Friday, October 2, 2009

A haunting, and haunted, Giselle

Boyko Dossev is danced to death in Giselle. Photos by Eric Antoniou.

Last night Boston Ballet opened its fall season in its official new home, the Opera House - which was looking freshened up (no cracking plaster!) as well as opened up (a big new orchestra pit) for the occasion. The Ballet chose for the occasion a re-mounting of its much-loved Giselle, as staged by Maina Gielgud - a piece the Ballet knows well, and a production which is lovely, thoughtful and subtle. The results were often wonderful - and befitting its first step onto its new stage, the Ballet generally showcased younger dancers on opening night (including the very-young Isaac Akiba, the first Bostonian to rise through the Ballet's training program to its company).

With its sparkling new website and refurbished new home, this season is all about renewal for the Ballet. But this Giselle hardly banished memories of the company's earlier versions - indeed, it seemed slightly haunted by them. The sound balance hasn't been quite figured out yet at the Opera House, for instance (the pit is much deeper than most), and of course its stage is smaller than CitiCenter's, so even this production's modest pageantry at times looked slightly cramped. (I know - damn you again, Josiah Spaulding, Jr.! We're just going to have to live with the Opera House.)

As for the dancing - much of it was superb. Erica Cornejo's Giselle (at left) was technically impeccable (Cornejo always is); this time her dreamily supple legwork seemed almost ethereal. Meanwhile, as the prince who falls for her despite being betrothed to another, Nelson Madrigal danced with verve and romantic spirit, and brought a convincing dramatic development to his character (who realizes too late how deeply he has touched his summer crush). For her part, Cornejo revealed surprising dramatic depths in her shell-shocked response once the Prince's deception was revealed (by another jealous boyfriend). Over her time with the Ballet, Cornejo has grown enormously as an actress. And needless to say her heartbreaking re-iteration of her earlier, love-struck steps was perfection. But a few melodramatic acting strokes, and perhaps not enough of a hint of Giselle's essential fragility earlier on, meant that Cornejo couldn't quite match memories of the Ballet's own Larissa Ponomarenko as the shattered heroine slipped into madness and death.

The other big dancing news of the first act was the debut of local-boy-made-good Isaac Akiba, who acquitted himself well in the "Peasant Pas de Deux," partnering the sweetly expert Misa Kuranaga. A balance issue marred one complicated landing, and you could see it register in the kid's eyes; but Mr. Akiba should take heart - in general he impressed with a fresh energy, an exuberant stage presence, and crisp beats and legwork (if not the longest extension). We look forward to seeing him again in other roles, and soon.

In the cemetery-set second act, the stars fought for attention with the imperious Kathleen Breen Combes, who commanded her squadrons of ghostly virgins with nearly, but not quite, the same level of cold panache she'd brought to earlier versions (somehow that extra drop of vengeful relish had gone missing). The corps was in fine shape, however - probably better than ever, in fact, and Meghan Gray and Heather Waymack (at top) made the most of their torment of Boyko Dossev, Giselle's other swain, who gets danced to his death in the moonlight for his part in her demise. For my money, Dossev is now the best male actor the company's got, and I long to see him in a lead; still, it's always wonderful to see how much he makes of the many character roles he's given.

This was a fine night for Madrigal too - in a role with intense second-act demands - and he and Cornejo found a touching connection at the finale, as the forgiving Giselle intercedes to keep her repentant lover alive until daylight. Indeed, as Combes and her ghostly "Wilis" receded into the mist, an atmosphere of redemption was palpable in the theatre - as well as a survivor's sense of determination. It was hard not to draw the implied moral from Giselle - to triumph in its new home, all the Ballet has to do is keep dancing.