For all its tragic romance – love conquers all or whatever other cliché is readily at hand – American Ballet Theatre’s Giselle, with its resplendent second-act wilis, ties more closely to another idiom: to err is human, to forgive is divine on every level.

Hee Seo in <i>Giselle</i> © Gene Schiavone
Hee Seo in Giselle
© Gene Schiavone

Staged by Kevin McKenzie with scenery and costume designs by Gianni Quaranta and Anna Anni, this production holds to the classic roots that make Giselle such an archetype of ballet repertoire. Opening on a simple village framed by arbors of autumn leaves with a castle far enough in the distance to see but not consume focus, the set mirrors the plot afoot. A low-born Giselle falls in love with the high-born Count Albrecht who, wanting to cast off his laurels for a moment, has disguised himself as a peasant. McKenzie’s staging cleverly links Giselle with Albrecht: Giselle kisses the hem of Bathilde’s opulent red gown before she realizes Albrecht is engaged to her, and later, when Giselle collapses in death, Albrecht holds her threadbare hem to his lips as well. Ever pure and kind, Giselle stays true to him even after dying of a broken heart, passionately advocating for clemency over justified vengeance meted out by the wilis.

Devon Teuscher as Myrta in <i>Giselle</i> © Gene Schiavone
Devon Teuscher as Myrta in Giselle
© Gene Schiavone

As Giselle, Hee Seo poignantly captured her unbridled naïveté while delivering technique that spoke years of experience. Cory Stearns, as Count Albrecht, similarly held court, spinning and leaping with precision beyond his short-sighted character. The chemistry between the two rose to a heart-rending pitch at the close of the ballet, when Seo dazzled as she sent Stearns away from certain death to live out life with another woman.

While the first act was merry and bright, Devon Teuscher as Myrta, queen of the wilis, radically ushered in the mystical dark night of the second act with thrilling bourrées, floating effortlessly across the stage. With her entrance, Teuscher manifested an entirely different mood – almost as if beginning another ballet entirely of otherworldly Khaleesi’s taking back their power in moonlight. The coordination of the wilis reinforced the mood Teuscher set, creating two seamless lines of white tulle rising and falling in unison both intoxicating and commanding. It felt overwhelmingly inevitable that the strapping Hilarion, Giselle’s other suitor, would fall prey to them at no fault of Roman Zhurbin, who danced his fate impeccably.

Hee Seo and Cory Stearns in <i>Giselle</i> © Gene Schiavone
Hee Seo and Cory Stearns in Giselle
© Gene Schiavone

No doubt the firm musical foundation conductor Ormsby Wilkins laid anchored all the magic of this romantic ballet. Wilkins cast a brisk tempo to open the first act and continued to adeptly pull and push the pace given what was happening on stage. The solos, particularly from the violin and wind sections, mirrored whatever pas de deux was happening up above beautifully, and opening the second act, Wilkins drew ominously round tones from the brass to match the dark shadows and fearsome lightening to come.

Forgiveness is rarely sweeter than revenge. In this Giselle, the second act – ethereal and prepossessing – made a compelling case.

****1