Haglund expected yesterday's performance of Giselle to include extraordinary dancing but he wasn't quite prepared for the exceptional portrayals of character by the artists on stage. Yuriko Kajiya and Jared Matthews turned the Chicago peeps into quivering emotional messes who were patting their chests and taking deep breaths while trying to calm themselves as they left the theater. Mike Ditka would have been so embarrassed to see this reaction. But then, he's the one who said "Before you can win, you have to believe you are worthy." And that was the key to yesterday's winning performance – confidence and belief in one's self and in the epic power of the greatest ballet story ever told.
The minting of a new Giselle and Albrecht is so exciting because you can usually see it coming many years before the event. Somehow the right dancers just carry the souls of Giselle and Albrecht in their movement very early on. It's just there, lying under the surface, now and then percolating up in other dancing. So you wait for their time to come. And sometimes you wait and wait and wait and wait until the frustration of waiting begins to drive you away from the ballet. So, it was without the slightest reservation that Haglund climbed on a plane to make the short trip to Chicago to see these two artists in their most important performances to date.
When Jared Matthews came running down the ramp at the beginning of Act I, he was already totally in the game - excitedly looking for Giselle and completely confident that he could carry off his disguise as Loys. His pursuit of her was a contest between his perfect manners and his bold desire. When Yuriko Kajiya stepped through the door of the cottage for the first time, it was love at first sight for the audience. No stretch of the imagination was needed to see how this beautiful peasant girl's heart was filled with the excitement of love. This early sincerity and genuine expression were the beginnings of what would be an overwhelming performance of such skill and depth that it could be the best Giselle at The Met this year – except that we won't get to see it.
The first few minutes of Act I were understandably highly caffeinated ones. When Giselle sat on the bench to pluck the daisy, she pulled off the whole daisy head on the first pluck. That took a little of the intended fun out of that scene while adding the unintended fun of watching how the dancers dealt with the problem.
The variations in Act I were highlighted by Giselle's impeccable, remarkable-without-being-showy diagonal of hops en pointe and her musical phrasing. Her sudden fainting spell and near collapse carried unusual and convincing clarity. Those few moments of the ballet where Albrecht was torn between staying with Giselle and joining the others in dance seemed newly compelling. They were followed a few minutes later by Giselle's heartbreaking madness and death - not overdone with freaky frenzy like Osipova does – but with just enough originality to make Yuriko's interpretation unique and believable. Ditto for Jared's last few moments in Act I when Albrecht's arms shook from his anger and disbelief. But his face really said it all.
Act I and Act II included the pitch perfect performance from Gennadi Saveliev as Hilarion. This Hilarion had our sympathies because his love for Giselle was the real thing and it seemed that their eventual marriage would be part of the natural order in the village. It hurt us, too, when Giselle rejected him. His anger toward Albrecht, the self-satisfaction in discovering the duplicity, and his loss of Giselle upon her death were terrifically acted by Saveliev as were his entrapment by the Wilis and his dance to exhaustion in Act II.
The only sub-par moments of Act I came in the Peasant PdD which was danced by Blaine Hoven and Maria Riccetto. It seemed under-rehearsed, and unfortunately, Blaine seemed aerobically taxed throughout and resorted to flapping his wrists and elbows in order to get into the air on his jumps. His facial expression was like that of someone about to have a heart attack. Maria's small emboites to the back/to the knee/pirouettes never got to the knee. Haglund was unpleasantly surprised to see the Peasant PdD like this.
Act II opened with the debut of Devon Teuscher as Myrtha. She was commanding in the cool way of Toni Lander with some of the most blistering and impressively crossed bourrees that Haglund has ever seen. Devon's feet were exceptional throughout but her landings from jumps were extremely loud. You could hear (and see) the energy of her line come to a thudding stop with each jump. The arabesque line was often less than 90 degrees and punctuated with an excessively winged foot that was wearing a very boxy, untapered shoe. The shape of the foot did nothing but truncate the line. Myrtha's initial variations can be so easily derailed by unsettled nerves, but Devon maintained good control throughout. You could see a great Myrtha down the road, but there are a few things to work on.
The Corps de Ballet was in tip-top shape in both acts. The peasants' collective reaction to what was happening with the principals in Act I was fully in play, and the Wilis in Act II were as precise a killing machine as you'd ever want to see. Simone Messmer and Zhong-Jing Fang danced well as Moyna and Zulma.
What Yuriko and Jared delivered in Act II was as astonishingly detailed and brilliant performance as any other principal couple at ABT and even better than a few. The early lift in the downstage corner when Giselle's spirit slips through Albrecht's hands before disappearing was perfection – again, Jared's face said it all – disbelief, hope, wonderment, surprise. The section in which Albrecht is on one knee and Giselle encircles him with a sequence of developpe, step, turn into attitude were beautifully balanced by Yuriko.
All of the lifts throughout Act II were excellent. Jared not only pressed Yuriko over his head with ultimate control, he brought her down so very slowly with that same control. His strength allowed Yuriko to create some stunning images with her skirt. The supported hops in arabesque across the stage were yet another example of his strength and their coordination as a couple.
The variations were first rate. Yuriko's saute double rond de jambes were so fast, clean and beautifully shaped that they looked like they were not humanly possible - only a spirit could manage to do them that way. Haglund will, however, take exception to the choice of slowing down the music to the entrechat quatres in order to bounce them higher the way Osipova does. It's a little disappointing to see Ormsby Wilkins allow this degree of excessive latitude with the music to accommodate a trick that is also disruptive to the fury of the spirit and character of Giselle. The music was so slow in this section that Haglund thought he'd end up missing his flight back to New York. These entrechats should barely be off the ground, even accented into the floor instead of up would be preferable, and they should be a furious flurry with the face down – not bo-boing, bo-boing, bo-boing. Just because Osipova makes an unfortunate choice (or slaps her hand with her foot in battements in Act I) doesn't mean that ABT's ballerinas should copy her bad taste.
It was such a relief to see that Jared chose to execute the flying brises in the face-off with Myrtha instead of the entrechat sixes which suspend the story line instead of propelling it forward. One of the best face-offs that Haglund ever saw was when Ethan Stiefel came flying down the diagonal, actually accelerating past the music, and the arm and hand of Stella Abrera's Myrtha descended and nearly touched Albrecht right between eyes as he came to a stop. The audience collectively gasped. Jared's brises were very good, maybe too clean in form to convey Albrecht's desperation.
Jared and Yuriko were magnificent in the grand allegro section where Giselle dances with the lilies. So perfectly in tune and coordinated. Just beautiful.
Must say that the ending was a great one. Albrecht started to back away from Giselle's grave but then rushed toward it, reached for the cross, and his hands and head slid down the base of the cross to the grave as the curtain closed.
Almost immediately the audience rose to its feet in appreciation - not to exit. The dancers may not have been able to see out into the house, but nearly everyone was standing and applauding them, many with teary eyes. They deserved it. It was a remarkable performance by any standard - but as a debut, it was magnificent.
This golden Pump Bump Award with jeweled teardrop is bestowed upon Yuriko and Jared for their beautiful performance on Sunday in Chicago. Haglund is so happy that he made the trip and had the opportunity to see it.