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‘Giselle’ a safe bet for American Ballet Theater in Chicago



◆ Through March 25

◆ Auditorium Theatre, 50 E. Congress

◆ Tickets, $32-$137

◆ (800) 982-2787;

In establishing its new six-year, three-visit partnership with the Auditorium Theatre, New York’s American Ballet Theater made just about the most conservative possible choice of programming possible. It scheduled five performances of a single work — that 19th century romantic classic, “Giselle,” set to Adolph Adam’s score and staged, after the original, by artistic director Kevin McKenzie.

Meanwhile, next week, the company heads off to Costa Mesa, Calif., to present the world premiere of resident choreographer Alexei Ratmansky’s new production of “The Firebird,” the early 20th century classic set to a Stravinsky score.

What is wrong with this picture? Primarily it suggests that after all the company’s visits to the Civic Opera House in recent years it still has no understanding of the Chicago dance audience. Despite the radical shift in the dance scene here, the powers that be at ABT still think of this city as a hub of ballet beginners. Backward thinking.

Of course “Giselle” is an exquisite piece of dance theater, and it enables ABT to showcase its greatest strength — a handful of superb partnerships between its principal dancers — to fine effect. Just such a partnership — between the ethereally beautiful Julie Kent and the noble yet sexy Marcelo Gomes — was on view at Thursday’s opening.

“Giselle” is really two distinct ballets. Its first half is a realistic, if fairy tale-like love story set in a lush Rhine Valley kingdom of Germany, where a peasant village is celebrating the grape harvest, and the royal castle sits perched high on a distant hill, all but untouchable. It is in the village that the pretty, innocent Giselle falls head-over-heels for a handsome stranger (Gomes) — learning far too late that he is actually Count Albrecht, disguised as a commoner. She has given her whole heart, but he, though clearly charmed by her, is only playing at love, and is already engaged to Bathilde (Kristi Boone is the aptly elegant and sophisticated daughter of the prince in this tale in which class differences are sharply and tellingly drawn).

Devastated by her betrayal, Giselle goes mad and dies of heartbreak. And the ballet’s second act — set in the otherworldly forest of the Wilis, which is inhabited by the ghosts of other betrayed women — is about Albrecht’s quest for redemption, and Giselle’s remarkable act of forgiveness.

Kent, now well into her forties, is a willowy wonder. Not only has she maintained the most sublime, unfaltering, yet impossibly feathery technique, but she captures Giselle’s utter guilelessness with the unforced naturalness of a girl led wholly by her heart. She owns this role. And her chemistry with Gomes — a gorgeously muscled dancer who finesses soundless landings after the most extraordinary jumps and leaps — is ideal. His two sustained overhead lifts of Kent — in which she appears to float — were nothing short of unforgettable.

Gennadi Savaliev was a strongly convincing Hilarion, the huntsman who lusts for Giselle but is rejected by her. Misty Copeland and Craig Salstein danced a vivid peasant pas de deux (with Copeland instantly recovering from a split-second slip with the sort of true grit and rock-solid technique that mark the quintessential professional).

In the role of Myrta, queen of the Wilis, the statuesque Veronika Part seemed more tense and earthbound than grandly commanding. The large female corp dancing the Wilis had some lovelymoments, as well as a few ragged ones.

ABT conductor Ormsby Wilkins conducted the Chicago Sinfonietta with superb attentiveness to the dancers. The ballet’s design by Gianni Quaranta (sets) and Anna Anni (costumes) could not be more lavish.

NOTE: David Hallberg dances the role of Count Albrecht at the 8 p.m. performance on March 24.

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