Thursday night was opening night at the Kennedy Center for the Paris Opera Ballet. In their performance of Giselle, this renowned company combined grace, precision, and pathos to produce a thing of transcendent beauty.
The first act is festive and filled with light and color. (Isn’t that set marvelous – like something out of a Grimm’s fairy tale. It was designed in 1924 by the artist Alexandre Benois.)
Alas, all ends in tragedy. The beautiful young Giselle has fallen in love, but she has been wooed under false pretenses. She goes mad with grief, and dies.
The second act provided a stark contrast. It is night. All gaiety has fled. And sylph- like beings appear, clad all in white. They are the Wilis. As young girls, their hearts had been broken and death had overtaken them, putting an end to their dreams of love. Now they haunt the graveyard, seeking vengeance on the men who wronged them.
(At the beginning of this excerpt, the Wilis appear veiled. They then discard those veils, which seem literally to fly offstage into the wings. I saw this happen live Thursday night; I have no idea how it was done.)
What made this performance so moving, so riveting? In“Paris Opera Ballet’s Giselle Soars at the Kennedy Center,” veteran dance critic Sarah Kaufman, brings her deep love and knowledge of the ballet to bear on that question:
Bright, fresh energy coursed through the entire cast. It has been 19 years since the Paris Opera Ballet last performed here, and I have relished the memories of the dancers’ willowy physiques, beautifully shaped feet and musical sensitivity ever since. All that is present, but the dancers’ buoyancy surprised me. How uniformly light and airborne they were, from the corps dancers to the stars.
There was an extraordinary level of excellence in all ranks and a thorough familiarity with the romantic ballet style: the suppleness of the torso; the softened, modest proportions. The sheer human grandeur, expressed in the simplest ways, had this hardened critic near tears at several points. One of them was a choreographic feat I’ve seen a hundred times, yet never seen before: A pinwheel suddenly materialized out of interlacing rows of dancers like the wind lifting from a field.
I have sometimes felt that perfection is inimical to beauty. This was most emphatically not the case Thursday evening. Instead, Romeo’s exclamation upon first seeing Juliet came to mind: “…I ne’er saw true beauty till this night.”
Did I mention that this performance played to a packed house Thursday night? At the end, the applause was thunderous, the company called back for numerous curtain calls. I turned to my cousin Stephany, my companion for the evening, and said, “We’re incredibly lucky to have been here tonight!”
Here is the video trailer for the Paris Opera Ballet’s 2012 U.S. tour: