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BalletMet’s New ‘Giselle,’ a Fresh Restaging of a Story Ballet Classic

Giselle 1

(Center) BalletMet’s Jessica Brown in “Giselle.” Photo by Jennifer Zmuda.

By Steve Sucato

With the kind of success artistic director Edwaard Liang has had in raising BalletMet’s stature in the dance world, there can be little doubt that other ballet organizations that have been in search of new leadership have come courting him. Luckily for Columbus-area audiences, Liang feels he’s found a home at BalletMet and in Columbus and recently signed a 5-year contract extension.

“Honestly, I got some phone calls, but I feel I have turned a corner personally here,” says Liang.  “I have a great quality of life in Columbus with my partner and I get to balance my career as an artistic director with my career as a choreographer.”

Liang also says while the company has made great strides towards achieving his vision for it, there is still more work to be done.  One area of that vision he has been systematically working on in the past 4-years, is replacing the company’s existing repertory of story ballet classics with brand new productions. Those have included a new production of Cinderella in 2015, Sleeping Beauty in 2016, and in 2017, bringing in his production of Romeo and Juliet originally created for Tulsa Ballet in 2012.  Now joining that list is the world-premiere of Liang’s new production of Giselle, February 9-17 at the Jo Ann Davidson Theatre in downtown Columbus’ Vern Riffe Center.

As with the other story ballet classics Liang has redone, for the most part this new Giselle will maintain its traditional roots. The romantic ballet in two acts set to music by Adolphe Adam, was first performed in Paris in 1841 and tells the story of young peasant girl Giselle who dies of a broken heart after discovering her lover Albrecht is betrothed to another. Afterwards she is summoned from her grave by a group of supernatural women known as “Wilis,” who all have also died of broken hearts and who take revenge on men by dancing them to death. They intend to do the same with Albrecht but Giselle’s eternal love for him eventually frees him from their grasp.


BalletMet’s Karen Wing in “Giselle.” Photo by Jennifer Zmuda.

Perhaps the most famous ballet whose libretto came courtesy of a dance citric, Frenchman Théophile Gautier, the popular ballet is a staple in the repertoire of most every ballet company in the world. It was originally choreographed by Jean Coralli and Jules Perrot, although most present day versions of the ballet derive their choreography from the 19th and early 20th century revivals by Marius Petipa.

While Liang as choreographer is best known for his contemporary ballets, he says he chose not to bring that movement style into his new productions of classic story ballets. Instead, he has gone the path of reusing traditional choreography while adding new choreography and other elements to them to fit his vision for them.

“What I like about BalletMet is we run the gambit. Everything like [Ohad Naharin’s contemporary dance work] Minus 16 to something classical [like Sleeping Beauty],” says Liang. “I feel it is part of my job to have a stable of classic story ballet war horses to go along with our contemporary ballet works.”

So what is different about this Giselle production?

“Where we have gone differently is not so much in the storytelling, but I wanted to have more dancing for the men because the ballet traditionally is so female dominated and so hard for them,” says Liang.


BalletMet’s Kristie Latham in “Giselle.” Photo by Jenifer Zmuda.

What will be noticeably different will be the ballet’s look.  While it takes place during the same time period of the story, the production’s new deconstructed and minimalist sets “give it a painterly look that is not at all traditional,” says Liang.  Add to that the ballet’s new puritan-like costumes, and you have a production that while is in many ways traditional, has a more modern feel to it.

Another more subtle change comes in the way Liang and BalletMet’s artistic staff are approaching coaching the dancers. “The fine tuning I’m doing is trying to have it so the dancers do less ‘ballet acting’ and more of what you would consider ‘theater acting’,” he says.

That will manifest itself most noticeably in the portrayals of the ballet’s lead characters such as Giselle.

“I want the staging to be clear and the same for each of the Giselle’s but there has to be some flexibility or else the dancers are not going to feel free enough to find themselves in the role,” says Liang. “That’s where I see a lot of Giselle [portrayals] become ‘shticky’; the choreography and the staging is so old world that, while beautiful, may not be for everyone.”

One of three dancers in three different casts to dance the leading role of Giselle along with Caitlin Valentine-Ellis (Feb. 9 & 17) and Grace-Anne Powers (Feb. 10 & 16), will be San Francisco-native and third-year company member, Carly Wheaton (Feb. 11 & 15). Performing her first leading role in a story ballet classic, Wheaton says of the character and her approach to playing her: “in act one Giselle is pure and innocent and has never really felt [romantic] love which devastates her when she gets her heartbroken by Albrecht.  In act two, that heartache is carried over but she becomes a solemn, ethereal being.”

The 24-year-old also says while the choreography for her character’s movements in say the ballet’s famous “Mad scene” is highly structured, she has the freedom in some ways to personalize her portrayal of Giselle.


BalletMet’s Lisset Santander in “Giselle.” Photo by Jennifer Zmuda.

Dancing the role of Myrtha, Queen of the Wilis along with Lisset Santander (Feb. 10 & 16) and Jessica Brown (Feb. 11 & 15), will be BalletMet newcomer Madeline Skelly (Feb. 9 & 17). It’s a role she danced as a member of Houston Ballet.

“A lot of people see Myrtha as a man-hater and I get that because she does kill them,” says Skelly. “Revenge is a part of it, but she does see Giselle’s love for Albrecht and how she is standing up for him and trying to protect him.” That leads, she says, to a moment in the ballet where those feelings of love and forgiveness almost crack her tough façade, but she quickly suppresses those feelings.

Skelly says dancing the role of Myrtha is also physically challenging for her but not in the way most would think. While the rigor and pace of the role’s full-on dancing in the ballet’s second act is hard, Skelly says even more challenging is standing still in a ballet position known as B+ for long periods of time after she has been dancing. “It’s excruciatingly painful.”

The 25-year old Orlando-native in her first year with BalletMet joined the company in August with her husband and Columbus-native William Newton who trained at New Albany Ballet Company.  Newton is one of three dancers performing the lead role of Albrecht, February 10 & 16. Miguel Anaya (Feb. 9 & 17) and Romel Frometa (Feb. 11 & 15) will also perform the role in other casts.

While perhaps not scenically lavish compared to other Giselle productions because of budget constraints, having seen the company in rehearsals of it, the 2-hour ballet has got it where it counts — Great storytelling, world-class dancing and an updated look that make it worth reserving a ticket for.

BalletMet performs Giselle:

Friday, 2/9 8:00 pm
Saturday, 2/10 8:00 pm
Sunday, 2/11 2:00 pm
Thursday, 2/15 7:30 pm
Friday, 2/16 8:00 pm
Saturday, 2/17 8:00 pm

At the Jo Ann Davidson Theatre in the Vern Riffe Center, 77 S. High Street, Columbus. Tickets are $29-74 and are available at balletmet.org, ticketmaster.com or by calling 614.469.0939

Steve Sucato is a former dancer turned arts writer/critic. He is Chairman Emeritus of the Dance Critics Association and Associate Editor of ExploreDance.com.


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Cincinnati Ballet holds Young Performer Auditions for ‘The Nutcracker’


By Ashley Kruger

Young performer auditions for Frisch’s Big Boy Presents The Nutcracker will take place throughout the day Saturday, August 19 and call back auditions Sunday, August 20 at The Cincinnati Ballet Center, located at 1555 Central Parkway. Now in its 43rd annual production, the timeless holiday tradition runs December 14 through 24 at the newly renovated and historic Music Hall.

Cincinnati Ballet’s The Nutcracker will include approximately 70 young dancers this season. Eligible dancers between the ages of eight and 18 are invited to audition for various roles. Children will be auditioned for roles within their size range. Parts available include Clara, Poodle, Fritz, Party Kids, Baby Mice, Snowballs, Soldiers, Cupcakes, and Chicks.

Auditions begin at 10 am for students currently enrolled in Cincinnati Ballet’s Otto M. Budig Academy, followed by open audition for gymnasts at 2:30 pm and open audition for all roles beginning at 4 pm. Young ladies are asked to wear a leotard, tights and ballet slippers. Young men should wear a t-shirt, tights and ballet slippers. Any young person auditioning for The Nutcracker must be available for all of the rehearsals and performances to be eligible to audition.  Visit https://www.cballet.org/nutcracker-young-performers-auditions-2017/ for additional details, height requirements, audition fees, and registration times.

The Nutcracker features the beloved holiday story of Clara, a little girl who embarks on a fantastical journey with her Nutcracker Prince through the Land of Sweets, meeting colorful and exciting characters along the way. The Cincinnati holiday favorite was re-envisioned in 2011, with new sets by John Ezell, costumes by Carrie Robbins, lighting by Trad A Burns and choreography by Artistic Director Victoria Morgan.


Cincinnati Ballet
Choreography: Victoria Morgan
Music: Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky, performed with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Maestro Carmon DeLeone

WHAT:  Frisch’s Big Boy Presents The Nutcracker

Thursday, December 14 – 7:30 pm
Friday, December 15 – 7:30 pm
Saturday, December 16 – 2:00 pm
Saturday, December 16 – 7:30 pm
Sunday, December 17 – 1:00 pm
Sunday, December 17 – 6:30 pm
Tuesday, December 19 – 7:30 pm
Wednesday, December 20 – 7:30 pm
Thursday, December 21 – 7:30 pm
Friday, December 22 – 2:00 pm
Friday, December 22 – 7:30 pm
Saturday, December 23 – 2:00 pm
Saturday, December 23 – 7:30 pm
Sunday, December 24 – 1:00 pm

Music Hall
1241 Elm St.
Cincinnati, Ohio  45202
(513) 621-5219

About Cincinnati Ballet

Since 1963, Cincinnati Ballet has been the cornerstone professional ballet company of the region, presenting a bold and adventurous array of classical, full-length ballets and contemporary works, regularly with live orchestral accompaniment. Under the artistic direction of Victoria Morgan, Cincinnati Ballet has become a creative force within the larger dance community, commissioning world premiere works and exploring unique collaborations with artists as diverse as Grammy winning guitarist Peter Frampton and popular, Ohio-based band Over the Rhine. With a mission to inspire hope and joy in our community and beyond through the power and passion of dance, Cincinnati Ballet reaches beyond the stage in programs that allow every person in the region to be part of the continued evolution of dance. To that end, Cincinnati Ballet presents exhilarating performances, extensive education outreach programs and offers top level professional ballet training at Cincinnati Ballet Otto M. Budig Academy


Cincinnati Ballet 2017-2018 Season Sponsors: ArtsWave, Rhonda & Larry Sheakley, PNC Bank, Louise Dieterle Nippert Musical Arts Fund, Ohio Arts Council, Mercy Health, Frisch’s Big Boy, Austin E. Knowlton Foundation, The Otto M. Budig Family Foundation


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Lauper, Liang, Balanchine and Bowie: BalletMet’s ‘Breaking Ballet’ an Entertaining Ride

BalletMet dancers in James Kudelka's

BalletMet dancers in James Kudelka’s “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun.” Photo by Jennifer Zmuda.

BalletMet – Breaking Ballet
Capitol Theatre
Columbus, Ohio
October 2, 2015

Reviewed by Steve Sucato

To open its 2015-2016 season, BalletMet artistic director Edwaard Liang put together a more populist program of ballet works to further dispel the stereotype that ballet is all raised pinkies and tutus appealing only to the stuffed shirt crowd. Anyone who frequents BalletMet’s programs probably already knows that ballet can come in a myriad of forms. Breaking Ballet, October 2-10 at the Riffe Center’s Capitol Theatre in Columbus, set about proving that point from the get go with the world-premiere of James Kudelka’s Girls Just Wanna Have Fun set to the music of 1980’s pop icon Cyndi Lauper.

Kudelka, a former artistic director of The National Ballet of Canada, has over the past decade created several works for BalletMet. Girls Just Wanna Have Fun is the latest in a series that includes 2010’s The Man in Black and last season’s Real Life in which Kudelka taps into folk dance patterning to help create a distinct movement language that permeates each ballet.

Decked out in 80’s-flavored costumes (sans the leg warmers and headbands) courtesy of costume designer Erin E. Rollins, the ballet bopped through a suite of Lauper hits.

BalletMet dancers in James Kudelka's

BalletMet dancers in James Kudelka’s “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun.” Photo by Jennifer Zmuda.

Capturing a music video vibe, Kudelka’s choreography had the dancers repeating exaggerated hip sways, sideways waddles and arms-on-shoulders Greek folk dance-like circle dances.

Dancing to Lauper’s “True Colors,” BalletMet’s Karen Wing and Austin Finley slowly swayed back and forth, shifting their feet with Wing locked on Finley with and intense gaze during the seductive duet. Then dancers Jessica Brown, Arielle Friedman, Samantha Lewis, Caitlin Valentine-Ellis and Carly Wheaton formed a horizontal line across the stage as a bank of low hanging stage lights swiveled toward and away from the audience simulating bright vehicle head and tail lights. The women shimmied, jogged and grooved to Lauper’s catchy tune “I Drove All Night.”

Following two splendidly danced pas de deuxs – Adrienne Benz and Gabriel Gaffney Smith to “The World is Stone” and Emily Gotschall and Andres Estevez to “All Through the Night” –   and an impassioned solo by Benz to “I’m Going to be Strong” that reflected each song’s lyrics, the ballet concluded with the cast reprising parts of the ballet to the song “Money Changes Everything.”

BalletMet's Olivia Clark (center) and dancers in James Kudelka's

BalletMet’s Olivia Clark (center) and dancers in James Kudelka’s “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun.” Photo by Jennifer Zmuda.

A special encore to “Who Let in the Rain” followed which honored retiring dancer Olivia Clark. Matched with the ballet’s five male dancers, Clark was smooth and elegant in the Vegas-style dance number.

BalletMet's Caitlin Valentine-Ellis and Gabriel Gaffney Smith in Edwaard Liang's

BalletMet’s Caitlin Valentine-Ellis and Gabriel Gaffney Smith in Edwaard Liang’s “Distant Cries.” Photo by Jennifer Zmuda.

BalletMet's Caitlin Valentine-Ellis and Gabriel Gaffney Smith in Edwaard Liang's

BalletMet’s Caitlin Valentine-Ellis and Gabriel Gaffney Smith in Edwaard Liang’s “Distant Cries.” Photo by Jennifer Zmuda.

Originally set on former New York City Ballet stars Wendy Whelan and Peter Boal, Liang’s Distant Cries (2005) was a heartfelt pas de deux about longing.  Petite company star Valentine-Ellis dancing to the music of Tomaso Albinoni was thoughtful and vulnerable in appearing to conjure up the memory of perhaps an erstwhile lover portrayed by Smith. Smith appeared out of shadow to partner the supple Valentine-Ellis in a sequence of high bended lifts, sharp turns and desperate embraces. Doubt as to the pair’s true relationship came in the form of Valentine-Ellis more than once, holding her face in her hands as if to hide her emotions. The memorable pas de deux concluded with Smith fading back into the darkness and Valentine-Ellis directing a pained silent cry toward the audience.

BalletMet's Miguel Anaya (center ) and company in George Balanchine's

BalletMet’s Miguel Anaya (center ) and company in George Balanchine’s “Allegro Brilliante.” Photo by Jennifer Zmuda.

BalletMet dancers in George Balanchine's

BalletMet dancers in George Balanchine’s “Allegro Brilliante.” Photo by Jennifer Zmuda.

Like the Beatles’ music, the ballets of George Balanchine seem to never get old in people’s hearts. That held true once again as the Oct. 2 audience ate-up BalletMet’s dancers’ performance of the Balanchine masterwork Allegro Brilliante (1956). Led by first year company member and former Ballet Nacional de Cuba soloist Miguel Anaya, the company gave a solid performance of the vibrant classical work. Anaya is a godsend to the company’s classical repertory. His eye-popping technical prowess instantly raises the bar on what audiences can expect from the company in classical works.

BalletMet dancers in Edwaard Liang's

BalletMet dancers in Edwaard Liang’s “Dancing in the Street.” Photo by Jennifer Zmuda.

BalletMet dancers in Edwaard Liang's

BalletMet dancers in Edwaard Liang’s “Dancing in the Street.” Photo by Jennifer Zmuda.

Breaking Ballet concluded with a similar vibe to how it began with the world-premiere of Liang’s Dancing in the Street. Originally supposed to be an all David Bowie hit music driven ballet, issues with song rights cut that back to a few obscure early Bowie tracks plus the Mick Jagger/Bowie hit the ballet was titled after. That left the door open for Liang to augment the ballet’s score with original music (partially played live by cellist Marc Moskovitz and violinist Katherine McLin) by multi-talented company member Smith. Smith also danced the ballet’s lead role, a being in all white with superpowers. Specter? Angel? The only thing for sure was Smith’s character liked to party and was looking for love. Enter new company member Grace Ann-Powers in a flattering green dress as Smith’s character’s love interest. The former dancer with Montreal’s La La La Human Steps was wonderfully compelling and is one to watch in future productions.

Overall Dancing in the Street was a lark of a ballet, full of crowd-pleasing dancing and a fitting end to a production that placed a premium on fun.

Breaking Ballet continues 7:30 p.m., Thursday, October 8 and 8 p.m., Friday, October 9 and 10. Riffe Center’s Capitol Theatre, 77 S. High Street, Columbus. $29-69. (614) 460-7211 or balletmet.org. 

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