Long a staple in houston Ballet's repertoire, Giselle is the story of a young girl who falls in love with a nobleman in disguise.
Frail and in poor health, Giselle dies of heartbreak when she discovers her nobleman is already engaged to another woman. She is resurrected as a Wili, one of an army of ghostly maidens who died brokenhearted and now haunt a forest where they capture young men like the ones who jilted them and force them to dance to their death.
When Stanton Welch choreographed his version of Giselle in 2016, he set the role of Giselle on Yuriko Kajiya, who performed brilliantly on opening night.
Giselle, as performed by Kajiya, is an unselfish, simple, and trusting girl. Innocence personified. She loves to dance. She loves Albrecht. She loves her friends and family in the village. She loves, loves, loves.
In the first act, Giselle seems to mature every time she dances with Albrecht, moving from an adolescent to young womanhood. When Hilarion, a young villager in love with Giselle, performed by Christpher Coomer, reveals Albrecht’s true identity, the young girl realizes the depth of the deception. The pain is too much, and she goes mad.
It’s a spectacular scene. Giselle repeats some of the steps she danced with Albrecht, but now instead of graceful and lively, she’s broken and disjointed. Like a damaged marionette, she moves in flurry of jerks and clumsy jumps. Finally, in a frenzy, she leaps into Albrecht’s arms then falls dead.
Albrecht, performed by Connor Walsh, is a complex, complicated character. He’s a nobleman, but he’s been pretending to be a commoner. He meets and falls in love with Giselle, forgetting, perhaps, that he’s already engaged. When his betrothed arrives in the village, his deception is exposed and Giselle goes mad at the news. He’s horrified as he watches the young woman devolve into madness and is stricken when she falls dead. After Giselle’s death, he grieves at her grave in the forest.
So, is he a liar? Absolutely. Does he actually love her? Yes. And how, exactly was he going to marry both Giselle and the noblewoman? Ah, apparently he didn’t think that far ahead.
From his regal entrance in the first act to his final grief-stricken pose at the end of the second act, Walsh plays Albrecht as sympathetically as possible. His dance before the Wilis, fighting for his life, requires not only impressive strength and stamina but grace. And but for Walsh’s charisma, Albrecht’s deceptive actions would make him completely unappealing.
As Hilarion, Christopher Coomer is strangely earth-bound, never really soaring, never truly heroic. Perhaps it’s the unlikability of the character—even if he is in love with Giselle, it’s his insistence in exposing Albrecht that breaks the young girl’s heart.
The second act takes place in the forest where the Wilis rise from the mist and capture Hilarion and Albrecht, intending to force the men to dance to their death. A new initiate, Giselle also rises. But instead of tormenting the men, she tries to protect Albrecht, pleading with the leader of the Wilis to spare him.
The second act's choreography features endless bourrées, and it's glorious. Giselle and the Wilis glide across the stage, seeming to hover just above the ground when in fact the dancers are taking dozens and dozens of tiny steps. The women move in near perfect unison.
One of the most beautiful scenes features the Wilis in full arabesque moving from one side of the stage to the other in a series of small, slow hops. It’s somber, even sorrowful and ominous. The Wilis’ costumes seem to be made of smoke, not tulle, and each step sends the skirts swirling. The leader of the Wilis, Soo Youn Cho, earns some praise for her performance; she shoulders much of the weight of the success of the second act. But it was Yuriko Kajiya’s portrayal of Giselle that was exhilarating to watch. Over the course of two acts, she moved from innocent to madwoman to fierce protector. And as each, she was mesmerizing.
Giselle ends as dawn breaks. Hilarion is dead at the hands of the Wilis. Albrecht has survived, thanks to his own strength and Giselle’s protection. Giselle and the Wilis fade into the mist, leaving Albrecht exhausted and alone on stage.
Thru Sept 15. Tickets from $25. Wortham Center, 501 Texas Ave. 713-523-6300. More info and tickets at houstonballet.org.