Disregard your preconceptions of holiday ballet. This is no somber Nutcracker. Although Giselle has long been a standard in the ballet repertoire, a local dance troupe has dismantled this story of Christmas love gone wrong, contributing a gem of a program for Twin Cities' audiences. If you have been avoiding dance theater, this engaging Ballet of the (disco!) Dolls production will demolish your assumptions about ballet and perhaps performance art.
The Ballet of the Dolls dance company, celebrating its 20th anniversary, is known for turning ballet on its head. Its treatment of this 19th century teary downer is nothing short of a foil to the often inaccessible programs within the ballet canon. Dolls has also deconstructed the parameters of the dancers themselves. Don't expect 80-pound ballerinas who stand under five feet tall. Dolls dancers look more like athletes - muscular and nimble, yet not inhumanly so, and never androgynous.
The storytelling in this boogie ballet is fluid and engaging. Nuances of narrative are delivered through Giselle's lively music. For example, we are introduced to the character of Giselle while "I'm a candidate for love" plays in the background.
Compensating for the lack of spoken words, props are used quite effectively here. Giselle's first suitor, the sprightly (but ultimately dull) Helerion rides in on a girl's blue cruiser bicycle with basket. Suitor No. 2 swaggers into town wearing a leather jacket and dark sunglasses, clearly shorthand for "bad biker guy," and not the pedal-pedal kind. Additional props are used strictly for aesthetic beauty. Days after the show, my mind wanders to a gorgeous scene with brightly-colored umbrellas that glow under Jeff Bartlett's meticulousness lighting.
Each of the five lead parts is cast brilliantly. You'll find no weak link here. Ted Sothern is charming and just the right amount of dorky as Helerion. Julia Tehven is graceful and sweet as Giselle, but not too saccharin. Robert Skafte plays bad boy Albrecht. (You may remember Skafte as the stepmother from last year's Dolls' production of Cinderella,.) Skafte brings a compelling masculine dominance to the role of Albrecht. He is temperature-raising sexy from the waist up. In my mind, I was tracing an imaginary line of demarcation between his deltoids and his triceps while he deftly seduced young Giselle. Perplexingly, Skafte is stiff as a board from the hips down. This is most unfortunate for disco dancing.
The only thing more inexplicable than Skafte's rigid nether regions is the fact that I always manage to end up sitting next to the one person who insists on talking through the entire show. For the record, it is not polite to talk during any performance, even one without spoken words. Please wait until intermission to tell your neighbor how great you think the show is.
Where was I... The plot hinges on Albrecht, suitor No. 2, who pretends to be someone he isn't. He is charming, and oozing with sexuality, but when Gisele isn't around, we see his shifty side. (Ladies, you know the type. He senses your na_ve devotion to love and he swoops down to acquire you. Once he awakens the sexual creature inside you and gets your lifetime promise, he is no longer interested. He betrays you, after which point you go crazy with grief.)
Though it is Giselle's story, Zhauna Franks as Bathilde, the "other woman," steals Act I. Franks' Bathilde is sensuous and confident. We cannot imagine why any man would stray from her, which makes Albrecht even more of a bastard when he does. Later, when Giselle gets her revenge, no one is rooting for Albrecht.
The dancing in Giselle is enthralling - yes, even the disco. The choreography is dazzling, and is peppered with fantastic lifts. The music is alluring throughout. During Giselle's spiral toward madness, there is an especially frenetic montage of classic '70s hits which includes Avril Lavigne's beloved "Freak Out."
Giselle is directed and choreographed by Dolls' founder, Myron Johnson, who also bravely dons a few leisure suits to play Giselle's father in this production. The storyline moves along at a steady pace, except for Giselle's descent into madness, which lingers too long. The frenzied pacing of Act II more than compensates for the melodrama in the first act.
In Act II, the toe shoes come off, baby. Dancers are now in their bare feet, and there is a more emotional immediacy to the story. It is time for retribution. Had Tolstoy given her an afterlife, this is the scene Anna Karenina might've wanted.
If Franks was the star of Act I, Heather Cadigan, who plays the Queen of the Wilis, is the star of Act II. Cardigan is tall and long-limbed as a Modigliani, and the most self-aware dancer in the troupe. As the leader of the Wilis, the sisterhood of women who have been jilted out of their proposed weddings, she can decide the fate of the men who have betrayed them. She is reminiscent of the woman in that Sylvia Plath poem who can "eat men like air."
The two contrasting acts allow the dancers to show their agility and range of dramatic capabilities. The women must go from snappy dance line to swarthy vixens of vengeance. And yet, they must present an amalgamated front on each side of intermission.
All elements of the production unite to create a dichotomy between the two acts, making for a rich performance. Stephanie Karr-Smith, another dancer in the show, designed the show's memorable costumes. Cocktail-length chiffon bridesmaid dresses are followed by ominous full-length black numbers with plunging necklines. Toward the end of Act I, there is a shift of music that complements with the depth of plot. When Giselle learns of her betrayal, we hear the lyrics "People are strange, when you're a stranger" which will no doubt remind you of a 1980s cult vampire flick; a fitting harbinger for Act II, which takes place exclusively in a graveyard.
If you have a lady friend you are hoping to impress on New Year's Eve, a Giselle outing make the grade.
Stay tuned for upcoming news on the Ballet of the Dolls' move to the Ritz Theater in the Sheridan neighborhood of Northeast Minneapolis.
Tickets for Giselle: $30 -- $40, $75 for the "special New Year's Eve performance and celebration." For more information go to www.balletofthedolls.org.