Times Music/Dance Critic

The production of dear old, good old, sweet old "Giselle" currently revived--if that is the right verb--by American Ballet Theatre is a mess.

David Blair's staging of 1968, never a paragon of stylistic virtue, has been picked at, pecked at and appended by a disparate succession of well-meaning hands: Mikhail Baryshnikov, Elena Tchernichova and now John Taras. The result, despite moments of glory, is the mishmash it has to be.

Oliver Smith's primitive sets, never models of imaginative theatricality, have become faded and tattered relics of a forgettable if not forgotten Canvas Age.

One surveyed the stage at Shrine Auditorium on Thursday night and shuddered. One could laugh at the creaky silliness of it all, or cry at the unnecessary abuse heaped upon a masterpiece. The feelings were, as they say, mixed.

But all was not lost. Far from it. The framework may have been shoddy, but the dancing within it was wonderful. This "Giselle" enjoyed the enlightend services of a really luxurious cast.

Portraying Giselle for the first time here was Alessandra Ferri, the febrile, 22-year-old from Milan via London. Baryshnikov complemented her as a noble, tormented Albrecht.

Myrta, the awesome Queen of the Wilis, was performed at last by a genuine heroic ballerina--Martine van Hamel--not by an ambitious young thing two steps up from the corps. Similarly, the misunderstood, ill-fated Hilarion was played not by some wimpy secondary danseur but by the formidable Clark Tippet, himself a former Albrecht.

With artists of such striking authority and individuality in the central roles, Ballet Theatre allowed the viewer to focus upon the plight of the characters--and to disregard the gaucheries of direction and design.

Most Giselles make a demure entrance in Act I. Responding to Albrecht's knock on the door, they skip or dart or prance out of the cottage--daintily, perhaps even coyly. Ferri bursts forth in a revealing fit of exquisite, uncontrollable passion.

This nearly caused her some sartorial grief Thursday, for the hem of her costume got caught on a nail. The emerging prima ballerina suddenly had to contend with a shredded skirt--which may have been unsightly--and with a long, trailing ribbon, which could have been dangerous.

Unfazed, refusing to miss so much as half a beat, Ferri grabbed the offending fabric, ripped it off with pert petulance, tossed it into a corner and continued to dance with blissful exuberance. Thus she won her second of many ovations (the first, of course, had greeted her entrance).

Ferri does not play Giselle for conventional values. In the first act, she is winsome but not particularly fragile. Her huge black eyes flash with excitement when she searches for her lover and convey infinite sadness when she is betrayed. She dances with airy, eager elegance in the peasant maneuevers, musters just the right tones of innocence and wonder in her encounter with the aristocratic Bathilde, never lets us forget just how young and vulnerable this girl is.

Her mad scene is operatic in its frenzy, dazzling in its shifts of mood, stunning in its tragic intensity. Ferri is one of those rare and wondrous dancing actresses who spare nothing, and who, on occasion, willingly sacrifice technical perfection for emotional impact.

In the second act, where Giselle becomes a disembodied spirit, her limitations as a classical virtuosa became more apparent. Even here, however, she projected the muted pain, the weightless abandon and the serene dedication of the character with disarming simplicity, with uncommon warmth and over-riding pathos.

Plagued by injuries and, at 38, nearing the end of a legendary career, Baryshnikov cannot compete with memories of the Albrecht he gave us in his prime. There is a trace of caution, now, in his pyrotechnical flights, not to mention a hint of strain.

It doesn't matter. Baryshnikov performs with such intensity of dramatic focus, such heroic elan, such sympathetic ardor and, in the end, such tragic eloquence, that the velocity and temporal extension of a brise vole become irrelevant.

His dancing, moreover, remains perfectly poised, impeccably delineated, brilliantly paced. Even in its muted, mature state, this is still a great performance.

Returning to the realm of the Wilis after a regrettably long absence, Van Hamel reminded us that Myrta is a Queen and a pervasive threat, not an ingenue at a tutued prom. Exuding cool, forbidding, glitter, she articulated the ungrateful choreography neatly yet with consummate suavity and power. She also mesmerized attention simply by standing still. This woman understands the challenge.

Muscular and commanding, Tippet played Hilarion as a decent, temperamental young man overcome with his own adoration of Giselle. He eschews the time-dishonored evil nuances, ignores the usual rejected-lover cliches. As a result, the doomed character exerts an admirable, and interesting, counterforce.

The cast proved strong in depth. Leslie Browne and Lucette Katerndahl defined the secondary Wili rituals with finesse. The erstwhile peasant pas de deux, now a quartet, brought out the zest in Cheryl Yeager, Bonnie Moore, Gil Boggs and Johan Renval. Kathleen Moore (Berthe), Lisa Reinhart (Bathilde) and Michael Owen (Courland) managed their mime roles deftly.

The corps of Wilis made up in bravado and precision for what it lacked in numbers. Only 18 spirits seem a bit stingy in a grand-scale production like this.

Paul Connelly conducted the pit band competently if a bit inflexibly.

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