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'Giselle' Offers Possible Glimpse of Louisville Ballet's Future

This week sees the beginning of a new era at the Louisville Ballet. Its 2014-2015 season kicks off with Giselle, the first production at which audiences will be able to begin to glean new artistic director Robert Curran's aesthetic. Giselle, together with the bulk of the current season was, of course, programmed by outgoing artistic director Bruce Simpson. And it is a strong choice for a company that during his tenure developed a strong sensibility for the Romantic ballets (as well as a vibrant approach to contemporary choreography.)At Friday night's performance, the roles of Giselle and Albrecht were danced by Erica De La O and Kris Wojtera. Their reception at the end of the evening was rapturous. This popular pairing brought to the tragic lovers both a joie de vivre in the early scenes and a keening sense of grief in Act Two. De La O's footwork in act one was clean and precise, giving a buoyancy to the discovery of a new love. Wojtera is able to embody both a princely demeanor and a sense of fun—with the latter winning over not only Giselle but the audience too, allowing us to connect with Albrecht (before we discover he's actually engaged to another woman).   The adagio duet between De La O and Wojtera in Act Two was haunting, manifesting their desire to be together across the void of death.  The mad scene in Act One was strongly acted; the relationship and conflict among Giselle, Albrecht and Hilarion (Phillip Velinov) was palpable and painful. De La O's delineation of Giselle's fracturing of the mind was, again, precise and, for me, too self-contained. In contrast her first appearance in Act Two, when Myrthe (Natalia Ashikhmina) commands her to dance, demonstrated an involuntary wildness, a quality that would have intensified the Act One finale. Velinov's Hilarion was a successfully well-rounded characterization. The challenge with Hilarion is to make him more than the obligatory obstacle to the main love story. Velinov brought a nobility of bearing to this forester and a desperation to protect Giselle. The conflict between Albrecht and Hilarion was well-balanced, Wojtera and Velinov being well-matched adversaries.  Hilarion's dance to the death in Act Two at the hands of the Wilis was a hopeless need to survive, an evocative precursor to the final tragedy. Ashikhmina has a forceful stage presence which aids her in playing the Queen of the Wilis. And she is at her best when she is commanding the Wilis and orchestrating the fates of the two men.  At this performance her solos seemed to be too hard-working compared with her usual work. The Louisville Ballet is to be commended for its ability to fill the stage not only with its professional company dancers and trainees, but also with students from its school and community supporters.  In recent seasons these additions have added heft to the large crowd scenes—in ways that have not always been true in years past. Friday night's Act One was no exception.  The number and age range of the villagers was truly impressive. And then the court of the Duke of Courland arrived! By utilizing its extended community in the non-dancing roles, the Louisville Ballet is creating a sumptuous impact for the scenes which demand witness—Giselle's madness being one of the most iconic.   Beyond the two roles already mentioned, there are few significant dance opportunities for the men of the company in Giselle .  On Friday night Ragland and Ruiz excelled in elevation and extension in their parts of the pas de dix and other variations.  It must also be noted that the full group of peasant men were not always as in unison as would be desirable.  In contrast, the combination of professional dancers and trainees making up the group of peasant girls was remarkably uniform in their divertissements—which given that there are several new trainees on this season's roster was very promising. In fact, the peasant girls were more in unison than was true for the six friends of Giselle in their variation. In Act One, a nod to the mostly-mimed roles of Albrecht's squire, Ryan Stokes, and Giselle's mother, Tiffany Bovard, and in Act Two to Emily Reinking O'Dell and Ashley Thursby in the roles of Myrthe's attendants. The evening was marred by some unfortunate technical glitches. Lighting shifts were sudden and unsubtle, drawing attention to themselves rather than enhancing the emotional tenor of the scenes.  The recorded accompaniment likewise drew attention to itself in unfortunate ways. Several times a musical selection was cut off before the natural resonance of the notes had resolved, which highlighted that we were not listening to a live orchestra.  There were also times when the volume was increased exponentially, and this was not supported by the energy on the stage—again something that a live conductor would sense, and navigate in concert with the dancers.  On a side note, at performances where recordings are used, it would be of interest to the audience to know which orchestra's interpretation is being used. On Friday evening there were fleeting suggestions, from overture to curtain calls, that Curran is a traditionalist in form and presentation.  This is in line with the rich international traditions that his two predecessors have brought to Louisville. Later this fall (Studio Connections in November) balletomanes will have an opportunity to gauge how Curran balances the wealth of tradition with the promise of new choreography.