The American Ballet Theatre at Lincoln Center on Tuesday, July 8.

Dancers generally don’t show fatigue. No doubt the fact that they’re in peak physical condition has something to do with that, but even so, it just wouldn’t do to have anyone gasping for breath between pirouettes or pausing after a series of leaps to put his head between his legs. So part of what makes the ballet Giselle so much fun is that it makes such a show of exhaustion. Characters literally dance themselves to death—but not before they pant and heave and collapse a few times, almost as if their bodies tire like those of normal human beings—and I have to admit, I kind of love it.

My sicko tendencies aside, however, Giselle is a wonderfully lush, twistedly tragic ballet, a paragon of the romantic tradition. If the score were by Tchaikovsky, it would be perfect. (The music, from a hodgepodge of sources, is fine, but it can’t compare to Swan Lake or Sleeping Beauty.)

On Tuesday, Julie Kent danced the title role with such delicate charm that I could forget that I think poor little Giselle is a pitiful, foolish character. Her little en pointe hops held a girlish innocence, and her fluttery despair at discovering that her peasant boyfriend Loys is actually a deceitful Count gave me a surprising pang of sympathy. Sure, it should have been obvious that “Loys” was up to no good (Ethan Stiefel gave him a slightly cloying air and an enormous, belligerent sense of entitlement), but Kent made Giselle’s heartbreak feel genuine and look beautiful.

All that takes place in the first act (which gets a bit too pantomimy for my tastes), but the real heart of the ballet is the second, when the vengeful Wilis come out to play. Having died in the throes of unrequited love, Giselle is initiated into the gang, which attacks first Hilarion (Sascha Radetsky), her failed suitor, and then Count Albrecht, the cad who broke her heart in the first place.

Hilarion’s death-by-dance gave Radetsky something to do (which is nice because he didn’t have much to do in the first act but glower), and he did that thing quite well, leaping and spinning with a wonderfully ragged edge. His big scene was over all too quickly, though, because Radetsky is a good dancer and because I always feel sorry for Hilarion. Sure, he might be a bit pushy and tactless in pursuing Giselle, but his instincts about Albrecht are dead on, and his heart is in the right place. And seeing as how he has a lot more in common with the Wilis than with the men who did them wrong (after all, Hilarion knows the pang of unrequited love himself), it seems unfair that they make him their victim, especially when Albrecht gets off the hook.

But even if Albrecht doesn’t deserve to be saved, the choreography that does the saving is gorgeous, and Kent and Stiefel danced it beautifully, all the while surrounded by the implacable pivoting arabesques of the Wilis. (Second only to Odette’s swans, the Wilis represent the corps at its best.) It’s a breathtaking finale—dramatic and virtuosic—and it ends with Albrecht in a breathless heap, which makes for a very satisfying conclusion to an amazing ballet.

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