Ballet Theater of Chicago

at the Athenaeum Theatre,

March 19-23


Ballet Chicago

at the Shubert Theater, April 9-13

By Joseph Houseal

Classical ballet is the foundation upon which all contemporary concert dance is built, and its presence in or absence from a dance environment speaks volumes about that environment’s depth. The challenges of reinterpreting the classics change as the times change. But classical dancing had the aesthetic power to survive the transition from court-sponsored performances to public concert dance, and that initial definitive stroke set the standard of seriousness and technical excellence for concert dance today. In Chicago, were it not for Ballet Theater of Chicago, the sole classical repertoire danced these past two seasons would have been a couple of drab versions of The Nutcracker. This season BTC has provided a consistent diet of it, with commendable versions of Les sylphides, act two of Swan Lake, and this revival of last year’s acclaimed Giselle.

Defining precisely what is classical generates many questions. How old must a work be before it’s withstood the test of time? Is a classic honored in a Confucian manner–just because it’s old? Or is it something more? We are social animals who make art to satisfy an expressive need we cannot satisfy any other way, and in the process come to know ourselves again and again. Regarding a classic as “been there, done that” is nonsense; it is not about closure but about restating the enigma of life. Performed again, classics show us our growth and recover nuances, feelings, and insights that without reenactment would be lost. BTC’s Giselle illuminates two rival forces in contemporary dance. Act two is one of the great “white ballets,” a precursor of abstract modern dance. Yet the tragedy of Giselle, which implicitly suggests the destructiveness of classism, parallels the resurgence of narrative and exploded personal experience in postmodern dance.

Giselle is a 19th-century work originally choreographed by Jules Perrot and Jean Coralli, with music by Adolphe Adam; BTC’s version is a staging by American Ballet Theatre’s Ivan Nagy. A Rhineland village maiden is courted by an aristocrat in disguise. He pledges his love, and Giselle gives him her heart. When Giselle’s woodsman suitor reveals that Albrecht is an aristocrat, she confronts her high-born betrothed. In that scene Giselle loses her mind and dies. In act two, one of the most celebrated scenes in ballet, Albrecht visits Giselle’s grave and finds that she’s become a Wili, or the ghost of a maiden whose love was unfulfilled. The stage is filled with pale ethereal Wilis taunting the men who visit them, but Giselle’s love for Albrecht transcends the grave and they dance an achingly beautiful pas de deux.

BTC brings tenderness to a ballet hard to pull off because it expresses emotions not common these days. The peasant villagers’ awe and humility at the aristocratic cortege of Albrecht’s betrothed, Bathilde, is pure sweetness. Their horror at Giselle’s death and confusion over whether the woodsman Hilarion or Albrecht is to blame for it is direct and simple. The famous peasant pas de deux–a grand pas de deux in all but name–is one of the great challenges of the classical repertoire. The couple must pass off steps of excruciating technical detail as the carefree dancing of peasants for the pleasure of visiting dignitaries. In BTC’s staging, Rikko Mikuni’s petit battement was finer than his ballon, but he danced the entire piece with gusto and appeal. Jennifer Goodman mastered all the demands of the duet, ending each phrase with a reminder of her sheer joy in country ways.

But like most other BTC evenings, this one belonged to Meridith Benson. BTC is her vehicle in many ways–but this is no limitation, for she rises to meet the considerable challenges of its repertoire. The scene in which Giselle discovers Albrecht’s deceit allows a ballerina less than five minutes to lose her mind and die of a broken heart and defeats most of them (one exception is the legendary Gelsey Kirkland). Benson manages to walk a tightrope over this fatal chasm of emotions, letting them flash out with an intensity and sincerity that express the character’s rich feelings and the danger they pose to her soul. In the moments before Giselle’s tragic death, a dancer must convey the innocent charm that beguiled Albrecht, the character’s love of dancing (her sole means of revealing her affection), her love for her mother, her horror at the revelation of Albrecht’s true identity, and her mockery of death as she taunts Hilarion with gestures of suicide.

Guillermo Barley as Albrecht has a physique that suits the role with near perfection, but he hasn’t yet achieved the ease that classical roles require. Bringing more finish to the end of phrases would help. Stylistic consistency is one of BTC’s strengths, especially in ballets whose style is archaic. Certain steps in Giselle, such as a back-arching jump with ankles joined in a double coupé, are present in no other ballet. Seeing them properly executed in a staging that also revives the nuances of an earlier aesthetic epoch is a miniature miracle. Here, come to life, is a classic: something we recognize but do not own.

The corps de ballet performed with synchrony and finesse, giving the immortal scene of rows of Wilis hopping in arabesque a satisfying reality. Benson’s transformation into an ethereal being was total, her extensions seemingly effortless in her precarious encounters with her beloved visitor. Again and again she captured the spiritual tug of forces drawing her to Albrecht and pulling her back to the realm of unfulfilled ghosts. Balancing on pointe, reaching as if to escape, her epaulement betrayed her longing as she twisted to find Albrecht: battling forces found expression in her very body.

There’s no question that BTC has plenty of room for growth in terms of administration, outreach, and even the quality of the musical experience (the recording and sound system at the Athenaeum were tough going). Let’s hope that its recently formed merger with the Lexington Ballet will help keep the company vital and artistically sound, because BTC fills a role in Chicago against a lot of odds and with a balletic integrity other groups might emulate. What is a classic? Sometimes the darkness illumines the light: consider the Chicago dance scene without classical ballet and its stringent, fruitful demands.

The full and proper presentation of a story ballet requires a company to master a wide spectrum of performance: acting and gesture, plotless divertissements, virtuoso solo work, character dancing, grand manner pas de deux, and corps de ballet work. Sadly, Ballet Chicago mastered only a couple of these in its Cinderella, its finest moments the product of Bolshoi-trained dancers.

When the corps is as uneven and ragged as Ballet Chicago’s usually was, it’s better just to close one’s eyes and listen to Prokofiev’s splendid music. The corps and demisoloists performed even the most basic postures and movements incorrectly: I saw bent knees in second-position turns, splayed port de bras with pinched shoulder blades, and poorly turned-out legs. Synchrony was a distant hope, never a reality. This production was little more than a lavishly funded regional recital with stellar guest principals and surprisingly excellent character work. There was no justification for tickets as high as $60 or placement in the Spring Festival of Dance alongside such artists as Eiko & Koma and Marcel Marceau.

Cinderella is first and foremost a beloved children’s story, and this is where good character work comes in. The acting of the two stepsisters and the stepmother was effective, not overdone, and pleasurable for its dramatic clarity and humor. Courtney Kalata, playing the Dumpy Stepsister, stood out as the most inspired local talent. She explored the range of this odd character–from village idiot to quarterback to lust-driven cheerleader–with a ludicrous fervor, bringing an inner tug to the entertaining parody. Gordon Peirce Schmidt, who played the stepmother in drag, never overplayed the role, keeping it well within the confines of a ballet performance; this control balanced his physical stature and allowed nuances of character to develop over the course of the performance. Together these actor-dancers–and Todd Brown, who played the daunted dancing master hired to teach the ugly sisters–amounted to a fine little ensemble.

Grand manner dancing was amply supplied by two Bolshoi artists: Anastasia Babayeva, trained at the Bolshoi Academy, and Anton Kunikeyev, a former Bolshoi Ballet principal dancer. Bolshoi means big, in a world-renowned style of ballet characterized by theater-filling stage presence, amplified emotions, statuesque carriage, and refined training meant to serve not precious detail but an aesthetic of magnitude. Babayeva’s fireside solos, remarkable for their dreaminess and supple footwork, were almost wasted on the family audience.

But the dream-come-true pas de deux danced by the Russians at the ball was wasted on no one. Waltz steps grew in size as the wonder increased and the couple circled together. Babayeva released her back in ever greater degree until she was swept up in an overhead lift, in generous arcs written on the air with impossible ease. This sequence was followed by a series of grand jetes, the amplitude of which would be a marvel for most dancers but is the standard at the Bolshoi. Kunikeyev supported these jumps with a single outstretched hand, as if he were leading some wild horse through the sky. For a magical bit of time, everything disappeared except Cinderella and her prince. Then the corps reentered and the magic was over. The Bolshoi dancers were a godsend for Ballet Chicago, but perhaps their presence in a production so unequal to their art signifies just how far the former Soviet Union has fallen.

Though Ballet Chicago is obviously a moneyed affair, it cannot begin to match the integrity, technical consistency, and artistic depth of its infinitely poorer colleague, Ballet Theater of Chicago.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Uncredited photo of “Giselle”.