Dance review

Everyone loves a good ghost story, and “Giselle,” a masterpiece in the Romantic ballet canon, is based on two. Last Friday, Pacific Northwest Ballet opened its current production of the show, running through Feb. 12, at McCaw Hall. First performed in Paris in 1841, “Giselle” takes inspiration from two literary sources: a poem titled “Phantoms” by French writer Victor Hugo and a passage in Heinrich Heine’s “On Germany” in which he writes about Wilis — the ghosts of young brides-to-be who die before their wedding day and haunt men in the night.

At first, it may sound like a morbid choice for a show whose run falls so close to Valentine’s Day, but “Giselle” is a love story for the ages. Steeped in themes of jealousy, desire, revenge and unrequited passion, the production asks a lot from its cast. In addition to technically demanding choreography, it requires strong theatrics from the performers — a challenge that the nimble PNB company rises to meet.

Set in a quaint German village, the production introduces us to Giselle (danced on opening night by Lesley Rausch), a high-spirited peasant girl who falls in love with Loys, a neighboring peasant who is actually Duke Albrecht in disguise (James Kirby Rogers). When Hilarion (James Yoichi Moore), the local gamekeeper and Albrecht’s rival for Giselle’s affections, discovers the duke’s identity, he reveals the truth in front of a royal hunting party that includes Albrecht’s fiancé Bathilde (Leah Terada). The disclosure sends Giselle, who has a weak heart, into a dancing frenzy that leads to her death and passage into the nocturnal realm of the supernatural Wilis.

The first act is more theatrical than the second and dependent on acting to get the storyline across. Rausch and Rogers embody the playful, flirtatious energy of a young couple in love — teasing and encouraging one another with a glance here, a coy touch on the arm there. Except for one small footwork mishap, Rausch was technically strong, but it felt as if she was holding back slightly, especially when it came to the famous scene in which a distraught Giselle loses her mind, heartbroken with grief. Act 1 standouts on opening night were Sarah-Gabrielle Ryan and Kyle Davis, who performed the peasant pas de deux with dynamism and incredibly crisp, effortless-seeming footwork.

If Rausch seemed to be holding back in Act 1, she left her soul on the stage in Act 2. Deep in the misty forest, well past midnight, the Wilis emerge to dance and haunt unsuspecting men wandering the woods at night. When a distraught Albrecht appears at Giselle’s grave, Myrna, the queen of the Wilis (Elle Macy), attempts to dance him to his death, and Giselle selflessly intervenes to save his life. In this act, Rausch is a star — the sheer emotion she infuses into the role is palpable throughout the theater, and her grace and tenderness during the pas de deux with Rogers were outshone only by her otherworldly technique.

Rogers brought strength and a sense of valor to his role, displaying an impressive athleticism that drew roaring applause when he executed a lengthy series of clean entrechat sixes (a jump during which the dancer crosses straight legs at the calves numerous times in a row). The ensemble proved just as strong, the stoic Wilis performing their duties with icy indifference as Albrecht begs for his life. They may be tragic figures, but there is beauty even in their deep sadness.

Even with its vengeful ghosts, “Giselle” is the ultimate love story. A triumph of classical ballet, the production flourishes under the PNB touch, reminding audiences of the joy and magic of live theater while underscoring the lasting power of true love.


Through Feb 12; Pacific Northwest Ballet at McCaw Hall, 321 Mercer St., Seattle; $48-$195. Digital streaming available Feb. 16-20; $35. 206-441-2424,