Dancing to death

A 'Giselle' for the ages.

The refurbished Paramount Theater was a perfect setting for the Ballet Nacional de Cuba's production of Giselle. It's not just that the gilt formality of the space matched the intricacies of the choreography, but that the spirit of conservatorship permeated both the building and the ballet. Giselle is a work from another era, and this production gives us a window into that time.

The story of Giselle, a young peasant woman who dies for love, betrayed by a nobleman in disguise, is typical of a romantic-era ballet. With its first act set in a village at harvest time and its second in a forest graveyard at midnight, the work touches on the period's twin interests in folktales and the supernatural. When Giselle dies she becomes one of the Wilis, a ghostly band of women who dance men to their death. But it is by dancing to distract them and their leader, Myrtha, that Giselle is able to save her unfaithful lover, Albrecht, from that fate.

Ballet Nacional de Cuba

Paramount Theater, February 19-20

Although Giselle is considered a virtuoso role for a dancer, the style of the mid-19th century is very different than ballet today. This was an era when dancing on point was just becoming incorporated into ballet, and the simple act of balancing on one leg was almost a special effect. The challenge for late- 20th-century dancers is to honor that sensibility without compromising their own skills.

The Cubans have negotiated these difficulties well. They don't shortchange their own technical abilities, but these are used in the service of a particular aesthetic. The tilted torsos and inclined heads from romantic engravings are all there, along with a softness in the movement those shapes imply. And the performers' commitment to the dramatic content of the ballet extends beyond its usual limits. At the end of the first act, where the current convention is for dancers to leave their characters behind in a curtain call, the Cubans stayed riveted in their final tableau, with Giselle dead on the floor and the village in shock.

Much of this integrity is due to Alicia Alonso, the founder and director of the company. Alonso was one of the premier Giselles of her generation and seems to have a hand in every aspect of this production. She is even a ghostly presence on the program cover, with a picture of her in the role hovering behind an image of Alihayd饠Carre�the Giselle last Friday evening.

Carre�ave a compelling performance, especially in the second act, where Giselle must appear to be all spirit and no flesh. The only real disappointment of the evening was at the beginning of the "mad scene," where she learns of Albrecht's deceit. My heart sank a bit when she first looked out at the audience—she had the crazy, wild-eyed gaze of early silent-film actors, but fortunately her interpretation stayed on this side of ridiculous.

As Albrecht, Osmay Molina seemed to have some trouble fitting his dancing into the stage at the Paramount, and from time to time his nobility would slip, but he was a stalwart partner for Carre�Viengsay Vald鳠as Myrtha was implacable. When she crossed her arms in front of her in the gesture for "death" it was as if the gates of hell had swung open.

The best art has the capacity to take you out of yourself and into its own world. For the better part of an evening I was transported, if not all the way to the romanticism of the mid-19th century, then at least part of the way there, and I was glad for the trip.

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