By Steve Sucato
With the kind of success artistic director Edwaard Liang has had in raising BalletMet’s stature in the dance world, there can be little doubt that other ballet organizations that have been in search of new leadership have come courting him. Luckily for Columbus-area audiences, Liang feels he’s found a home at BalletMet and in Columbus and recently signed a 5-year contract extension.
“Honestly, I got some phone calls, but I feel I have turned a corner personally here,” says Liang. “I have a great quality of life in Columbus with my partner and I get to balance my career as an artistic director with my career as a choreographer.”
Liang also says while the company has made great strides towards achieving his vision for it, there is still more work to be done. One area of that vision he has been systematically working on in the past 4-years, is replacing the company’s existing repertory of story ballet classics with brand new productions. Those have included a new production of Cinderella in 2015, Sleeping Beauty in 2016, and in 2017, bringing in his production of Romeo and Juliet originally created for Tulsa Ballet in 2012. Now joining that list is the world-premiere of Liang’s new production of Giselle, February 9-17 at the Jo Ann Davidson Theatre in downtown Columbus’ Vern Riffe Center.
As with the other story ballet classics Liang has redone, for the most part this new Giselle will maintain its traditional roots. The romantic ballet in two acts set to music by Adolphe Adam, was first performed in Paris in 1841 and tells the story of young peasant girl Giselle who dies of a broken heart after discovering her lover Albrecht is betrothed to another. Afterwards she is summoned from her grave by a group of supernatural women known as “Wilis,” who all have also died of broken hearts and who take revenge on men by dancing them to death. They intend to do the same with Albrecht but Giselle’s eternal love for him eventually frees him from their grasp.
Perhaps the most famous ballet whose libretto came courtesy of a dance citric, Frenchman Théophile Gautier, the popular ballet is a staple in the repertoire of most every ballet company in the world. It was originally choreographed by Jean Coralli and Jules Perrot, although most present day versions of the ballet derive their choreography from the 19th and early 20th century revivals by Marius Petipa.
While Liang as choreographer is best known for his contemporary ballets, he says he chose not to bring that movement style into his new productions of classic story ballets. Instead, he has gone the path of reusing traditional choreography while adding new choreography and other elements to them to fit his vision for them.
“What I like about BalletMet is we run the gambit. Everything like [Ohad Naharin’s contemporary dance work] Minus 16 to something classical [like Sleeping Beauty],” says Liang. “I feel it is part of my job to have a stable of classic story ballet war horses to go along with our contemporary ballet works.”
So what is different about this Giselle production?
“Where we have gone differently is not so much in the storytelling, but I wanted to have more dancing for the men because the ballet traditionally is so female dominated and so hard for them,” says Liang.
What will be noticeably different will be the ballet’s look. While it takes place during the same time period of the story, the production’s new deconstructed and minimalist sets “give it a painterly look that is not at all traditional,” says Liang. Add to that the ballet’s new puritan-like costumes, and you have a production that while is in many ways traditional, has a more modern feel to it.
Another more subtle change comes in the way Liang and BalletMet’s artistic staff are approaching coaching the dancers. “The fine tuning I’m doing is trying to have it so the dancers do less ‘ballet acting’ and more of what you would consider ‘theater acting’,” he says.
That will manifest itself most noticeably in the portrayals of the ballet’s lead characters such as Giselle.
“I want the staging to be clear and the same for each of the Giselle’s but there has to be some flexibility or else the dancers are not going to feel free enough to find themselves in the role,” says Liang. “That’s where I see a lot of Giselle [portrayals] become ‘shticky’; the choreography and the staging is so old world that, while beautiful, may not be for everyone.”
One of three dancers in three different casts to dance the leading role of Giselle along with Caitlin Valentine-Ellis (Feb. 9 & 17) and Grace-Anne Powers (Feb. 10 & 16), will be San Francisco-native and third-year company member, Carly Wheaton (Feb. 11 & 15). Performing her first leading role in a story ballet classic, Wheaton says of the character and her approach to playing her: “in act one Giselle is pure and innocent and has never really felt [romantic] love which devastates her when she gets her heartbroken by Albrecht. In act two, that heartache is carried over but she becomes a solemn, ethereal being.”
The 24-year-old also says while the choreography for her character’s movements in say the ballet’s famous “Mad scene” is highly structured, she has the freedom in some ways to personalize her portrayal of Giselle.
Dancing the role of Myrtha, Queen of the Wilis along with Lisset Santander (Feb. 10 & 16) and Jessica Brown (Feb. 11 & 15), will be BalletMet newcomer Madeline Skelly (Feb. 9 & 17). It’s a role she danced as a member of Houston Ballet.
“A lot of people see Myrtha as a man-hater and I get that because she does kill them,” says Skelly. “Revenge is a part of it, but she does see Giselle’s love for Albrecht and how she is standing up for him and trying to protect him.” That leads, she says, to a moment in the ballet where those feelings of love and forgiveness almost crack her tough façade, but she quickly suppresses those feelings.
Skelly says dancing the role of Myrtha is also physically challenging for her but not in the way most would think. While the rigor and pace of the role’s full-on dancing in the ballet’s second act is hard, Skelly says even more challenging is standing still in a ballet position known as B+ for long periods of time after she has been dancing. “It’s excruciatingly painful.”
The 25-year old Orlando-native in her first year with BalletMet joined the company in August with her husband and Columbus-native William Newton who trained at New Albany Ballet Company. Newton is one of three dancers performing the lead role of Albrecht, February 10 & 16. Miguel Anaya (Feb. 9 & 17) and Romel Frometa (Feb. 11 & 15) will also perform the role in other casts.
While perhaps not scenically lavish compared to other Giselle productions because of budget constraints, having seen the company in rehearsals of it, the 2-hour ballet has got it where it counts — Great storytelling, world-class dancing and an updated look that make it worth reserving a ticket for.
BalletMet performs Giselle:
Friday, 2/9 8:00 pm
Saturday, 2/10 8:00 pm
Sunday, 2/11 2:00 pm
Thursday, 2/15 7:30 pm
Friday, 2/16 8:00 pm
Saturday, 2/17 8:00 pm
At the Jo Ann Davidson Theatre in the Vern Riffe Center, 77 S. High Street, Columbus. Tickets are $29-74 and are available at balletmet.org, ticketmaster.com or by calling 614.469.0939
Steve Sucato is a former dancer turned arts writer/critic. He is Chairman Emeritus of the Dance Critics Association and Associate Editor of ExploreDance.com.