The Washington Ballet
The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts
March 1, 2017
by Ashley McKean
copyright © 2017 by Ashley McKean
Change is in the air at the Washington Ballet: the troupe’s revival of “Giselle” revealed a transformed company and a new star. After last fall’s celebration of the arrival of Julie Kent, who took the reigns as Artistic Director along with her husband, Victor Barbee, as Associate Artistic Director (both hailing from ABT), “Giselle” offered the first real glimpse of the impact these two can have on the company. Kent’s traditional vision for the company — evident from her programming, additions to the roster, and the welcome return of the Washington Ballet Orchestra (valiantly conducted by ABT’s Charles Barker) — is a departure from the company’s eclectic past.
The Washington Ballet in "Giselle." Photo © media4artists, Theo Kossenas
Such a shift made Wednesday evening’s confident and defined dancing even more remarkable. If the dancers are not yet fully at home in classical repertoire, one would never know (perhaps Kent’s coaching bridged the gap); they danced with such conviction and clarity — each dancer having an acute understanding of who he or she was—that an infrequent lapse in classical line was inconsequential. Still, the evening’s most notable revelation might have been Kent’s recent recruit from the Korean National Ballet, Eunwon Lee. At last fall’s anniversary gala, Lee’s dancing was technically sound but emotionally subdued. The role of Giselle seemed to bring her out of her shell, unveiling her understated brilliance and artistic depth.
The two act, romantic tragedy of “Giselle” — choreographed after Petipa, Perrot and Coralli and staged by Kent and Barbee — was a wise choice for Kent’s inaugural season. Danced to Adolphe Adam’s familiar score, this ballet was not new for the Washington Ballet, having been performed most recently in 2013 with the same inviting scenery by Simon Pasukh and costumes by Galina Solovyeva. Kent’s tasteful re-staging of the production is the perfect vehicle for fine-tuning technique, refining acting skills and showcasing talent in a relatively short story ballet. A large corps de ballet was the backbone of each act. Act I’s joyful and energetic Villagers displayed remarkably precise footwork that grew in difficulty and dimension throughout the Act, culminating with the well-known “Galop General” that was danced with exceptional speed and aplomb. But the corps really shone in Act II, where the ghostly and fierce Wilis, who drove the storyline, were a relentless force of nature, insuppressible like the ocean, drowning their victims in the sheer force of their persistence. Their dancing was pristinely precise, hauntingly ethereal and articulately coordinated.
Lee’s Giselle — from innocent peasant girl to death-veiled Willi — was sublimely tender and profoundly believable. Lee is a classicist through-and-through, with a spot-on center and light, accurate footwork. If her dancing is a bit reserved (at times I wished she would take more risks and luxuriate more in the music), she is a surprisingly natural actress. The first moment she was overtaken by her frail heart, stumbling weakly across the stage, I forgot for an instant that she was acting, worried for her human vulnerability. Her transition from young, love-struck teenager to delusional, grief-stricken woman was incredibly tragic and poignantly real. Once transformed into a Wili in Act II, she danced with ethereal weightlessness that was not without substance. In the pas de deux with Brooklyn Mack’s Albrecht, the two seemed connected on another realm. I had the sense that Lee’s potential has only begun to be tapped into and that her many layers, once shed, will further reveal the subtleties of her talent.
Several other standout performances rounded out the evening, including Mack’s Albrecht. He danced gallantly even if a bit too endearingly for Albrecht’s character. Mack is not a natural classical technician like Lee, but his go-for-broke attitude, admirable partnering skills and solid jumps impressed. Ayano Kimura’s and Andile Ndlovu’s Peasant Pas de Deux was full of freshness and vitality, with Kimura displaying an ample jump and playful sense of timing. Ndlovu has great potential but looks as if he’s still being molded and will benefit from Barbee’s coaching. Last but certainly not least, Franscesca Dugarte’s Myrta made me wonder where this dancer has been. In fact she has been right here, but not dancing with the exceptional confidence she showed on Wednesday. Her Myrta enveloped the stage with unshakable command, rock solid technique and magnetic stage presence. What potential this company — and these dancers — have under Kent’s leadership!
copyright © by Ashley McKean