The title character in Giselle is a delicate peasant girl with a weak heart. She lives to dance, but she's not supposed to overdo it because the strain might do her in.
At Wednesday's opening of the 19th-century chestnut by the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, there was a poignant parallel in principal dancer Vanessa Lawson's situation.
Lawson, 34, has a damaged knee that has kept her offstage since last May. She, too, lives to dance and has a fragile, vulnerable quality. Thankfully, she made a triumphant comeback in the demanding role, never betraying a hint of injury.
She's a true dance actress, first gaily flitting as a maiden in love, then descending into staggering, wild-eyed madness after learning that her beloved, Albrecht, is a lying scoundrel.
She dies heartbroken, and rises as a pale ghost in the moonlit second act. Her pure, eternal love saves Albrecht from being danced to death by the man-hating Wilis -- winged, veiled fairies who were once jilted brides. Lawson was not only physically ethereal, she radiated deeply spiritual forgiveness.
The audience showered her with appreciation, leaping up at show's end with yells of "Bravo!"
Lawson is our reigning princess of the dance stage and deserves to be adored. (Rotating in the leads are Amanda Green with Dmitri Dovgoselets and Jo-Ann Sundermeier with Harrison James. Although Nurzhan Kulybaev is a principal, he hasn't been given a lead role.)
Jared Matthews, a tall, elegant young soloist from New York's American Ballet Theatre, is Lawson's guest partner. It's his first time in the role of the deceitful Albrecht, who must be believably tormented in the second act by remorse and poetic longing.
Though Matthews was technically impressive, his presence was too boyish. As an actor, he seemed to be operating by rote rather than living the character's emotions.
Giselle, handed down from 1841 Paris, is a warhorse. It's deeply old-fashioned -- in fact, quaint -- in its use of mime, its swooning Romantic sensibility and its very French, often melodramatic score by Adolphe Adam, performed by the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra.
RWB's version, in the repertoire since 1982, is by England's Peter Wright. Remounting the work for the first time in a decade, the company has spruced it up with fresh replicas of the original sets and first-act costumes. The troupe is expanded with senior students and retired dancers to a cast of more than 40. Retired star Tara Birtwhistle, in the non-dancing role of Giselle's fretful mother, is a master of body language as always.
The rustic Rhineland village set is charming, like an autumn-toned illustration from a folk-tale book. The costumes are lovely, and when the royal party arrives they're opulent, with gorgeous plumed hats, gowns, capes and tunics. The colour palette of browns, rusts, oranges and golds verges on monotonous, though.
There's a great deal of technical prowess to admire in this ballet -- festive waltzing and frolicking in the first act and a fog-shrouded sisterhood of 19 eerily unified Wilis in the second, not to mention the leads' lyrical duets and captivating solos.
The first-act pas de six, showcasing three couples, was delivered with great flair. Alexander Gamayunov was passionate as the brutish, jealous Hilarion, and Sundermeier was commanding as the scary-powerful queen of the Wilis. But in comparison to Swan Lake, The Sleeping Beauty and Nutcracker -- and later classics like Romeo and Juliet -- there's a lack of theatrical variety.
There's no parade of contrasting visitors or suitors, no comic relief, no crowd-pleasing jester, no flamboyant villain, no battle, no showcase for the male corps, no troupe of ethnic entertainers.
Other than Albrecht's final burst of bravura technique when the Wilis are trying to kill him, the ballet lacks showpiece moments. What has made it famous and beloved is its emotional depth, tied in with flower symbolism from Giselle's fateful "loves me, loves me not" plucking of a daisy to the funeral lilies at her grave.
I haven't seen it in 17 years, but in my memory, it ended with Giselle slipping out of the mortal realm like a wisp of disappearing smoke, and Albrecht lying on her grave, utterly grief-stricken and bereft.
This time, despite Lawson's performance, the staging seems slightly different and the exquisite pathos is missing. The second act never fully transports us to a mythical plane that would make it heartbreaking, more than 170 years after it was first danced.
Centennial Concert Hall
Royal Winnipeg Ballet
Tickets: $33-$97.50 at Ticketmaster or 956-2792
Three and a half stars out of five