Austin | Dallas | Houston
Great dancing; disappointing sets

Houston Ballet's romantic Giselle provides a respite from worldly troubles

News_Theodore Bale_head shot_column mug
Giselle
A scene from the Houston Ballet production of Giselle. Photo by Amitava Sarkar
News_Nancy_Danielle Rowe
Danielle Rowe Photo by Jo Duck

One could argue that contemporary American audiences are hard-pressed relating to a French romantic fairy-tale ballet made 170 years ago in Paris. Our desperate social, economic and political times would seem to cast Giselle as little more than a trifle. On Thursday night, however, Houston Ballet’s utterly traditional staging was exactly what I needed when I entered the Wortham Theater Center.

Nearly three hours later, I left feeling entirely uplifted, having forgotten all the depressing news that comes through my car radio every morning.

My expectations of Giselle are high, to say the least. I’ve seen it in Boston, Hartford, New York, Montréal, Washington, D.C., and many other cities, by a wide range of companies. French ballerina Sylvie Guillem’s production for La Scala Ballet was perhaps the most extreme of my experience, with its corps de ballet parading around in heavy grape-stomping boots and its globally-diverse spirit-Willis.  Oh, wait, Boris Eifman’s mannerist Red Giselle was even more of a digression. In June I witnessed Pacific Northwest Ballet’s painstakingly historical version in Seattle, a “baseline” I’ll never forget, especially for its preponderance with narrative pantomime and its almost Zen-like clarity.

The fact remains that Giselle has to come around every so often in any prominent ballet company because accomplished ballerinas need to dance the title role. As well, audiences need to revisit the ballet’s extraordinary story of Giselle’s ascension to the spirit world and her pervasive compassion for the lover who readily scorned her, leading to her madness and premature death.  

 Rowe is a consummate actor and a bit of a paradox. Tall and incredibly slender, she appears vulnerable at first, until she moves like a warrior. I was taken with her amazingly soft landings in every jump, exacting turns, long series of hops on point, and her precise body direction.  

 Australian ballerina Danielle Rowe gave a thrilling interpretation of the lead role on opening night. She is somewhat new to Houston audiences, having arrived here in January as a first soloist and then promoted to principal dancer just last month (fans will remember her in Sleeping Beauty last season).

Rowe is a consummate actor and a bit of a paradox. Tall and incredibly slender, she appears vulnerable at first, until she moves like a warrior. I was taken with her amazingly soft landings in every jump, exacting turns, long series of hops on point, and her precise body direction. She took her time arriving in the deepest arabesque penchée, a striking pose in which her lifted leg was nearly 180 degrees from her standing leg. It was breathtaking the first time, bewildering the second.  Rowe’s actions are distinct, but with an overall continuity that suggests a deep understanding of phrasing. There is something extra, perhaps a kind of “sweep” in her dancing, which makes her the perfect interpreter of the French romantic style.

In the lead male role of Albrecht, Jun Shuang Huang managed to change the indifferent attitude I’ve had towards him over the past year, with only his dancing and acting in the first act! By the end of the second, I was won over to talents he seemed to have hidden since he joined Houston Ballet last year.

Winner of numerous ballet competition prizes, he struck me as kind of a wonderful machine, technically perfect but diffident, if not sometimes wooden, in his interpretation of various roles. I did not understand the scope of his classical background and certainly did not anticipate his swashbuckling naturalism, which makes him perfect as Albrecht. I believe that producer and stager Ai-Gul Gaisina revised portions of his variations in Act II just to show off his brilliant jumping, sharp cabrioles, and rapid turns. All that running, beckoning, and consternation (especially in the second act) is fiendishly difficult to bring off, but Huang gave a superb performance on all counts.

Gaisina’s staging is mostly straightforward. At first I was surprised to see the traditional peasant pas de deux replaced with an ensemble passage for four couples. In terms of narrative, however, this makes good sense. Everyone in the village seems to participate in celebrating the arrival of The Prince of Courland and his daughter Bathilde. Technically, it is confusing because the choreography is so dense. Amplified by four or sometimes eight dancers, it’s almost impossible to discern exactly what is going on.

The whole thing looks more like a faded Disney World version of the Rhineland Village than an actual one, and this is lamentable in view of the exceptionally fine dancing.

 The scenic design and costumes give a feeling of cheapness, as if Houston Ballet is merely the poor cousin of a greater company. When the villagers marched in celebration of the harvest, one of the wheels fell off their flimsy rustic cart, an embarrassing moment. The oval green spray-painted wings worn by the corps de ballet of Willis in Act II recall an after-Easter sale at CVS. The whole thing looks more like a faded Disney World version of the Rhineland Village than an actual one, and this is lamentable in view of the exceptionally fine dancing.

I’ve never seen Giselle presented on a double-bill, since it is a formidable work even at two acts. Houston Ballet included artistic director Stanton Welch’s 1999 Indigo as the curtain-raiser, as if the audience couldn’t live without two cocktail-filled intermissions.

Set to two of Vivaldi’s cello concerti, the dance is often physically challenging, but in the end, unremarkable. The choreography follows the pulsing eighth-notes of the score more than Vivaldi’s extensive melodic lines. The men support the women by reaching straight under their armpits, and then the women dance like crippled puppets. Joseph Walsh covered his face while delivering a swift series of turns. Why? Such overwrought gestures hint at a troubling back-story that never becomes evident, and the dance is an ill prelude to a master-work like Giselle.

Newsletters for exploring your city

Daily Digest

Houston news, views + events

The Dining Report

News you can eat

Insider Offers

Curated experiences at exclusive prices

Promo Alerts

Special offers + exclusive deals

We will not share or sell your email address