Opening the 65th season for the Kansas City Ballet was a performance of Giselle choreographed by Devin Carney, after Petipa, Coralli and Perrot. It’s been a while since I’ve seen Giselle, not since my London days, and tonight’s engaging and emotionally authentic rendition reminded me just how enthralling this 181-year old ballet is, and what a transformative part it is for the prima ballerina. 

Kaleena Burks (Giselle) and Andrew Vecseri (Albrecht)
© Brett Pruitt & East Market Studios

Kaleena Burks, tonight’s Giselle, was admirable in her role, or rather roles – first as skittish, coy peasant girl, then as deranged woman with loosened hair and technique, bumping into people, and lastly as strong, gracious, protective spirit, a new archetype of femininity, meeting the Wilis’ terrible implacability with her own implacability in the service of the man she loved in life and still loves from beyond the grave. It’s no mean feat to dance and act this metamorphosis in the space of two-and-a-half hours, where you are on the stage a lot of the time. 

We are used to 19th-century ballet’s love affair with romanticised peasant culture, and while these classically-trained peasants may not be so convincing as rustics, vraisemblance is hardly the goal (the occasional foot-stamping deceives nobody, of course). Our fantasy of traditionally agrarian life involves constant communal dancing, and even more pleasing if they happen to be classically trained and dressed in fetching autumnal shades! 

Naomi Tanioka and Joshua Kiesel were the peasant highlight of Act 1; the former’s neat footwork and lithely poised head, and the latter’s elevation in his leaps, and the poise of his entrechats was a joy to watch. I mulled on the fact that the classic pas de deux structure enhances the ‘wow’ or show-off element: it’s ballet’s version of a dance-off, as each of the couple tries to out-dance the other, before coming together in dazzling combination.

Kaleena Burks (Giselle)
© Brett Pruitt & East Market Studios

The aristocratic party were dressed in richer dyes, but preserved the same felicitous autumnal palette. The addition of an Irish wolfhound to the stage was a nice touch, I felt, to point up social class distinctions, adding to the luxury in what can sometimes feel like small budget sets; I’m not sure I’d seen a live animal on stage at a ballet before. (I suspect he, at least, wasn’t classically trained, but he stood still enough for dignity). 

Albrecht really does rather well for himself for a man who is clearly playing the field, in a proto-bigamous way, causing general havoc among the happy country folk and ruining a simple girl’s future. And this Albrecht, Andrew Vecseri, was quite deserving of his ultimate escape from doom. He was expressive, young of spirit and light on his feet, hapless not malicious: there seemed a genuine chemistry between the two leads; their light-hearted kissing games and their joint skittishness felt authentically placed. 

KC Ballet Dancers in Giselle
© Brett Pruitt & East Market Studios

Poor Hilarion, the village gamekeeper (Cameron Thomas), doesn’t get his rival’s noble dancing lines in his primarily mime-based Act 1. Neither in dancing nor in social class is he portrayed as his rival’s equal. One feels something for the man, snobbishly relegated to the perimeter. And he gets nothing profitable from being a whistleblower except to be tormented to his death by the white sisterhood. Happily, in the Shakespearean idiom, nothing becomes him in life half so well as the manner of his leaving it, and before he disappears, he gets in some fine, erratic leaps, which Thomas performed with vim and desperation. 

The sisterhood themselves, implacable veiled anti-brides, were intense and terrifying in their geometric patterns and the rhythm of their staging, and in that context, Giselle, with her yearning, ardent movements, stood out as being a creature of a different order, as indeed she is. Never corrupted as a Wili, she is allowed to rest in peace, the picture of bridal innocence. And this Albrecht looked more transcendent about it, than lonely at the end.