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International dance stars join Anchorage Ballet's ambitious 'Giselle'

  • Author: Mike Dunham
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published April 3, 2015

"Anchorage has no idea what they'll be seeing," said Michelangelo Canale as he watched Bridgett Zehr rehearse the title role in "Giselle" earlier this week. He recounted her credentials: soloist with Houston Ballet, principal dancer with the English National Ballet and the National Ballet of Canada.

"She's particularly huge in Canada," Canale said. "I can't imagine what the Canadians are going to think when they hear she's in Alaska."

The upcoming "Giselle" is likewise huge for Anchorage Ballet, the dance school and company that Canale formed in 1997. It will be their first-ever full-length ballet and, by far, the most ambitious thing the company has ever attempted. But it wouldn't be possible without an internationally noted prima ballerina capable of handling the main role.

The first act is hard enough, Zehr said, with her character energetically dancing almost constantly as a playful, young peasant girl. But in the second act, when Giselle returns as a ghost, the challenge expands. If anything, the dancing is even more frantic. "But you can't make any noise when you run or jump," she said. "You can't look like you're touching the ground. It's very hard and not everyone can dance this role. It's an honor to do it."

And she does it well. Dance Magazine reported her performance of "Giselle" as being "rapturously hailed by her adoring fans."

Originally from Sarasota, Florida, Zehr was encouraged to dance by her mother, a former dancer herself. But the family couldn't afford lessons. "We didn't have the money," Zehr said. Fortunately, she and her sister were able to get into a free dance program sponsored by Sarasota Ballet where she was exposed to various kinds of dance, including classical dance.

"It wasn't like I saw a performance and decided to be a ballerina," she said. "But the first time we did ballet, I was like, 'OK. This is the best thing I've ever done in my life.' I was 7."

Ten years later she was working under Maina Gielgud as an apprentice with Houston Ballet and on her way to a career that is continuing to build. She now makes her home in London, her base as a freelance dancer. Her Anchorage performance will be followed by a gala performance in Germany followed by a return to Sarasota where she'll star in "Sleeping Beauty."

In "Giselle," Zehr has to present two different characters, or rather the same person alive and then dead. She described the first-act Giselle as "completely naive. She's never been hurt. Her mother has sheltered her from everything. Then she meets Albrecht and falls in love and is the happiest she's ever been. She has the purest heart, but a weak heart."

Albrecht, danced by Oliver Speers, another dancer with an international reputation who will next go to Paris for "Swan Lake," takes advantage of Giselle's innocence to win her love. When the noblewoman betrothed to him shows up, the wronged girl goes mad then dies.

You might think that the death of the title character would end the show; it usually does. But in the second act Giselle is raised from the dead by a band of spirits called Wilis, the vindictive souls of women abandoned at the altar. Their object is to lure men into the woods and force them to dance themselves to death. Sure enough, Albrecht picks that night to visit Giselle's grave and the Wilis get 'im. Giselle must make the choice between the warm love she felt while alive and the cold hate of the undead.

Aside from the ghostly dancing, Zehr said the performer has to be aware of her facial expression. In the first act she has the emotional exuberance of adolescence. But deceased her face becomes almost a mask. "It's like she's under a veil," Zehr said.

The composer, Adolphe Adam, wrote scores for nearly 100 operas, ballets, vaudevilles, military spectacles and other forms of musical theater (or theatrical music). His subjects ranged from the Mohican Indians to Shakespeare's Falstaff. For some reason, "Giselle" is what has survived, along with his Christmas carol "O Holy Night."

One reason is surely the plot, which remains a gripper no matter how many times you see it. The idea of a pure woman redeeming a flawed lover through her selfless love would be picked up by Wagner and Verdi. But even those giants didn't particularly improve on the poignancy of Adam's score. "I cry every time I hear the music," said Canale.

Another reason is probably that very music. Despite being dismissed in the music history books, Adam had a real talent for delightful tunes and arresting orchestration, a talent he managed to pass on to his student Leo Delibes, whose own ballets rank with Tchaikovsky's in popularity.

But the main reason is the dancers. "The ballerinas have really kept it alive," said Zehr.

"The Russians have been a major factor in their love of this ballet," said Canale. Marius Petipa, the French-born ballet master who relocated to Russia and played a major role in securing the success of Tchaikovsky's ballets, also worked a revival of "Giselle" that has remained the standard model. Yet there are other versions, including a Creole setting premiered by Dance Theatre of Harlem in 1984.

The Anchorage production will follow the original. It's being staged by Ursula Szkolak of Victoria, British Columbia, another acclaimed dancer and one more member of Canale's international crew charged with making "Giselle" a reality.

How do you get such people to appear in Alaska? "I have my own little connections," Canale said with a smile, knowing someone who knows someone who knows someone who's maybe willing to perform for a little less money than usual in exchange for a tour of the Last Frontier.

"Michelangelo chartered a bus and took us all to Girdwood and up the tram," Zehr said. "It was wonderful."

"Bridgett is amazing," Canale said. "All these people. It's like a gold mine. And I'm doing it on a shoestring."

GISELLE will be presented by Anchorage Ballet at 7 p.m. Friday, April 3, and at 2 and 7 p.m. Saturday, April 4, in Sydney Laurence Theatre.Tickets are available at

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