"Space is the breath of art," he said. "To know what to leave out and what to put in; just where and just how, ah, that is to have been educated in knowledge of simplicity.”
We don’t know if the famous Chicago resident Frank Lloyd Wright attended the ballet much. But we imagine that he could have been overcome with emotion at the sight of the Wilis criss-crossing the stage in their arabesque voyage – simple recurring steps embedded in the architecture of a simple recurring melody, and graceful limbs as lines intersecting the wide-curving hems of the Wilis’ tattered gowns. If Wright had witnessed the Joffrey Ballet’s new Giselle at the Auditorium Theatre, where he had been a young draftsman on the original Auditorium project in 1885-89 while working for the Adler-Sullivan firm, he might have been inspired to create yet another new style of architecture — one that combined the art of human motion with nature.
The Joffrey’s new Giselle has been staged by Lola de Avila, the master teacher/ballet mistress with lengthy stints at San Francisco Ballet School, School of Victor Ullate, National Ballet of Spain, and her own school and company in Madrid. Previously, she worked with Joffrey AD Ashley Wheater on Giselle when both were affiliated with the San Francisco Ballet. This staging had its premiere five years ago at Oregon Ballet Theatre. The Joffrey’s earlier Giselle staged by Frederick Franklin premiered in 2007 shortly after the company announced that Ashley Wheater, a Joffrey dancer in the 1980s, would be the new AD.
On this tenth anniversary year of Wheater’s appointment, the Joffrey has gifted Chicago with a Giselle as beautiful as they come. Peter Farmer’s exquisite designs courtesy of Oregon Ballet Theatre are gorgeous. The Act I village radiated warmth and charm – Giselle’s little house defined by its large window and door that were shaped like modified church lancet windows. The costume colors were an extension of the scenery’s autumn foliage and only slightly brighter. In Act II, the tulle of each Wili's bridal gown was individually marked with streaks of “dirt” from the waist down to suggest where she slept after roaming the forest each night since dying after being jilted.
The Act I Peasant Pas de Deux by the fleet and articulate Anais Bueno and Greig Matthew flowed with a Bournonville-like ease rather than being a collection of hard tricks executed under stress as is commonly seen in other productions. The Peasant ensemble and especially Giselle’s Friends were squeaky clean in their group allegro dances – from every dancer, the second foot in each glissade was just as fully stretched as the leading foot.
Rory Hohenstein portrayed Hilarion as a bright but complicated guy who truly loved Giselle but was at a loss how to deal with the handsome interference who sashayed into the village and swept her off her feet. His Act I moment of realization that Loys was actually Duke Albrecht of Silesia was mimed with acute clarity as he thought back to his confrontation when Albrecht reached for his sword that was missing from his side. His self-satisfaction of pointing out the deception to Giselle was quickly followed by his impatience and hurt that she wouldn’t believe him. His desperation and death in Act II captured the audience’s sympathies; we all knew that he was the right one for her.
As Giselle and Albrecht, Amanda Assucena and Alberto Velazquez were that technically well-matched couple who would not match-up in life where the economic and status barriers to love were too high.
Assucena, a soubrette rather than a willowy Giselle, excelled as the village girl in Act I and transformed herself admirably to exceed the lyrical demands of Act II where her pique arabesques that rolled down into penche revealed extraordinary flexibility in the back. The torso seemingly didn’t need to bend forward at all when the back leg extended upward to create the widest possible arc of Giselle’s hem. It was the type of arabesque that only a ghostly spirit could do.
Velazquez, of handsome classical lines and effortless technique, showed stunning strength in Act II where he exceeded 32 entrechat six before collapsing in exhaustion. His Albrecht was truly despondent and lost in the wilderness as he tried to find and re-claim Giselle. One of the overhead lifts went slightly awry, but other than that, this Act II appeared to be flawless.
Nicole Ciapponi as Myrtha gained strength and authority as Act II progressed. Her final variation that began with missile-like grand jetes revealed Myrtha to be un-hinged and vowing to dispatch Albrecht. Cara Marie Gary and Anais Bueno as Moyna and Zulma and the Corps of Wilis beautifully conveyed the sisterhood of spirits.
On this tenth anniversary of his directorship, Ashley Wheater may actually be close to turning reluctant Chicago into a Ballet Town - something that no one before him has been able to do. There has always been so much competing culture in the city that classical ballet has had trouble getting its fair share of attention. With productions like this new Giselle and with the Joffrey’s new residency at the Chicago Lyric Opera House beginning in 2020, everybody else had better look out.
The H.H. Pump Bump Award, with straps of prickly myrtle, is bestowed upon Rory Hohenstein, whose Hilarion left us with the strongest impression in an afternoon of all-around exceptional performances.