Skip to main content
After a decade, a polished and mature company reprises the iconic Romantic story ballet

“Giselle” is one of the oldest and most famous ballets in the classical canon. It has been performed by the greatest companies in the world, in the most iconic theaters, and by the most revered ballerinas. A success at its debut in Paris in 1841, the two-act story ballet — about a young girl who takes her own life after discovering the man she has fallen in love with is pledged to another, then returns in death to save him from vengeful spirits — has never fallen out of favor and remains the epitome and crowning achievement of the Romantic ballet era.

It’s also demanding, technically and artistically, with its pure but strenuous vocabulary of steps and the necessity of conveying — without words and without histrionics — dramatic emotional content and a detectable but potentially confusing plot line. So, for any company to take it on is both a challenge and a risk.

The Sarasota Ballet first did so in 2009, two years after Iain Webb arrived from England to become the company’s artistic leader. That was the year before I came to Sarasota and in the decade between then and now, Webb has not revisited the ballet, preferring to focus on building the country’s largest stable of works by the British choreographer Sir Frederick Ashton.

But a perfect storm of reasons made the timing right for a reprise: Webb’s now seasoned and accomplished dancers; the advancing age of his friend and colleague Sir Peter Wright, who staged the 1966 production ever after embraced as the most authentic and faithful rendering of the original; and the opportunity for principal dancer Victoria Hulland, who performed the lead role in 2009, to work with both Wright and assistant director Margaret Barbieri, another former Giselle.

And despite an excess of nervous energy on opening night that led to unsteadiness and a number of noticeable bobbles, the return of “Giselle” to the Sarasota Ballet stage can only be called an unqualified success. With Wright himself in the audience, a never-sounded-better Sarasota Orchestra led by British conductor Barry Wordsworth playing the familiar Adolphe Adam score in the pit, and sumptuous sets and costumes recently purchased from the Royal Birmingham Ballet embellishing the stage, it was an occasion for reveling in both the enduring beauty of this magical ballet and the ever-increasing proficiency and range of this local company.

Though I wasn’t around to see Hulland in her first attempt, I can’t imagine she could have brought the maturity, nuance and confidence to this historic role she displayed during Friday’s opening at the Sarasota Opera House. With her delicate beauty and reserved yet ethereal charm, Hulland has solidified her claim as the company’s prima Romantic ballerina throughout her 12 years in Sarasota. In “Giselle” she finds her greatest and most expansive vehicle, adeptly maneuvering from the besotted love of a naïve young peasant girl, to the madness of a woman betrayed, to the melancholic but beneficent forgiveness of an angel.

There wasn’t a moment Hulland wasn’t captivating and she alone evinced the calm assuredness of the ultimate professional. A palpable air of excitability and urgency from the rest of the company led to a few cases of overshooting the mark, most notably in the pas de six section in which I feared Ivan Duarte, Thomas Giugovaz and Filippo Valmorbida might actually fly off the stage with the exuberance of their jumps. But given that the grandiosity was obviously driven by a sincere desire to make this performance memorable, it was easily forgiven.

Ricardo Graziano, absent from the stage too often over the past two years, was steady and polished as Count Albrecht, who falls in love with Giselle after disguising himself as the peasant and inadvertently prompts her madness and suicide when his previous commitment to Bathilde (Ellen Overstreet) is revealed. Ricki Bertoni as Hilarion, Giselle’s admirer, brought a refreshingly modern vibe to the role; relegated to mostly character parts recently, his dancing lacks bombast and polish, but even when he’s playing a vengeful role like this one, you can’t help but like him.

In Act II, Amy Wood initially lacked the powerful and intimidating presence you like to see in Myrthe, the regal queen of the Wilis (the spirits of jilted brides). Her expression seemed more pained than flinty; I wanted a little less Nancy Reagan and a little more Cruella DeVille. But as the Wilis danced Hilarion to death, and attempted to do the same to the Count, she grew in stature and severity.

What may have impressed me most was the dancers’ facility with the miming that is so critical to a story ballet but which, badly executed, can seem phony, affected and dated. Overstreet was garbed in a voluminous scarlet gown and huge feathered hat, but you still saw her balance of regal superiority and demeaning charity toward Giselle in every flick of the wrist or lowering of her eyes. Bertoni’s fury and exasperation with the Count was palpable, though his miming was less traditional and more modernized.

That’s just to single out a few, but everyone was credible, right down to the corps members acting as peasant boys and girls, who do a lot of standing around in Act I yet drew my eye with their affable nods and gestures. (The ballet’s director of education, Christopher Hird, as a member of a hunting party and Sarasota Ballet School teacher, Sarah Krazit, as Giselle’s mother, Berthe, were also pushed into service.) Even the deaths — the bane of my enjoyment of story ballets because they are so often unbelievable — were gracefully organic. Everything contributed to make clear a plot line that, if you weren’t familiar with it already, might be confusing.

With a story ballet, especially one as quintessential as “Giselle,” even more important than the technical execution — which in this case was admirable if not impeccable — is the performers’ ability to engross the audience in the drama of the chronicle and the pathos of the character’s situations. That is exactly what this performance achieved. And let’s hope it’s not another 10 years before we are able to enjoy its like again.

Box Office: 941.359.0099
Phone: 941.359.0099
5555 North Tamiami Trail  Sarasota , FL  34243