroken women, doomed to a vengeful immortality and employing power in the afterlife that they never had on earth. Her steely expressions, juxtaposed with her intricate yet controlled performance, were perhaps the highlights of the ballet, and coupled with the striking performance of the corps of Wilis (including an unforgettable scene not en pointe moving across the entire stage in synchronicity, which was both astonishing and chilling and evoked spontaneous applause) made this famous ballet blanc alone worth the price of the ticket.
For the male performers, soloist Brian Waldrep—who was apparently a substitute—was absolutely convincing as Hilarion, who loves Giselle and is dramatically and cruelly thrown to his death by the relentless Wilis. Not only was his dancing technically superior, he was arguably the best actor in the entire cast, and I was surprised he was a Demi Soloist—that may not be his designation for long after such a memorable performance on opening night.
In a way, Welch’s new Giselle is a move forward as well as a coming back full circle, as this ballet was first staged as the first full-length classic by the Houston Ballet Foundation in 1967, which starred the legendary Carla Fracci. Now the fifth largest ballet company in the United States, and indisputably the strongest company in Texas, the Houston Ballet has distinguished itself with Welch’s stunning reinterpretations of the classics including Swan Lake (2006), Romeo and Juliet (2015), and now, Giselle. By restoring nearly all of Adolphe Adam’s stirring music under the direction of music director Ermanno Florio, Welch has not simply catered to balletones, but also to those who love great design and an exceptional and moving musical experience.
These elements all come together to create an intricate mosaic of detailed costumes, romantic sets and awe-inspiring choreography, allowing the company to display a sprezzatura that reminds audiences how accomplished the Houston Ballet truly is.
Thru June 19. $20-185. Wortham Theater, 501 Texas Ave. houstonballet.org