For its second annual Ballet in the Park, Dance Theatre of Tennessee is staging Giselle, the French ballet best known for its Wilis – spirits of young women who died before marriage – who haunt the stage with hopping arabesques during the second act. Although DTT had to cancel its Friday night engagement at the Centennial Park Bandshell due to rain, the company’s Saturday and Sunday shows went off smoothly. Repeat performances are scheduled for 7:30 p.m. Sept. 26-30. The final show will help launch Artober, Nashville’s month-long celebration of the arts and humanities.
First staged in 1841, Giselle is the oldest surviving ballet in the Romantic repertoire. It was also the first ballet blanc (literally white ballet), which featured the corps of women dressed in long white tutus. As such, Giselle has become the archetype of all ballet.
Certainly, the work is a perfect primer for first time balletgoers, and it’s ideal repertory for DTT, which prides itself on having a populist mission of introducing the beauty of classical ballet to the public at large. Christopher Mohnani, DTT’s artistic director and a former lead dancer for Nashville Ballet, has approached Giselle with a degree of respect that verges on reverence. His staging updates the original Coralli-Perrot-Petipa choreography without losing any of its 19th-century Romantic appeal. A more charming ballet you’ll find nowhere.
Any production of Giselle is only going to be as good as its title character, and DTT has a wonderful lead in prima ballerina Jennifer Drake. Everything about her performance on Sunday was strong. She seemed positively weightless with her graceful footwork and stylish ports des bras. Her acting, moreover, captured both the flirtatious confidence and physical delicacy of her character – her mad scene and death were wrenching.
It’s difficult to like Albrecht, the young duke whose seduction of Giselle leads to the young woman’s madness and death. But Brian Williamson inhabits this role, playing the part with so much passionate intensity that one genuinely believes his only true sin was to fall in love. His powerful jumps and elegant entrechats firmly established the nobility of his character. He was just as effective as a partner, especially in the second act, where his effortless lifts made Drake seem like a creature of the mist.
Amanda Irwin was a delightfully icy Myrtha, Queen of the Wilis. After Giselle successfully challenges her authority, Irwin’s Myrtha conveyed a sense of utter contempt and implacability. “Talk to the hand” is her one gesture. Myrtha is a ghoulish figure, but Irwin’s slender figure and gorgeous arabesque penche transformed her character into a beautiful and mysterious queen of the night. Kelsey Garnett and Heather Gorres (who will portray Myrtha on alternate nights) danced the roles of Myrtha’s attendants with ghostly lightness.
Nathan Young portrays the huntsman Hilarion, Giselle’s jealous suitor, with angry intensity. His hostility drives the drama in the first act, and his frenetic dancing in the second makes his demise seem foreordained. Ines Albertini and Will Gasch gave a bravura account of the first act peasant pas de deux. Darrell Mowbray (Wilfrid), Wesley Paine (Bertha) and Hilary Busick (Bathilde) also gave worthy performances.
The leads were all strong, but on Sunday it was the corps of women in act two who made the biggest impression. Their dancing was graceful, tasteful, perfectly synchronized and ethereal, creating the illusion that they were floating instead of dancing on the stage. You won’t find a more beautiful or enchanting corps of ghosts anywhere, which is why you should make every effort to catch at least one of DTT’s five repeat performances.