Emerging Through the Fog of a Pandemic With ‘Giselle’

Back in September of 2020, when performances in most New York City theaters were very much on pause, American Ballet Theater announced a slew of promotions for dancers with great fanfare. It was an odd move given the time and the state of the world: Was it a way to tell dancers (and donors) something along the lines of keep the faith — but also keep working out?

Of the seven promotions, Joo Won Ahn, Aran Bell, Skylar Brandt, Thomas Forster, Calvin Royal III and Cassandra Trenary were named principals, and Gabe Stone Shayer became a soloist. On Thursday, Brandt made her long-awaited New York debut in “Giselle,” part of Ballet Theater’s season at the David H. Koch Theater, and others will do so over the weekend. (Next week, the company presents mixed repertory programs.)

But for Wednesday’s opening, the company played it safe with veteran leads: Hee Seo and Cory Stearns as Giselle and Count Albrecht, and Devon Teuscher as Myrta, queen of the wilis.

The first two were lovely — occasionally tentative yet mainly dancing with sweep and penetrating emotion — while Teuscher was transcendent. In a preshow speech, the company’s artistic director, Kevin McKenzie, spoke about the ballet’s timeless examination of love, redemption, sorrow and forgiveness as being an apt message “as we emerge from the fog.” In the ballet’s second act, Giselle is initiated into the wilis — spirits of women who died before they could marry and take revenge on men — and in the clearing of a forest, yes, a fog drifts mightily.

But opening its first Koch season in two years with “Giselle” — a lived-in production at that — made Ballet Theater seem like it’s stuck in another time. Did the pandemic happen? It didn’t feel so different than any other night there.

Of course, “Giselle” is more than the tale of an innocent woman who is betrayed by a nobleman disguised as a peasant (Count Albrecht). It’s an incredible ballerina role; she goes mad and dies, leaving the ordinary world in the first half only to return as a wili in the spectral world of the second.

On Wednesday’s performance, some of the dancers, who have been vaccinated and are tested regularly, wore masks because one might have been exposed to someone who tested positive. Andrii Ishchuk, as Hilarion, the huntsman in love with Giselle, struggled — and repeatedly failed — to keep his pulled above his nose. On Thursday night? There were none. Apparently, the mandatory masking period had passed.

Masks or no, moments of “Giselle” left lasting impressions, like Seo’s haunting mad scene in Act 1. A refined, elegant dancer who reveals herself the most when you meet her halfway — her rare delicacy is usually worth the extra focus — she sunk gradually into despair as she grasped the situation that Albrecht had put her in.

Seo’s frozen, glassy eyes gave her the aura of a frightened animal; after she stumbled on Albrecht’s sword, she grabbed it and spun, holding it out so that its blade, flashing dangerously, formed something of a halo. Arching her back all the while, Seo snapped into a wilder place of terror and anguish.

Stearns may not be the most electrifying Albrecht, but he is one of the most handsome — and his understated interpretation delivers a heady mix of notes: By the end, his remorse is real, as if his plan all along was to make Albrecht’s aristocratic bearing fall away to reveal a person. This season, Stearns is looking more like a man than a boy; he always had bearing, but his silhouette is somehow altered: There’s a new depth of power in his core, which gives his presence even more stateliness.

But the most radiant dancer of the night was Teuscher. The contrast of her rapid, whispering feet and voluminous arms commanded the stage from the start. Myrta is cold and vengeful, and while Teuscher masters the character’s steely side, she also brings the slightest shadow of wistfulness. Teuscher makes your mind race — her Myrta, authoritative and glamorous, must have a whopper of an origin story.

The joy of Thursday’s performance was the sight of Skylar Brandt making her New York debut as Giselle. It’s no matter that she’s small: Brandt devours space. Her hops across the diagonal were jaw-dropping; her sleek jumps travel far, all the while creating the sensation of floating. Her Albrecht, Herman Cornejo, added to the illusion with the care of his slowly arcing lifts — setting her down as if she were made of air.

In a surprise debut — it wasn’t expected to happen until Saturday afternoon — Stephanie Petersen (formerly Williams) stepped into the part of Myrta. While her performance, illuminated by her cool beauty and expansive arms, gained power over time, she seemed jittery at first. It was Brandt who presented something whole, from start to finish, with her dynamic dancing and nuanced acting meeting in the center. She was spectacular.

Beyond her powerful buoyancy — she knows how to grow in poses, to make her diminutive, supple body as soulful as her eyes — the performance was full of details like the intensity with which she stared at Albrecht in the village scenes, followed by the embarrassed realization that he saw her doing it. From time to time, she comforted herself by resting a hand along her throat at the collarbone; when she squeezed the sides of her head in torment, it was the way she lingered there just a second too long that made it heartbreaking.

Some dancers lose control of their senses in the mad scene; Brandt, using her wide, doll-like eyes and the stillness of her face, was more eerie. As she replayed her courtship with Albrecht, you could see her flashing back to the signs that she had previously ignored. Here, already, she was part woman, part wili and majestically fresh — a reminder of what a contemporary body and imaginative mind can bring to a 19th-century classic.

This tiny force, a true ballerina in the making, brought me back to “Giselle,” not just through her breathtaking dancing but through her choices about what she wanted her Giselle to be. All dancers are out there on that stage alone, and Brandt didn’t waste a second of it.

American Ballet Theater

Through Oct. 31 at the David H. Koch Theater, Lincoln Center, Manhattan; abt.org.

New York time

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