A Romantic, two-act ballet that has remained in the classical repertoire for more than 100 years, “Giselle” offers the sort of dramatic range that can make a dancer an overnight celebrity.
When the show debuted in 1841, the character of Giselle was so popular that clothing, hats and souvenirs were named after her. And Carlotta Grisi, the Italian ballerina who first played the part, became one of the highest-paid dancers of her time.
The emotional life of the characters and their reactions to one another are best portrayed by mastering an exquisite sense of timing, lyrical movement and expression, so the audience understands the complexities of the doomed relationship between Albrecht, the aristocrat, and Giselle, the beautiful but frail peasant girl.
“Our dancers are fantastic and very experienced with technique,” said Steven Wistrich, artistic director of City Ballet, the company staging “Giselle” at Spreckels Theatre this weekend. “But the challenge is to use the technique to create authentic characters that the audience will never forget. That’s why dancers have always loved these roles.”
City Ballet of San Diego is both a company and a school, led by Wistrich and his wife, resident choreographer Elizabeth Wistrich. Their daughter, ballerina Ariana Gonzalez, is married to dancer/choreographer Geoff Gonzalez, who recently won the Outstanding Choreographer Award at the Youth America Grand Prix in Escondido.
Steven Wistrich offers a free lecture before every performance, explaining the story that inspires the ballet.
The character of Giselle segues from a demure innocent to a woman so scorned that she goes insane, dies and then rises as a spirit, intent on saving the man who betrayed her.
Albrecht is promised to another because of an arranged marriage. But it’s Giselle he desires. Hilarion, the gamekeeper, is in love with Giselle and feels threatened by Albrecht, who flirts and pretends he isn’t engaged. When Giselle discovers the truth from Hilarion, she goes mad, her movements halting and distracted, until she collapses, her weak heart broken.
Giselle becomes a member of the Wilis, the spirits of betrothed girls who are betrayed before their wedding night. The Wilis are played by the corps de ballet, who wear white tutus and veils and rise from their graves led by Myrtha, their stern and somber queen. Their crisscrossing of lines while holding a perfect arabesque makes them menacing and ethereal at once. The Wilis exact revenge by forcing any man they encounter to dance in the moonlight until he dies from exhaustion.
At a City Ballet rehearsal, as Elizabeth Wistrich directed the principals in their solos, dancers watched at the barre, some mirroring the carefully timed positions that express the emotions of the characters.
The part of Giselle will be played by principal ballerinas Ariana Gonzalez and Sumire Ito (Sunday matinee); the role of Albrecht will be danced by Iago Breschi and Lucas Ataide (Sunday matinee), both from Brazil.
Breschi and Ataide took turns practicing the swift and buoyant movements in the dance-until-death scene, which includes more than 20 entrechats, or Olympian jumps while the legs scissor back and forth.
The role of Albrecht, which marked Rudolf Nureyev’s famous debut with The Royal Ballet, offers male dancers the opportunity to portray a complex character faced with the conflicting demands of social responsibility and living an authentic life.
When Steven Wistrich was aspiring to be a professional dancer, winning the role of Albrecht was a goal he hoped to achieve.
Honolulu Ballet hired him to dance the part, and his wife, Elizabeth, performed as Myrtha.
“They brought me in as a guest artist and when I realized they wanted me to dance Albrecht, I was overwhelmed,” he recalled.
“You saw how difficult the rehearsals are. I was pouring sweat day after day. But the performances were wonderful and it was worth all the agonizing work that went into it. It was a thrilling time and one of the highlights of my career.”
City Ballet of San Diego presents “Giselle”
When: 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday
Where: Spreckels Theatre, 121 Broadway, downtown
Phone: (858) 272-8663
A free lecture begins 30 minutes before each performance.