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Two Hearts as One

It has been reassuring to see relatively full houses so far during American Ballet Theatre’s spring season at the Metropolitan Opera House, its first under the leadership of Susan Jaffe. People are finally feeling confident enough to go to the theater in large numbers. This, despite the fact that the company is offering a rather muted spring season containing a single premiere—Christopher Wheeldon’s populist “Like Water for Chocolate”—and three old standbys: “Giselle,” “Swan Lake,” and “Romeo and Juliet.” The ABT audience knows these well-worn productions by heart, down to the little details, like the moment the borzois emerge from the wings in the first act of “Giselle,” or the exact manner in which Albrecht tosses the “he-loves-me-not” daisy over his shoulder, eliciting the same titter of laughter from the audience each time.

Performance

American Ballet Theatre: “Giselle”

Place

Metropolitan Opera House, July 4 & 5, 2023

Words

Marina Harss

Devon Teuscher and Aran Bell in “Giselle.” Photograph by Amos Adams.

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The excitement, then, must be supplied by the dancers. The company is still in the process of introducing audiences to dancers who were just beginning to emerge when the pandemic hit: Cassandra Trenary, Skylar Brandt, Catherine Hurlin, Aran Bell, Jarod Curley, Chloe Misseldine. Day after day they take on, for the first or second time, the leading and supporting roles in the basic repertory. Each of the leads gets but one, or at the most two, tries. (It should be noted that there are more up-and-coming women than men.) 

Frustrating as it must be for the dancers to get only one chance, it is fun for the audience, who tries to guess how this or that début might turn out. So far, I’ve caught two, Devon Teuscher and Catherine Hurlin, each in her first performance of “Giselle” in New York. (Both have performed the role just once before out of town.)  Each was rewarding, in ways that were expected and also unexpected. Both Giselles had wonderful partners, Aran Bell in Teuscher’s case and Daniel Camargo in Hurlin’s. Hurlin and Camargo’s performance had something more—a kind of magic, and the promise of even greater magic in the future.

It just be said that Hurlin and Teuscher are very different dancers. Teuscher, a principal dancer since 2017, has a heroic quality that has served her well in ballets like “Swan Lake” and “La Bayadère.”  She has been particularly good as the Lilac Fairy in “Sleeping Beauty” and the fairy godmother in Ashton’s “Cinderella.” She revels in stillness. Not a natural Giselle, necessarily, but because she is also a fine dancing actress, Teuscher created a convincing portrayal of a young woman in love, trusting and uninhibited. When, in the middle of a dance, she felt her heart flutter—the famous palpitations—you could believe she was afflicted by a real heart condition rather than a metaphor for delicacy or mortality.

Chloe Misseldine in “Giselle.” Photograph by Ben McKeown.

Technically, Teuscher was on form: her hops on pointe were strong, her attitude turns centered and confident, her entrechats and coupé jumps in the second act energetic and buoyant. She has a lovely way of coordinating her movements, with a kind of grandeur in her port de bras. Her lines are harmonious. And she has dramatic instincts. Her mad scene was a real unraveling. She went very quiet as she relived her previous moments of happiness and slowly fell to pieces, shaking, crying. Her portrayal was supported by Aran Bell, who, looking stricken and guilty on the sidelines—you could almost hear him exclaim “what have I done”—kept trying to help, to make up in some way for the mess he had created. 

In the last year or so, Bell has gone from a strong, tall, technically-polished but somewhat stolid young dancer to a real artist. In this “Giselle,” his interpretation was sensitive, responsive, engaged. By the end of act one, he looked utterly undone. And his dancing has become even more polished, with soft, neat landings, beautiful double tours, and, in the famous series of entrechats—I counted thirty-two—fabulous, clean beats. He is the real article—a heroic, sympathetic, elegant male lead.

Their “Giselle” at the July 4 matinée was followed on July 5th by Hurlin and Camargo. Here, the dynamic was completely different. Hurlin, who became a principal last year, is a spitfire, and in the early scenes her liveliness called to mind that of another Romantic heroine, Swanilda in “Coppélia.” Girlish, light, and completely natural-seeming, she moved across the stage as if it were truly her world. Her port de bras was loose, her steps free, and her face sometimes scrunched into a kid-like grin. This made both the moment in which she suffers heart palpitations, and the final implosion scene, all the more harrowing. When she felt ill, it scared her. As death approached, she stared at her own hands as if she couldn’t recognize them. Then she fell like a rag doll.

Catherine Hurlin and Daniel Camargo in “Giselle.” Photograph by Rosalie O’Connor.

Unlike Bell, Camargo looked frozen in panic. In the earlier scenes he had been boyish and charming, caught up in the playfulness of their flirtation. But when he realized that his subterfuge had been discovered—Albrecht is a nobleman posing as a commoner in order to woo a peasant girl—he seemed to think first of himself: “What a bore! The game is up.” It was a subtle and brave choice. It was only at the very end of the scene that the horror of what had just occurred, and his part in it, became clear to him. 

Both Hurlin and Camargo’s characters, were transformed in the second act, he by sadness, she by her experience of betrayal. Her dancing acquired a “ballerina” quality—finesse, precision, amplitude. But her essence remained. If Teuscher’s strength is stillness, Hurlin’s is speed. Her spinning hops at the beginning of the act were a complete blur, and her backward-traveling entrechats and coupé jumps seemed barely to touch the floor. But she could also hold back when she needed to. The audience held its breath as she slowly lifted her leg to the side, pivoted, and began to slowly tilt forward, with aching slowness. 

In this act Camargo’s boyishness was replaced by a powerful sadness–almost a kind of shock. The walk across the stage, accompanied by a (rather out of tune) cello melody, was understated, like a soul wandering through the wilderness.  He seemed not to trust his eyes when he first encountered Giselle’s ghostly presence. It was clear that the lilies he carried to her grave had a strong symbolic meaning—they were Giselle to him. They took on an even greater importance than usual. At the end of the ballet, he scattered them along his path, so that they formed a current connecting him to Giselle’s grave.

 His dancing was wonderful too—lovely turns, neat cabrioles, and twenty-nine entrechats during which he raised his arms to his heart, lowered them, and then slowly raised them at his sides. But the real magic happened in the pas de deux, where the two dancers slipped into what I can only describe as a kind of flow state, in which the bodies seemed to think and feel the same thing as they moved together. They, and the audience, were momentarily suspended in time.

Fangqi Li in “Giselle.” Photograph by Rosalie O’Connor

Those are the moments you look forward to and hope for in a performance. They are rare. Hurlin and Camargo may be able to recreate that kind of chemistry with each other again in the future, or with other partners, but what happened at this particular performance seems unique and will remain in my memory for a long time.  

There were other fine performances besides these. Jarod Curley, inexplicably still in the corps de ballet, danced the role of Giselle’s unloved village suitor Hilarion, while sacrificing none of his natural refinement or nobility. He’ll be a fine Albrecht one day. SunMi Park danced the highly technical “peasant pas de deux” with ease and softness, each movement expanding to fill the music. Tyler Maloney’s jumps and beats were a joy. As Myrtha, queen of the ghosts, Fangqi Li  soared in her leaps and used her upper body with pliancy and authority.

ABT’s “Giselle” may be neither new nor fresh but it has the virtue of allowing us to really see the dancers. And right now, at ABT, that is a very good thing.

Marina Harss


Marina Harss is a dance writer in New York, a frequent contributor to the New York Times and the New Yorker Magazine, as well as to Dance Magazine and Fjord Review. She is the author of a book about the choreographer Alexei Ratmansky, scheduled for publication by Farrar Straus and Giroux in 2023.

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