Beauty in tragedy

| Saturday, Oct. 20, 2012, 8:58 p.m.

Returning to a classic is always a fresh opportunity for ballet companies and audiences alike.

When Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre revives “Giselle” for the first time since 2004, it will present two principal dancers performing the title role for the first time. Both say they are thrilled to be developing their interpretations under the tutelage of ballet mistress Marianna Tcherkassky, who was “one of the greatest Giselles America has ever produced,” according to The New York Times.

Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre will perform “Giselle” from Friday through Sunday at the Benedum Center, Downtown. Charles Barker will lead the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre Orchestra in the score by Adolphe Adam.

The ballet is set in a village in Germany's Rhineland in the Middle Ages. The local prince, Albrecht, disguises himself as a peasant named Loys and flirts with Giselle, the most beautiful young women in the village. Although he's already engaged, they fall for each other. When Giselle's boyfriend, Hilarion, reveals Loys as Albrecht, she's unhinged by the lies of the man she thought was her true love. The first act concludes in a mad scene and her death.

At the start of the second act, Hilarion is mourning Giselle at night in a glade near the village. He is scared off by the Wilis, female spirits who were jilted before their wedding day and rise from their graves at night to seek revenge on men. The Wilis summon Giselle from her grave before disappearing. Albrecht enters looking for her grave. When she appears before him, he begs forgiveness. Giselle's love saves Albrecht from the Wilis.

“We do a traditional version, but much of this has really changed a lot because dance has evolved so much in the last 170 years,” says Terrence Orr, the ballet's artistic director. “If we did it the way it was done back then, probably no one today would come to see it. This production is up with the times for our dancers technically. You will see incredible classical dancing with some fantastic acting as our artists portray these roles.”

Alexandra Kochis, who will be dancing her first Giselle, didn't see the ballet until her senior year in high school — when she was a student in the professional division of Boston Ballet.

“I was won over immediately, of course, because I have always had amazing fascination for the dramatic side of ballet. For the first time as a student, I wasn't trying to analyze anything because I was swept away by the otherworldliness of the story. Afterward, it was, how did they do that? It kind of opened up to me how really dramatic dancers can be.”

To prepare, Kochis did a lot of research, including looking at videos of different dancers performing the role.

“Working with Marianna has been an amazing experience. She has so much experience, she feels she can pull it out of you. I love how, the first day, she said, you can create your own story of why Giselle is the way she is and why they ended up on this day (when the ballet begins) in this way. She wanted me to make Giselle my own.”

Christine Schwaner is in love with performing the role of Giselle, too.

“It is one of those classics which could not be more romantic, and if you're a classical ballet dancer, it's always a dream to perform one of those classics,” she says

Schwaner also appreciates the opportunity to work on the role with Tcherkassky. But then, Schwaner is an artist who values teachers. Every time she returns to her native Brazil, she visits with and takes a lesson with her teacher Maria Clara.

“It has been a treat, truly, to see (Tcherkassky at rehearsals.) When she shows the position of the arms or of the head, you can tell it never left her,” Schwaner says. “She has so much to teach; sometimes, it's overwhelming. She has so much information, it has been great.”

Giselle was Tcherkassky's breakout role following a spectacular debut, a role that's been central to her as an artist all her life.

“I was very young, maybe 6, when I saw a film of Galina Ulanova in ‘Giselle' and was so taken by the drama of the story. I didn't know that I necessarily wanted to dance, but I knew I wanted to be Giselle,” she says. “I remember days looking at books with wonderful pictures of Ulanova and sitting in my bedroom trying to mimic the pictures. I begged my parents to take me to see it.”

When Tcherkassky went to the School of American Ballet at 16, she had her eye on joining the American Ballet Theatre because it was the only American company with Giselle in its repertoire. As a member of the company, she worked her way through the roles from the corps de ballet to the Wilis to the peasant girlfriend.

She danced her first Giselle in 1976 with Mikhail Baryshnikov at the Kennedy Center in Washington — on five days' notice.

“It was an unexpected dream debut. Though I hadn't really danced the lead role, I felt like I had been preparing for it my whole life,” she says. “Also, to have Baryshnikov believe in me was the greatest sort of validation and support. He was wonderful at my debut and also a couple of months later in New York. At that point, I was a soloist. Then I was promoted to principal.”

Rehearsals have been a joyous experience for Tcherkassky.

“It's fun working with the dancers, bring things alive. I realize how much, as a dancer, I enjoy the process in the studio,” she says. “With a ballet like ‘Giselle,' there's almost no end to what you can bring to it or try to bring to it. Finding Giselle in yourself, you have to really believe in the story.”

Mark Kanny is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7877 or mkanny@tribweb.

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