Neither sweltering 95 degree temperatures nor dangerous dew points would stay this Giselleophile from his appointed rounds in Saratoga Springs where on Thursday afternoon the National Ballet of Canada presented its matinee performance – outdoors. The audience that braved the stifling heat was predominantly groups of senior citizens and a small group of youngsters. An elderly couple even brought their little certified therapy dog with them along with her little certified therapy water dish. Tail translation: the pooch was feeling privileged if not smug for having gotten in without a ticket.
Manned golf carts branded with hospital insignia stood by at the top of the hill overlooking the amphitheater in case any of the old folks went into heat-related distress. Not only did none of the old folks wimp out in the heat, but they were the first to leap to their feet two hours later with a cheering ovation for the performers.
The performance began with the fetching former ballerina and current artistic director Karen Kain appearing before the curtain to thank everyone for coming out in the dreadful heat for the afternoon performance. Ms. Kain now qualifies as a senior citizen herself, but she looked like she could have strapped on a pair of pointe shoes and twirled out a Spessivtseva variation with no problem. We all should age so gracefully.
The National presented Peter Wright's production of Giselle which is still today danced by several companies worldwide. It's not one of Haglund's favorite productions of his favorite ballet mostly because of the inert reading of Albrecht, the insignificant entrance and departure of Giselle, and the transformation of the Peasant PdD to a PdQ with some of the most challenging aspects deleted. The company's dancers are worthy of an upgrade.
Back in the 1960s when Balanchine suggested the stage specs for the SPAC amphitheater, he probably never envisioned that an elaborate production of a fussy Petipa classic would be presented there. The stage lacks the kind of depth that is required to accommodate long lines of Wilis with accompanying scenery while still leaving space for the principals to bound around. It looked a little cramped, but everyone managed to adapt.
Principal dancer Jillian Vanstone was an exceptional Giselle in the afternoon and was reminiscent of Ms. Kain in aplomb and wonderfully centered technique. As the village girl in Act I, she combined qualities of sweetness and naïveté without degenerating into little girlness. The elements of her variations – pique arabesque penche, hops on pointe, balances, pique turns – were all tossed off easily and joyously. Her mad scene was intensely captivating without the use of Osipova-like histrionics. So emotionally stirring were her Act II series of rapid entrechat quatre followed by the slow aching beauty of her arched arabesques that sniffles could be heard in the audience. Every moment that Vanstone was on stage was pure pleasure to watch.
Albrecht was danced by First Soloist Naoya Ebe, and here is where Karen Kain has her work cut out for her. Ebe very recently debuted as Albrecht; Thursday probably wasn't more than his second or third time in the role. From the waist down, he was a technical marvel: beautiful legs and feet with immaculate lines. Pirouettes were impressive. Beats were okay. His lifts of Giselle were awesome. But from the waist up, nothing – literally nothing – registered. Albrecht was a complete blank: correctness without nobility, mime gesturing without any import or weight. In the Wright production, Albrecht doesn't have much character in the first place; but Ebe's Albrecht had none at all.
After a few shaking arms in her first arabesques promenade/penche, First Soloist Stephanie Hutchison delivered a mighty Myrtha full of revenge and determination. The shallow stage limited the size and scope of her grand jetes, but she was still able to convey a grand authority. Myrtha's fierce attendants Moyna and Zulme were danced by Tina Pereira and Stacey Shiori Minagawa.
First soloist Etienne Lavigne's Hilarion was a character toward whom the audience had to feel ambivalent. One moment he was eliciting sympathy while appearing to be the right guy for Giselle. The next moment, his angry, dark side emerged. Haglund wasn't so sad to see this Hilarion go into the drink.
The Corps de Ballet was uniformly excellent in all respects in both acts. Their feet were supple. Arabesque lines were strong. Port de bras was lovely. Everyone was engaged theatrically.
The National Ballet of Canada Orchestra conducted by David Briskin, who conducted for ABT for many years, sounded rich and forceful and was occasionally supplemented by the buzzing of nearby cicadas.
While it was very thoughtful of Karen Kain to come out beforehand to thank the audience for braving the dangerous heat to see the performance, Haglund thinks that we owe thanks to the dancers for performing under such strenuous conditions. Hopefully, they'll stop by Saratoga Springs again soon.
The HH Pump Bump Award, a flaming hot Prada wedge-stiletto, is bestowed upon Jillian Vanstone for her beautiful interpretation of Giselle.