14 March 2014
Northern Jubilee Auditorium, Edmonton, AB
If there was ever any doubt that the Alberta Ballet could carry a full-length classical ballet, it has melted away with this winter’s snow. The company’s triumph in Friday evening’s world premiere of Flavia Vallone’s “Giselle” marked a coming of age for both the Alberta Ballet and two talented young dancers. While last season’s “Swan Lake” was a solid success, the opening performance of “Giselle” revealed an Alberta Ballet that has soared to a new level of confidence and maturity. Also leaping to a new level in their careers, were the leads, Akiko Ishii and Jaciel Gomez.
An former étoile with the ballet company at La Scala, Flavia Vallone has been a guest ballet mistress and company teacher with the Alberta Ballet since 2006. Her familiarity with company has paid off in a production of the classic “Giselle” which suits the company to a T. Vallone’s choreography is based on the Coralli-Perrot version, and does not stray far from that seen in most current productions. Where she has excelled is in trimming down the production to fit the 34 dancer-strong Alberta Ballet. Those who have seen the costumes and sets in their original home at the Metropolitan Opera House may remember a larger cast, but Vallone has created a production that suffers none for a smaller cast. She also has, to the extent possible, made the story more timeless and re-emphasized the exquisite mime. The Anna Anni costumes, more successful for the women than the men (oh those awful poofy shorts!) give the production a vaguely late medieval look, but don’t limit it in terms of era or location.
Gianna Quaranta’s lush sets create an autumnal scene somewhere in small European village of time long gone by. A grassy meadow peeks out in the distance, but the action is confined to a cluster of buildings tucked in a cozy wood. It is here that the story of Giselle, a peasant girl deceived in love, Albrecht the prince whose love is true to Giselle, but ring already on the finger of a princess and the Wilis, ghosts of betrothed maidens – like Giselle - who never reached their wedding day, unfolds.
Thrust into the opening night lead by a very recent injury to Mariko Kondo, Akiko Ishii made an immediate impression as Giselle. A tiny dancer, Ishii had a smile that radiated to the farthest reaches of the theatre. Despite her elfin frame, her dancing was expansive with unforced, high extensions and feather light landings. Though perhaps not quite as effortlessly sure in the long balances en pointe as Hayna Gutierrez (seen in dress rehearsal), Ishii brought down the house in her death scene. Her tiny figure made a huge impact; hair rumpled, face contorted, body alternating between fluidity and rigidity, the waves of agony and madness were all but visible. Ishii’s only flaws were linked to her size – she had a tendency to both get lost in the hustle and bustle on stage, as well as to look almost too young. While Giselle is intended to be young and innocent, a child she is not. It might help for Ishii to shed the schoolgirl-like hair ribbons.
Opposite Ishii was the company’s rising male star, Jaciel Gomez. Though in some ways still a work in progress, Gomez’ debut as Albrecht established him as the company’s classical lead of choice. A product of the National Ballet of Cuba, Gomez has a stage presence that eludes dancers with far more years experience. It’s not only apparent in his elegant epaulment, but in beautiful line that extended from fingertip to fingertip and pointed toe to pointed toe. What really separated Gomez from most of the other male dancers, however, was his flowing mime; it was mime that made the leap from simple gestures to fluid storytelling. His Albrecht was well thought through; steps and mime combined to create a compelling character rather than simply being done. A natural turner, Gomez still has work to do in terms of polish and stamina. He powered through the Act 2 mad dancing scene, but his tiredness was obvious in a series of little errors: sloppy landings in fifth(ish), floppy feet and less amplitude.
Though the large size difference between Ishii and Gomez had the potential to create partnering havoc, there was barely a flaw to be seen. From all appearances, Gomez was a responsive, tender partner who was able to handle the much smaller Ishii without resorting to obvious stooping or squatting. The two also had a natural, youthful chemistry.
As the company’s senior male dancer and de facto star, Kelley McKinlay has often unintentionally overshadowed the company on stage. With the rise of Jaciel Gomez, however, McKinlay finally has someone who can match his stage presence. And that’s a win for all involved! McKinlay’s sturdy, but ardent Hilarion was a perfect rival for Gomez’ elegant, romantic Albrecht. Too often Hilarion can be an afterthought, but McKinlay made him a sympathetic character. Also of note were Yukichi Hattori and Luna Sasaki in the famous peasant pas de deux. In Sasaki, the diminutive Hattori finally had a partner who did not overwhelm him.
Along with the two leads, the real breakthrough performance was from the female corps de ballet. Enhanced by students from the School of Alberta Ballet and guest dancers, the corps de ballet proved more than up to the challenge of the peasant dances and the dance of the Wilis. Aside from some oddly stiff arms at the outset, Giselle’s friends were crisply and precisely danced. It was in the second act, however, that the corps truly soared. The wonderful harmony of style hinted at extensive, effective coaching combined with intense focus. Creating a unified look can be difficult enough for companies who train most of their own dancers, let alone for a company like the Alberta Ballet in which the majority of dancers are hired from outside. Formations did start to blur a bit at the end though, and the beginning of Act 1 was slightly marred by some very squeaky shoes. However, at times the corps was on par with some of the top companies in North America and Europe. That is a significant accomplishment and bodes well for the ability of the company to take on other classical challenges.