SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y.— When the Romantic era ballet "Giselle" premiered in 1841, an exciting aspect for audiences was the spectacular theatrical effects created by the then-new gas lighting: the work's gothic subplot — the second act unfolds in a forest infested with female vampire/ghosts called wilis — was made eerily "real" by mysterious shadows. However, as the recent appearance by the National Ballet of Cuba at the outdoor Saratoga Performing Arts Center demonstrated, "Giselle" can also be appreciated al fresco.
The ballet's belief-suspending scenario and reliance on theatrical illusions aside, it is, after all, a story steeped in nature. Like the second act's forest setting, the first act occurs entirely outdoors, in the homey little village where the title character lives, loves, and, in the famously dramatic "mad scene," dies. OK, so at a matinee, which is what I attended, one has to suspend even further: the mythology of the wilis dictates that they're not able to withstand the light of day. But what matters, what makes a ballet like "Giselle" "work" is that, like many classic operas, books, and plays, its plot is timeless: it's about love. Alas for Giselle, she is doubly-doomed. An innocent teenager who lives a quiet life with her mother in their simple hut, Giselle's love of dancing is endangered by her weak heart while her love life is (unbeknownst to her) jeopardized by her lover's lying ways. (The person who she thinks is Loys, a fellow villager, is really Albrecht, a nobleman who's in disguise — and already has a fiancee.)
Thus, ballerinas portraying Giselle are tasked with developing the daunting physical and dramatic qualities necessary to making the character's duality believable. Sadaise Arencibia, one of the company's Premier Danseurs, largely succeeded in both realms; interestingly, it was as the second act "spirit" that she was at her most palpable. Her first act Giselle was sweet, unassuming, but perhaps a touch too retiring physically. Then again, the whole ballet seemed to dawdle at first at this show: everyone was dancing well enough, but the ineffable fuse that makes a performance crackle was delayed (and then intermittent). Deep into the first act, the match seemed finally lit, in what is usually the "Peasant Pas de Deux," but is in this production a dance for six women and four men. The men in particular exploded and catapulted, their glorious legs slicing out like javelins or tucking up like diamonds. If their group timing wasn't pristine, their puppy-like excitement made it forgivable.
Herein lies one of the curious dichotomies of this particular company: founded by Alicia Alonso (now in her late nineties, for decades she herself was a legendary portrayer of Giselle) the National Ballet of Cuba and its affiliated schools are respected institutions that on the one hand produce exceptional dancers but on the other hand can at times seem fusty. Cubans are prominent in the ranks of many ballet companies worldwide — their rigorous training often results in excitingly virtuosic yet classically-pure dancers — but a curiously outdated sense of staging, paulement and port de bras sometimes sucks the life out of the dancers' movements as well as the pulsing sense of continuity necessary to live performance. (Then there's the unconscionable fact that one of the darker-skinned women in the ensemble seemed to be covered in some kind of "lightening" powder.)
The usually poetic second act in particular suffered from both clunky pacing and, occasionally, some dippy choreography for the wilis and their queen, Myrtha: though much of the familiar, "original" choreography attributed to Jean Coralli and Jules Perrot is used, the dancers seem to have been coached to move, rather than with a somber austerity, as if partially frozen in a state of rigor mortis. (Never mind trying to figure out what on earth those incongruously coy little hip shifts are about. The hunched-over skitter runs, which the women do with their arms scooped behind, are just silly.) Nonetheless, the wilis corps de ballet was often sublime, the unison work both exacting and musical; in the scant chances they were afforded, the women jumped with feverish precision, infusing the scene with a welcome sense of cadence.
And it was in the second act that Arencibia really took flight — even as her character was being consigned to the grave. Though now steeped in her stoic/tragic mask of death, Arencibia was transcendent, calm and strong in the difficult solo adagio sequences and fleet in the contrasting, devilishly brisk petit allegro phrases. Here too is where her Albrecht, Raul Abreu, made up for his melodramatic miming and often low-key physicality. A crucial key to Giselle's beauty is how much, for the moment, we believe in it. As Abreu lifted Arencibia, with apparent effortlessness, again and again, we saw a mortal man, suffering: trying to hold onto what he now knows is the best thing he'll ever have, her seeming weightlessness tells him and us that she's already gone.
Janine Parker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org