Giselle at the Philadelphia Ballet: A Review

The Philadelphia Ballet’s “Giselle” is a masterclass in classical ballet. In two acts, it tells the story of a peasant girl, Giselle, and her tragic love story with Albrecht, a nobleman pretending to be a peasant. When a rival in love reveals Albrecht’s true identity, Giselle’s anger and sorrow drive her to madness and death at the end of the first act. In the second act, Albrecht visits Giselle’s grave and is besieged by Wili – spirits of unmarried women betrayed in love who force him to dance until he dies of exhaustion. However, Giselle’s love for Albrecht saves him in the end. The two dance until sunrise when Giselle returns to her grave, leaving Albrecht alone.

At the Sunday matinee on March 3rd, principal dancers Yuka Iseda and Zecheng Liang starred as Giselle and Albrecht. The chemistry between the two leads was beautifully complex, and their love was apparent in the playfulness of the first act as well as the sorrow of the second. Little moments make the scenes lovely: Albrecht knocking on Giselle’s door, then immediately hiding behind the house, and sending her flying kisses; Albrecht tearing a petal off a daisy behind Giselle’s back so that she will conclude that “he loves me” instead of “he loves me not.” Giselle also teases Albrecht, slipping out of his arms and not letting him touch her. Moments like this made the first act adorably endearing.

This teasing is parallelled in heartbreaking ways in the second act. When Giselle’s ghost first appears, Albrecht tries to touch her and she slips away. She may well be teasing, but it is not lost on the audience that she is also an immaterial and intangible ghost. Giselle’s ghost continuously gives Albrecht flowers – a little reminder of the flowers with which they played “he loves me, he loves me not.” The entire time, the love between the two is poignantly visible, making the second act even more heartbreaking.

More on the topic of the heartbreaking, the scene where Giselle goes mad is arguably one of the more complex moments in the ballet. It is also one of the hardest to stage, but the dancers and musicians did a stunning job. While facial expressions are hard to see from high up in the amphitheater, the movements were more than enough to convey the anger and heartbreak that Giselle goes through when she finds out about Albrecht’s true identity and his betrothal to the Duke’s daughter. The music – as my friend Kate (who’s a huge music nerd) pointed out – also reflected Giselle’s descent into madness. Higher, floatier-sounding instruments often play in operas to signal a woman’s madness or “hysteria.” Here, the harp had its moment of standing out while, before, it had largely blended in with the rest of the orchestra. This solo seems to be a sign of a mental shift happening in Giselle’s character. This is just one example of how well the dancers and orchestra worked together in this production. 

The single drawback of this ballet was that the music stopped during the pas de deux to let the audience applaud. In a typical pas de deux, the two dancers dance together, then each has a solo, and finally, they dance together again. Through it all the music continues to mount until it reaches a crescendo at the end of the pas de deux. Stopping between each variation to let the audience clap breaks the flow of the music and prevents it from building as much emotion as it could have. Luckily, this is less pronounced in the second act, allowing it to maintain its magical dreamlike atmosphere.

Overall, “Giselle” is a favorite of many ballet-goers (and – fun fact – also the reason I decided to start dancing) and the Philadelphia Ballet did a beautiful job staging the piece. Walking out of the theater after the ballet felt like leaving the world of “Giselle” and returning to our mundane one. Yet, mundane as our world is, the magic of the performance persists for the rest of the day. Although performances of “Giselle” are over, the Philadelphia Ballet will perform “The Dream”, based on Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” at the Academy of Music in early May.

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