Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

Giselle and Christmas of Swing

Ballet of the Dolls, Giselle

Julia Tehven
For the past 20 years, Ballet of the Dolls has taken traditional works and given it a signature twist. The company's reading of Giselle, which opened last week at the Ordway's McKnight Theatre, is no different. In place of the expected classical score, we have disco, classic rock and throbbing house music. Yet, the dancing is as invigorating and enticing as ever, and the ballet's morbid morality is still clear as day.

The Ballet of the Dolls adaptation keeps the story the same as the 19th century original. Giselle is a young girl in a small village who has a suitor, Helerion, who loves her and whom she has agreed to marry.

Of course, things are never as simple as that. A couple of outsiders, Albrecht and Bathilde, enter the town. They initially laugh at the dancing ways of the townsfolk, but Albrecht is smitten with young Giselle. He disguises himself as a townsperson and sets out to woo her weak heart. She finds this newcomer to be far more appealing than the familiar Helerion and falls in love. Bathilde is none too pleased about all of this, and makes her own plans. They come to a head on Christmas Eve when Albrecht is revealed to be an imposter and, horrified by the news, Giselle goes mad and dies.

Revenge here is exacted from beyond the grave. On the night of the full moon, the Wilis - the spirits of women ruined by love and who died before their wedding day - rise up and ensnare any man who ventures in their path. They capture poor Helerion, who has come only to pay his respects at Giselle's grave, and they get Albrecht, even though Giselle pleads for his life.

Not the usual stuff of a holiday concert, but Ballet of the Dolls makes it work well - through the intriguing look and feel of the show to the invigorating performances.

This looks and sounds like no ballet you have ever seen (unless you've seen other Ballet of the Dolls productions). The first half attempts to recapture the mood of the 1970s. The townsfolk dance at first to disco beats, while Giselle parents are clad in the clothing of the time. Helerion wears a tight suit, bow tie and powder blue Converse All Stars, giving him a particular innocent and geeky look. The visitors are more dangerous from their first moment. They look like scruffy refugees from 1970s New York, clad in bell bottoms, leather jackets and mirrored sunglasses. And in place of the dance beats, they come in to the Doors "Riders on the Storm."

The second act, set entirely in the graveyard, goes more a gothic look, with black-clad spirits and music drawn from the darker dance styles of the 1980s. Even Albrecht has changed. His scruffy look replaced by a black fish-net shirt and black jeans that don't look so much as worn as painted on to his skin.

The performers, including many longtime members of the company, take this new interpretation of a classic work and run with it. Most impressive are Julia Tehven as the even-innocent-in-death Giselle and Robert Skafke as Albrecht. Sparks fly whenever the two of them share a dance, and both are involved in the evening's signature moments.

At the end of act one, when Giselle learns of the deception, she goes mad (this starts, cleverly enough, with Chic's classic "Le Freak"), and Tehven stutters around the stage as if looking for stability that she knows will not come. As she dies, Skafke holds her and then dances with her, trying to keep her alive through the movement. It is at once a startling image and touching moment.

In the second half, the two share a final dance, one that is full of the love and passion that they shared in life. Then the Wili force Albrecht to dance to his death. Skafke shows the pain and agony of all of this, as his body is forced to continue to move even though he has no energy or spirit left. At the end, he is left prone on stage, still dancing with the last ounce of life he has in his body.

Sure, Giselle's madness dance at the end of act one goes on for too long (we get the point long before she finishes) and the eternal beat of disco is, essentially, the same beat over and over again to the point of weariness, but the Ballet of the Dolls takes a piece of work that may seem to be past its day and makes it fresh and exciting. For anyone willing to open their minds and listen to the beat, Giselle is a worthy evening.

Giselle runs through December 31 at the Ordway McKnight Theatre in St. Paul. Call 651-224-4222 or visit for tickets.

Great American History Theatre, Christmas of Swing

Ruthie Baker, Mark Rosenwinkel, Patty Nieman, Norah Long
Sisters of Swing, which told the story of Minnesota's own Andrew Sisters (and included a heaping portion of their music), was a sensation for the Great American History Theatre. Last year, the company introduced a new revue - Christmas of Swing. The show is back this year and as fun as ever.

Christmas of Swing is set during a dress rehearsal for a USO show on Christmas Eve in 1944. That backdrop essentially allows the company to 1) have a bit of dramatic tension as the sisters try to convince their manager to allow them to include letters from soldiers in the show, 2) interrupt the action with the occasional bit of talk, but 3) include lots of holiday songs during the show.

The sisters - played during the matinee I attended by Ruthie Baker (Patty), Patty Nieman (LaVerne) and Adena Brumer (Maxene, in for the regular performer, Norah Long) - made a career out of their sweet harmonizing and fun-loving mix of traditional pop and jazz. That comes out throughout the show, be it through a Christmas Carol melody or on signature tunes like "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy." Even with an understudy in the mix, the trio harmonized well, bringing the feel of the original recordings without being karaoke-style replicas.

They are joined by a number of top acts from the day, including Danny Kaye, Bing Crosby and Abbott and Costello. Taking on these roles are Terry Lynn Carlson and Bill Scharpen, who do a fine job playing characters with a wide swath of styles, personalities and body sizes. Though they look nothing like the comedy team, you believe this duo could be Abbott and Costello.

The show's real backbone is the on-stage musical quartet, led by music director David Saffert. The group picks up the era's vibe quite well, providing not just great accompaniment for the vocalists, but crackling good music on their own.

While the show is mainly about fun music, World War II is never far away. This is clearest when they read letters from the front (taken from actual letters written by World War II soldiers). It's an effective bit, especially when you consider there are many American soldiers right now writing similar letters home. (Though as far as the plot of the show goes, I would have to agree with their manager. I don't think real soldiers really would want to hear how awful the war is or how lonely the soldiers get when separated from home.)

Christmas of Swing is a dandy show, full of invigorating music, fun on-stage antics and a message that, while important, doesn't overwhelm the rest of the production.

Christmas of Swing runs through January 1 at the Great American History Theatre, St. Paul. For information and tickets, call 651-292-4323 or visit

Photo: Ann Marsden

- Ed Huyck

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