Giselle, The Washington Ballet (photo by media4artists, Theo Kossenas)
We have covered the performances of Washington Ballet here and there over the years. The increasing lack of live music in recent years, as well as the preference of former director Septime Webre for theater-hybrid productions over classical ballet, often put them low on my list. At the beginning of this season Julie Kent took over as the company's director, joined by her husband, Victor Barbee, who also left American Ballet Theater to come to Washington as associate artistic director. So far this season Kent has led the company’s anniversary performance and slightly tweaked the beloved Septime Webre Nutcracker. The current production is the couple's restaging of the classic Marius Petipa choreography of Giselle, seen on Friday night in the Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater.
Kent, who was born and Bethesda and once studied at the Academy of the Maryland Youth Ballet, has said that she aims to take Washington Ballet in a more traditional, classical direction, including performing whenever possible with a live orchestra. She has done both in this elegant Giselle, last performed in 2013. She has imprinted her experience dancing the title role on one of the three new dancers hired since her arrival, Korea's EunWon Lee, and she invited Charles Barker, principal conductor of American Ballet Theater, to conduct the small but mostly refined Washington Ballet Orchestra in the pit. Neither was the best we have seen or heard in this ballet in recent years -- the history includes Svetlana Zakharova with the Bolshoi, Aurélie Dupont with the Ballet de l'Opéra de Paris, and Diana Vishneva with the Mariinsky Ballet -- but the future is indeed bright for Washington Ballet in the Julie Kent era.
EunWon Lee was beautiful in the title role, frail and girlish in the first act and a chilling, emotionless specter in the second. In the eerie ballet blanc of the second act, she was ethereal, seeming to appear briefly in the eye of her distraught Albrecht, Brooklyn Mack, and then vanish again. When he was able to catch hold of her, she looked incorporeal, like a mysterious fog that trailed after in wisps. Her poise and stillness in the full lifts, a sign of Mack's impressive strength, were extraordinary. Mack excelled in high leaps, strength and agility trumping sensitivity, but small touches in his gestures made his anguish at the ends of both acts quite touching.
Sarah L. Kaufman, Washington Ballet’s ‘Giselle’ marks company’s transformation (Washington Post, March 3)
Alastair Macaulay, Review: ‘Giselle’ Bounds With Experience (New York Times, March 3)
The orchestra was stripped down to chamber size (6-4-3-3-2 in the strings, and with only two of the four horns and two of the three trombones indicated in the score by Adolphe Adam) and had a few insecurities, but by and large produced a lovely sound, guided expertly by Barker at the podium. The viola solo in the Act II Grand Pas de Deux was especially fine, a moment of musical wonder, presumably played by principal musician Julius Wirth.
Washington Ballet's Giselle runs through March 5, at the Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater.