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Giselle: A perfect ballet that never grows tired

Greta Hodgkinson and Guillaume Côté in Giselle: She’s a joy to watch as Giselle, and he dances and acts up a storm as Albrecht.

Aleksandar Antonijevic/Handout

National Ballet of Canada
At the Four Seasons Centre
In Toronto on Wednesday

Aquintessential French romantic ballet, Giselle has everything. Rich in plot and character, it also embraces the twin romantic elements of the supernatural and an unhappy ending.

An emphasis on storytelling is characteristic of French ballet. Where Russian imperial ballet often uses a thin thread of a story as a vehicle for delivering flash and dash, French choreographers traditionally placed the emphasis on the plot and character embodied in the term ballet d'action.

It was choreographer/ballet master Jean-Georges Noverre who set out the principles of ballet d'action in his seminal 1760 Lettres sur la danse et les ballets.

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Which brings us to Giselle.

In Act 1, the title character is a peasant girl in love with Loys, a young villager. When her jealous erstwhile beau, the woodsman Hilarion, reveals that Loys is really Albrecht, the betrothed son of the Duke of Silesia, Giselle goes mad and dies of grief.

In Act 2, the dead Giselle is raised from her grave by Myrtha, Queen of the Wilis. The vengeful Wilis are the ghosts of young girls betrayed by their faithless lovers. Any man the Wilis find in the woods at night is forced to dance to his death.

First Hilarion, who was keeping vigil by Giselle's grave, is hounded to his death. Albrecht, too, has come to Giselle's grave, but he is saved by the spirit of Giselle, who protects him from the Wilis. She helps him dance until dawn, when the light causes the Wilis to disappear. A tortured, remorseful Albrecht is left alone onstage as the curtain falls.

Indeed, the ballet of Giselle has it all: a sunlight-drenched first act, set in the Rhineland during the grape harvest; a charming romance between Giselle and her lover; spirited peasant dances; a mad scene; a haunted, gloomy wood with its ghostly Wilis. The female corps de ballet, particularly as the Wilis, was utterly impressive in its disciplined delivery and unity.

This is a show that the National Ballet does superbly well. No matter how many generations of dancers have taken to the stage since Sir Peter Wright first set the ballet on the National in 1970, Giselle has never faltered.

The ballerina performing the compelling title character has to go from a tremulously innocent girl, to madwoman, to unearthly spirit, and Greta Hodgkinson is among the best in the world in the role. Her technique is top-of-the-line, and her acting completely convincing. She is a joy to watch.

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Consummate prince Guillaume Côté cuts a handsome figure as Loys/Albrecht, and it helps that he can also dance and act up a storm. His obvious chemistry with Hodgkinson makes the story all the more poignant.

Often the role of Hilarion is given over to character dancers, but having principal Peter Stanczyk in the role is a plus. His technical chops bring an edge to the steps, and his undeniable charisma gives Côté a run for his money.

As Myrtha, Heather Ogden has the Wili Queen's coldness down pat and uses her technical prowess to devour the stage. (An amusing aside: When she orders her Wilis to dance Albrecht to his death, it presents the prospect of a real-life wife (Ogden) ordering her real-life husband (Côté) to his doom.)

The other key roles are Giselle's friends who perform the celebrated Act 1 pas de quatre. The gifted Elena Lobsanova and Keiichi Hirano performed the virtuoso solos, but Chelsy Meiss and Patrick Lavoie also held their own in the male and female duets and ensembles.

Giselle is a ballet that never grows tired. The richly layered characters allow for individual interpretation, and the story is just plain compelling. And to see those Wilis, perfectly in line with each other, negotiating difficult movement patterns in precise symmetry, is an endless thrill.

Giselle continues at the Four Seasons Centre until Sunday.

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