Five years into his leadership of Pennsylvania Ballet, Angel Corella is fielding six Giselle casts over two weekends. That implies a remarkably deep bench. I saw one of the less seasoned casts, in which the key roles were parceled out to soloists and corps, with one principal, Ian Hussey, in the supporting role of Hilarion.

To populate Act I’s idyllic Rhineland village and Act II’s forest dripping with man-hating Wilis, Corella had to deploy all personnel from the main and second companies. It’s a tight and well-drilled ensemble that superbly paints the villagers’ naiveté and the Wilis’ chilling refinement. And there was no shortage of blazing technique on display from the leads, starting with the diminutive Yuka Iseda in the titular role of Giselle, who can hold a balance on pointe in arabesque seemingly forever, whip off traveling turns with demonic speed, and slow down an arabesque penchée as if she is stopping time itself. She brought a superhuman springiness to a sequence of fleeting temps levés and razor-sharp beaten jumps, and shaped a poetic arc with a very strong back at the top of a death-defying ‘angel’ lift.

Yuka Iseda as Giselle in Pennsylvania Ballet's Giselle
© Arian Molina Soca

Of course Iseda couldn’t have hovered in the air like that without the rock-solid partnering skills of Aleksey Babayev in the role of Albrecht. Babayev’s buoyant, clean technique is a good match for Iseda’s. His soaring tour jetés landed softly, and he threw himself at the mercy of Myrtha, Queen of the Wilis, with a series of spectacular, rocket-fueled brisés down the stage diagonal. (These make more dramatic sense than the popular but monotonous barrage of entrechats six that strike me as the ballet equivalent of drilling for oil. Angel Corella used to do the brisés and they were the bomb.)

Alexandra Hughes brought an equally secure technique to the role of Myrtha, with glorious space-chomping grands jetés and sauts de basque, and a stunning ability to stop on a dime after a burst of whirling bourrées.

That said, technique still needs to be shaped by dramatic impulse; among this cast that impulse was sometimes weak. Hughes in particular wore a wide-eyed, blank expression unconvincing of a warrior queen; that she commanded an army of vengeful ghosts and inspired terror among the men who strayed into her woods required a great leap of the imagination.

In contrast, Myrtha’s lieutenants, So Jung Shin and Misa Kasamatsu in the roles of Moyna and Zulma, had the goods. To their brief but memorable solo turns they brought a steely precision, ethereal presence, and an air of mystery and danger. Shin in particular struck me as a prime candidate for the role of Giselle.

Artists of Pennsylvania Ballet and Alexandra Hughes (Myrtha) in Giselle
© Arian Molina Soca

Iseda as Giselle possessed a dramatic flair but sometimes played into cliché. When the gamekeeper Hilarion could not contain his jealousy at seeing Giselle wooed by Albrecht, Iseda turned her back on the squabbling men and hid her face in her hands. Of the reactions which she could have chosen to show her distaste for brawling, this one seemed unnecessarily timid; Giselle, after all, is the spunky lass who defied doctors’ orders to avoid dancing for fear of overtaxing her weak heart.

Babayev’s performance occasionally lacked dramatic intensity. With the looks of a boy-band star, it was easy to see how he could have charmed, and deceived, an innocent peasant girl. But when his deception started to unravel, he merely froze; at the height of Giselle’s mad scene his face went blank and he served up no body language that might suggest an emotion. In Act II, he registered faint consternation at finding himself in a spooky forest, stalked by the spirit of the young woman whom he had betrayed. But as the terror and pathos escalated, he summoned up great emotion. Once Giselle had freed him from the clutches of a petulant Myrtha, waves of disbelief, sorrow, and, finally, acceptance, seemed to wash over him in the moving finale.

Ian Hussey’s take on Hilarion, on the other hand, was consistently convincing: passionate, candid, down-to-earth. Catching Giselle flirting with Albrecht, his miming seemed to demand, “What are you thinking? I love you, therefore you must love me!” Etched clearly in this moment is the intersection of class and patriarchy, in which two men – peasant and aristocrat – both lay claim to female affection and obedience.

Yuka Iseda, Aleksey Babayev and Artists of Pennsylvania Ballet in Giselle
© Arian Molina Soca

Many such meticulously crafted scenes added up to a rewarding performance. Attention, too, has been paid to the details that enhance the eerie woodland setting – like the machinery that magically whisks the bridal veils off the Wilis’ heads upon their entrance, a practice sadly abandoned by many companies. In an era when the stories that classical ballets have to tell can seem increasingly irrelevant, there is the occasional production that makes you care, makes you think. This is one of them.