South Philly residents tackle re-staging of “Giselle”

Three dancers who call South Philly home have been cast in Pennsylvania Ballet’s latest rendition of the 19th-century ballet under the direction of Angel Corella.

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Bella Vista resident Ian Hussey and Alexa Hughes rehearse for “Giselle.” (Photo by Arian Molina Soca/special to South Philly Review)

Through the vision of venerated dancer Angel Corella, Pennsylvania Ballet is reprising its rendition of the riveting romantic classic of “Giselle” – and a few South Philadelphians are pirouetting the ghostly fantasy to life.

Among an assortment of pieces, Corella, who has served as the company’s artistic director since 2014, assembled the 2018/2019 season with an imaginative re-staging of the 19th-century production composed by Adolphe Charles Adam in 1841.

For close to 200 years, the full-length ballet, a heart-wrenching supernatural tale dense with plot, has tackled various interpretations throughout the world, but in this slightly revised adaption opening March 7, Pennsylvania Ballet, which last presented the show in 2012, Corella is fusing elements of his extensive experiences with “Giselle.”

“He’s danced a lot of versions,” said 18-year-old corps de ballet member Sydney Dolan, a former resident of Bella Vista who is portraying a few roles, including Myrtha, Queen of the Wilis. “And he’s danced with so many companies in his career…he has taken a lot of his most favored parts of the ballet – dances, everything, storylines, and kind of made it his own.”

For some cast members, such as Dolan, this interpretation is their first experiences with the iconic ballet.

For others, like principal dancer and Bella Vista resident Ian Hussey, they’ve tackled many performances of “Giselle,” including two with Pennsylvania Ballet.

However, Hussey, who plays the lead roles of Albrecht and Hilarion, says this re-envisioning has shed new perspective on a production he knows well.

“This time, we have, with Angel as the director now – he has his own interpretations so there definitely is some differences,” Hussey said. “It’s kind of stylistic, but it’s actually really nice, because I can look at certain sections in a new way, in a new light and try to grow from there…Because he’s danced this ballet so many times, he has a tremendous amount of knowledge, so I feel like I’m learning more and more about the ballet and how the steps really should be.”

Surrounding the story of a peasant girl, Giselle dies of a broken heart after learning her beloved Albrecht, a prince in disguise, is engaged to another woman. But her forbidden love prevails supernatural forces, as Albrecht’s looming death is spared by the Wilis, a circle of departed brides-to-be that force men to dance to their demise.

This central narrative is stitched together by several subplots, as Giselle is considered one of the most story-heavy ballets ever written.

While seeming whimsical and saccharine on the surface, Giselle harbors themes of remorse, rejection and despair.

Giselle is such a rollercoaster of emotions,” said 20-year-old apprentice and Graduate Hospital/Hawthorne resident Cato Berry, who plays a peasantman and courtman.

The translation of these accounts, though, require more than simply dancing. It entails theatrical techniques such as pantomime – a dramatic gesture expressing emotion that is usually accompanied by music.

Former Bella Vista resident Sydney Dolan rehearses for “Giselle.” (Photo by Arian Molina Soca/special to South Philly Review)

The cast says, in this re-staging, Corella has certainly sharpened the use of pantomime.

“I think Angel does a good job at making everything easy to understand and very clear,” Berry said. “So, when something is really emotional, you feel that emotion.”

As if mastering fouettés and frappés wasn’t taxing enough, the theatrical emotions needed to properly execute the accounts call for a whole new layer of performance.

The cast says so much of the storytelling lies not only in the feet – but the eyes.

“Really, at the end of the day, the most important thing is – you’re on stage telling a story, and that’s a really wonderful responsibility and a really wonderful experience,” Hussey said.

Such complex plotlines naturally feature complex characters, especially dynamic women, which the cast says helps to elevate the 19th-century production’s relevance in 2019.

Along with Giselle, other female characters, such as Dolan’s role of Myrtha, are a myriad of emotions – evil, yet empathizing.  

These women satisfy the perpetual aim of multi-dimensional female characters in theater.  

“I think it’s amazing how – however this story came about – how someone could think of someone so opposite of themselves… (Myrtha’s) everything contradicting itself, which is why it’s such a complex role that I feel like you can never dig deep enough into it,” Dolan said. “It’s like, I’m always looking and looking and looking into her, but you can’t get to the bottom.”

Graduate Hospital/Hawthorne resident Cato Berry rehearses for “Giselle.” (GRACE MAIORANO/South Philly Review)

Although the casts hopes audiences are awed by some revamped choreography of “Giselle,” they intend for the ballet’s themes to resonate with theatergoers, as most individuals can relate to the whirlwind of themes, like love and lost, that weave the ballet into fruition.

“I just hope whoever comes to see it really connects with the story and finds themselves kind of falling into the world of Giselle,” Hussey said. “Because, it’s great to see really good dancing, but at the end of the day, you want to be moved.”

If you go: Giselle runs from March 7 to 17 at the Academy of Music, at 240 S. Broad St. Purchase tickets online at paballet.org or call Ticket Philadelphia at 215-893-1999. Ticket prices range from $35 to $154.