Julie Kent has recently become artistic director at The Washington Ballet, and apart from the 40th anniversary celebration back in September, this Giselle is, properly speaking, her opening offering. The company she has inherited has been formed by the charismatic Septime Webre for the last 17 years into a spirited and energetic troupe. What she will bring out remains to be seen in full, but the performance of Giselle bodes well for the company’s continued development. Before the curtain went up, the former American Ballet Theatre described how the ballet was a joy to dance for her, and how her interpretation here was a distillation of all the Giselles she and Victor Barbee, the Associate Artistic Director, had worked in over the years.

What came to the fore again and again in the production was a sensitivity to narrative details; there was lots of expressive mime conveying the two different social worlds which collide, happily then tragically, in the flirtation of Count Albrecht and the peasant maiden, Giselle: blown kisses behind Mama Berthe’s back, the details of the daisy flower game ‘He loves me, he loves me not’. When Giselle, during her fit of madness stared out beyond the audience with unseeing eyes, Albrecht, bewildered but all anxious sympathy immediately turned to look where she was looking – a small detail that could well have been overlooked, but the fact that it and many others were included, was a mark of choreographical finesse. 

Maki Onuki made for a lovely Giselle. Her superb turn-out lends her poses high definition, and her natural lightness of movement – in particular one dazzling sequence of turns with a final rubato – was fitting in the evocation of the light-footed, fleeting figure of Giselle. Her crucial transitional scene of insanity followed by her sudden death was quite brilliantly evoked. Face trembling, her eyes wide with fright, her frolicsome movements now disjointed, unsure which way to turn, she became the real figure of pathos she is meant to be. Her entry into the Wilis sisterhood in Act II took up from where she left off: her series of turns on demi-pointe chanelled something of the energy gained through her madness. Extra credit to her because her foot had caught in one of the graveside flowers, and that was spun around as she turned too. The audience was transfixed but it did not give her a moment’s pause, it would seem: brava. In her pardon-seeking solo, there wasn’t quite a sense of absolute repose in those immensely difficult développés; by contrast, she did a stunning series of jumps, so light and so high, no mean feat towards the end of two fiercely demanding Acts.

Albrecht (Rolando Sarabia) looked the part of the polished Prince, who never quite gets his comeuppance for what a trouble-maker he has been, but then the upper classes always seem to get off lightly in old world romances. Sarabia had a lofty port de tête and lightness in the torso. I thought his partnering was excellent; there was an appearance of real feeling between the two leads, which is not always the case. Gian Carlo Perez as Hilarion didn’t get to show off much, but did a lot of running on and off stage; but we did get to see elastic legwork in his jumps.

The corps de ballet made for robust peasants, and, it must be said, robust Wilis. Their immediate whipping off of their veils – quite impressively timed (Giselle meets Sister Act) set the tone. These were not numinous wisps in how they danced but assertive men-haters, deft of foot, led by the smoulderingly malicious Kateryna Derechyna. Sometimes, it must be confessed, especially in allegro, the effect came across as somewhat choppy, as length of arm was sacrificed to speed: the result is hurried and too crowded.

Overall, Kent and Barbee's staging was conventional, but conventionally pleasing. The bucolic charms of the country-folk in Act I were broken into by the rich trappings and fabrics of the local aristocracy; there was lovely recreation of the moment when starry-eyed Giselle touches the silk train of the imperious Duchess, Sona Kharatian, and is reprimanded. Such country manners! Thou shalt know thy station, Giselle!

As Julie Kent’s first production for the Washington Ballet, this was indeed a very promising sign of what we can look forward to.