Although directors of opera and classical drama frequently relocate and update repertory warhorses, the art of ballet is so hyper-conservative that Dance Theatre of Harlem's Creole "Giselle" seemed a revelation at its premiere three years ago.
Scheduled to be telecast Sunday at 1 p.m. on NBC (Channels 4 and 36), the production transfers the 1841 ballet from a world of peasants and aristocrats to a free black society that flourished in Louisiana in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.
As a result, the characters of the ballet connect with the heritage of the dancers. This sense of personal identification gives the performances great freshness, despite occasional clashes in style between the sedate Adolphe Adam score and the funkier interpretation of some of the minor roles.
Always sweet and often poignant as Giselle, Virginia Johnson dances the Wili choreography conscientiously, but is most effective in the scenes of young love and betrayal earlier in the ballet. Eddie J. Shellman makes an attractive and unusually brash Albert, his solos securely dispatched. The production allows little time for Hilarion's death scene but, before that, Lowell Smith is exceptionally forceful in the role. Statuesque Lorraine Graves is rather stiff as Myrta.
The performances of subsidiary soloists and the Harlem corps leave no doubt that this is a major company well deserving a national network showcase. But the TV production proves far from ideal.
In the theater, the choreography for this unorthodox "Giselle" remains the traditional Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo version as staged by Frederic Franklin. The TV adaptation, however, introduces disorienting special effects: for example, the ghostly Myrta dissolving into thin air, re-materializing and then dancing in photographic slow motion during part of her solo.
Such dubious innovations are typical of Danish TV director Thomas Grimm. Here, besides tape-editing mismatches between slow-motion and real-time footage and manic cutting between cameras, there are clumsy deletions in the score (to bring the ballet to a 90-minute running time?) and lots of foliage or fence posts stuck in front of the dancing. Consequently, the ballet becomes far less involving and coherent than it is on stage.
The abrupt commercial interruptions (especially one midway through a fanfare) don't help. Finally, host Bill Cosby jokes about the silly practice of using celebrities--including himself--to garnish cultural programming of this kind. "You may ask why does anybody need me," he says at one point --and that's a very good question.