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American Ballet Theater's Gothic 'Giselle'

Hee Seo and Cory Stearns in Giselle. Photo: Gene Schiavone

American Ballet Theater returned to the Kennedy Center Opera House this week with a Giselle heavy on the supernatural side of this classic work. The Wilis, the angry spirits of jilted maidens, should inspire fear, something that many productions miss in their fluffy, white softness. The ABT Giselle, the Coralli-Perrot-Petipa choreography staged by Kevin McKenzie, definitely hit its stride in the ghostly second act.

Other Articles:

Sarah L. Kaufman, A ‘Giselle’ that whirls with unusual lyricism (Washington Post, February 12)

---, Ballet dancers have weird and quirky pre-show rituals that would put any sports star to shame (Washington Post, February 6)

Carolyn Kelemen, Former Howard County ballerina is back at the Kennedy Center, this time as a soloist in ‘Giselle’ (Baltimore Sun, February 12)

Gia Kourlas, Skylar Brandt: A Ballerina Invests in Herself (New York Times, February 6)
The company brought back the beautifully matched pairing of Hee Seo and Corey Stearns, who were so heart-breaking together in their Swan Lake in 2017. Seo had an ideal combination of characterizations for the role: pert yet shy as the lovestruck girl, unraveled and distraught when she learns that the lover who has stolen her heart is already engaged to another, and wispy as vapor as the cursed spirit. Besides the finely tuned dramatic sense, Seo's infallible technique put her among the finest Giselles seen here in the last decade, including EunWon Lee, Svetlana Zakharova, Aurélie Dupont, and -- still at the top -- Diana Vishneva.

Stearns was no less accomplished in either regard, his strong body lifting Seo effortless and forming beautifully delineated lines. The score, performed with panache by the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra, has rarely sounded this good, made more lush and polished in the orchestration by John Lanchbery, who died in 2003. Conductor Ormsby Wilkins, who did not seem in his element conducting a much more complex Strauss score in Whipped Cream in 2018, shaped each halting phrase of the love music with exquisite sensitivity, helping to make the Act II pas de deux so moving. At its climax, when Stearns held Seo perfectly still above him in effortless lifts, it was as if she floated above him in the spirit world, only temporarily visible to him.

The set design helped create the forbidding sense of a forest haunted by spirits, with lightning flashes behind a large hollow tree (scenery by Gianni Quaranta and lighting by Jennifer Tipton). It was the severe Myrta, Queen of the Wilis, of the tall and somewhat icy Devon Teuscher that brought out the harshness of the scene. The edge of her movements and sharp face seemed to inform the cold precision of ABT's well-drilled corps, all clad in the traditional white (costumes by Anna Anni). One could only feel sorry at the fate of Hilarion (the proud, defiant Roman Zhurbin) as he faced the implacable wall of these vengeful spirits.

Giselle runs through February 16 in the Kennedy Center Opera House, with different casts and conductors.

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