World class “Giselle” at the Sarasota Ballet is a wonder of the holiday season

“Giselle” was a unique choice for the Christmas holiday season performance, and I cannot recommend the evening-length production enough. As I have been remarking since the live season began, the grandeur of such a sprawling piece on the sweeping Van Wezel stage is another remarkable step forward for the Sarasota Ballet. Although the audience’s faces were covered with masks, the unmitigated joy was palpable with vigorous applause, cheers, whoops, and a lengthy standing ovation. Additionally, the presence of the Sarasota Orchestra, this time conducted by the lively guest Jared Oaks, always provides an added dimension when they accompany the ballet. The sound is glorious and seems to float among the dancers making the entire production truly world class, a term a man behind me aptly whispered to his wife.

Ricardo Rhodes and Victoria Hulland (photo by Frank Atura)

This was my favorite performance by principal Victoria Hulland in the eponymous role, which just keeps getting better each time she performs it. Her return from maternity leave has brought a new gracefulness, maturity, and nuance to her dancing, and she was riveting in every moment she was on stage. I couldn’t help but wonder whether motherhood changes one’s life so completely that everything you do, including dancing, has both greater gravitas and an extraordinary lightness of being (to borrow the phrase) all at once.

“Giselle” requires the dancer to start as a joyful yet inexperienced young lady with a whimsical freedom to her dancing in stolen moments away from the watchful eye of her overprotective mother. She then meets her confident, regal suitor, Count Albrecht, undercover as a lowly peasant Loys, who attracts her unmitigated attention.

Ricardo Rhodes as Albrecht is gallant and brings his tender mix of kindness and passion to every role, so it’s no wonder Hulland’s Giselle is enraptured so quickly. When she meets Bathilde, played as a “mean girl” by the winning Lauren Ostrander, she effuses about her great love for Loys, whom Bathilde does not realize is her very own fiancé Albrecht. Ostrander is so perfectly haughty in the role and navigates the class differences between the royals and the peasants, raising the stakes of Giselle and “Albrecht’s” romance.

Lauren Ostrander, Victoria Hulland, and the Sarasota Ballet (photo by Frank Atura)

Hulland portrayed Giselle’s heartbreaking decision to take her own life with bitter poignancy. It appears she was motivated as much by love for Albrecht as by shame that she was misled by him while the whole community was watching. The sharp contrast in Act I of joy and pain was incredibly moving, and the intermission was a welcome respite from the intense emotions on stage.

Sarasota Ballet (photo by Frank Atura)

Act II was an ethereal dreamscape, as we watch the gauzy Willis dancing in unison with their leader Myrtha, Queen of the Willis, portrayed by Janae Korte, who has been distinguishing herself with increasingly inspiring performances over the past few years. The Willis represent the spirits of women scorned, and their trademark is to dance to death men who betray women. But Giselle cannot accept such a fate for Albrecht, and she vociferously begs Myrtha to spare her former lover. Ultimately, through the purity of her love for Albrecht and her generous spirit, Albrecht survives the grip of the Willis, and she is able to finally rest in peace. Although this may not be the Christmas favorite, the Nutcracker, this story of the redemptive power of love is an ideal message for this time of year. As we close out another trying pandemic year, there are few places that I would rather be than surrounded by other ballet lovers watching such a transcendent performance by the Sarasota Ballet.

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