PNB’s ‘Giselle’ hits all the high notes of tragedy and romance

  • Written by Deborah Stone

Pacific Northwest Ballet principal dancers Kaori Nakamura as Giselle, and Lucien Postlewaite as Albrecht, in PNB's world premiere staging of Giselle. Photo © Angela Sterling
“Giselle” captivated audiences in Paris when it premiered in 1841. A lush score, exquisite choreography and a tragic love story gave it all the ingredients for success, and it went on to become one of ballet’s greatest classics. But, although it has had many restagings and revivals over the years, the famed historical ballet has never been in PNB’s repertory.

Not until now. Peter Boal, PNB’s artistic director, who has long wanted to bring the ballet to Seattle audiences, was initially unsure of how to incorporate “Giselle” into the company’s repertoire. As he states in his program note, “I looked at impressive contemporary productions and time-honored traditional ones, never finding one that was right for us. I wanted to do more than recreate another company’s production and I didn’t want to choreograph one myself.” Boal’s solution was to reconstruct the ballet’s earliest Parisian choreography through the use of several 19th-century sources.

With the help of PNB’s assistant artistic director and dance historian Doug Fullington, along with University of Oregon scholar and historical adviser Marian Smith, “Giselle” has been given a new life. In this never-been-seen interpretation, Giselle’s character is spunkier, with a mind of her own, which makes it even more startling when she loses it upon finding out that her lover (who has been disguised as a peasant) is actually a duke betrothed to another. Additionally, a number of comic scenes with villagers have been restored to the ballet, which serves to provide welcome elements of humor and break up the dark nature of the narrative.

PNB’s staging also incorporates several elaborate mime sequences, which were an integral part of the original production and used as storytelling devices. In this timeless and moving tale, Giselle, a young, innocent peasant girl, falls for a philandering prince named Albrecht. When she learns of his deception, she goes mad and succumbs to an early death of a broken heart. She comes back as a Wili, a member of a sisterhood of spirits, all would-be-brides doomed to dance men to death in the forest at night. When her lover appears, she defies her supernatural orders and saves him from his cruel fate.

PNB’s production includes all the requisite dramatic elements of this fabled tragedy and brings it to life with stunning results. The dancing is top-notch, with breathtaking performances by Kaori Nakamura in the lead role and Lucien Postlewaite as the Duke. Nakamura enchants as first a flirty, carefree young girl who would rather dance and make merry than dutifully help harvest the grapes. Later, she emerges, rising from her grave wrapped in a shroud. Transformed into a Wili, she becomes an ethereal apparition and appears to almost float on air with a quiet, wispy grace. In her inhuman form, she seems remote, yet she still manages to convey emotion. One senses her sadness and the undying love she holds for the Duke despite his betrayal.

Postlewaite makes a handsome, virile Duke with a boyish air. He has a charming stage presence and wows the audience with his magnificent jumps and the deeply personal interpretation he brings to the role. Also of special note are Jeffrey Stanton as Hilarion, the love-spurned gamekeeper, and Maria Chapman as Myrtha, the powerful and menacing Queen of the Wilis.

And the Wilis, those eerie specters in white, are to be equally commended. Dancing with pinpoint technical precision, they create a haunting image that lasts long after the final curtain call. In PNB’s capable hands (and feet!), this uniquely crafted “Giselle” is a thing of magic – a lush and lovely production that hits all the high notes of tragedy and romance – and is guaranteed to become a classic of its own in the years to come.

PNB’s “Giselle” runs through June 12th at McCaw Hall in Seattle. For ticket information: 206-441-2424 or visit


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