"GISELLE," Ballet West, through Nov. 16, Capitol Theatre, 50 W. 200 South (801-355-2787 or arttix.org); running time: 2 hours (one 20-minute intermission)
Arolyn Williams was living her dream during Ballet West’s opening night of “Giselle,” which runs through Nov. 16 at the Capitol Theatre. Her elation was palpable as she stepped onto the stage to dance the title role, and for two hours, the audience seemed spellbound by her every move.
Years ago, Williams caught the attention of “Dance Magazine” for the ferocity with which she met dramatic roles. During the interview, she admitted that although she’d snagged great parts as a ballerina, her dream was to dance as Giselle.
Perhaps it’s the famous “mad scene” that makes the role a theatrical measuring stick, and Williams’ interpretation Friday evening was stirring. It’s the moment in the ballet when everything falls apart for the fragile, childlike heroine.
Most of the first act weaves a charming storybook love between two peasants in the midst of a harvest festival. But when Giselle learns she’s been deceived by her love, who turns out to actually be a prince betrothed to another, she completely loses it.
After her first collapse at the news, she stands up in perfect stillness, her back to the audience, her feet apart, her hair unpinned. The suspension of time is electrifying and horrific. Then she slowly turns around, wandering, circling, spinning, smiling and sobbing. The villagers stare in horror as their darling Giselle unravels, dancing like a ghost before their eyes. Then, in a flash, she’s grabbing a knife and plunging it into her chest — or in most versions of the ballet, dying suddenly of a broken heart.
The “mad scene” is so moving and terrible, it’s made a 170-year-old stamp in history.
It’s no wonder Williams won the role. Her doe-eyed innocence and feather-light movement quality created a stark contrast to her plunge into insanity. Even in the throes of shivering lunacy, her dancing was eerily beautiful.
During Act 2, Williams borrowed from that same eerie exquisiteness to portray Giselle’s ghost in the company of a host of other she-ghosts known as Wilis. The corps’ mastery of weightlessness created a chilling atmosphere. Audible gasps could be heard as one ballerina and then another bourréed across the stage so smoothly they appeared to be floating slightly above the fog-filled stage, shrouded head to toe-shoe in a veil of paper-thin white tulle.
Christiana Bennett, who danced as Myrthe, queen of the Wilis, held a commanding presence. Her precision and jaw-dropping extension always dazzles. Other noteworthy performances included Christopher Ruud, who danced as Prince Albrecht with power and raw emotion. When Giselle’s ghost saves him from certain death in the clutches of Myrthe and the other Wilis, he is left to live with himself and his own heartbreak. Ruud convincingly transformed from thoughtless cad to tragic figure worthy of tears as the curtain lowered in a dramatic finish.
Rex Tilton, who danced as Hilarion, the peasant who uncovers Albrecht’s deceit and later gets killed by the Wilis, seemed to be made for the role. His innocent love-for-life take on the character made him seem lovable instead of scheming. Tilton exudes joy and simplicity when he dances, as if he’s had springs implanted into his feet.
Speaking of getting air, Beau Pearson and Christopher Sellars, who led the village men during Act One’s harvest festivities, seemed never to tire from their unending succession of leaps and turns. That said, they could take some pointers from the Wilis corps on perfectly syncopated movement, as many times they seemed unable to match each other.
Finally, Adolphe Adams’ gorgeous score was done justice under the baton of Jared Oaks. The cast’s phrasing and musicality paired with the capable Ballet West Orchestra underpinned a deep appreciation for the score.
“Giselle” is one of the oldest ballets intact. It still resonates with audiences today because of its stunning aesthetic, masterful drama and heart-stopping choreography set to beautiful music.
Happily, artistic director Adam Sklute’s tweaks and edits as well as additional choreography by BW principal ballet mistress Pamela Robinson Harris added to the experience.