It seems like any other day in a ballet studio rehearsing for a show. Peasants in dusky pink skirts and bodices do small solos, while the ensemble stage-claps. Parents wait outside. Directors make notes. Then a petite girl in a blue dress, who’s been rolling out her calves on the sidelines, runs swiftly to center and the whole room stills to watch her. This is no ordinary production: This is Studio West doing Olympia’s first-ever “Giselle,” with two shows Saturday at the Minnaert Center for the Performing Arts. Dancing the tragic title role is a Boston Harbor teenager who’s just been accepted into the Joffrey Ballet training program in Chicago.
“The acting is so much fun,” says Katharine Cowan, 18, who’s dancing the country girl Giselle, who falls for a nobleman and dies of a broken heart when she discovers he’s been deceiving her. “The mad scene is my absolute favorite part — you get to be totally crazy. But technically, the material is really hard.”
As Cowan transforms from poised ballerina to anguished madwoman, her black hair trailing and her eyes scarily vacant, it’s as if a spotlight has suddenly appeared in the no-nonsense West Olympia studio. Every eye is on her. Everyone holds their breath. Cowan alternates stiff-legged jerky gestures on flat, dragging feet with fierce whirls that have the rest of the peasant cast backing away in convincing horror. It’s an acting ability as rare in a young dancer as the perfect pirouette circles just a moment ago.
That’s what got her into the prestigious Joffrey program, says co-director Stephanie Wood-Ennett.
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“There’s always been something special about Katharine,” says Wood-Ennett, who’s been teaching Cowan for nine years. “She has an artistic maturity for someone her age — that’s just something you’re born with. Something about the carriage of the upper body, the port de bras, a little extra something.”
That quality is something professional directors can spot in minutes, says Wood-Ennett, who herself went through the San Francisco Ballet school and company before dancing with Ballet Memphis. Directors often walk in to just the final 10 minutes of the grueling audition process, but that’s all they need to spot real talent.
Cowan, a senior at Olympia High School, was invited to the training program — a full-time commitment that can eventually lead to making the company — after one audition for the Joffrey’s summer intensive program last year.
“I was not expecting that,” Cowan says.
But as someone who’s been dancing since she was 3, takes class from after school until 9 p.m. six days a week and aims to dance “until I physically can’t anymore,” the Joffrey invitation and the part of Giselle offer huge opportunities.
“Giselle is not my favorite role that I’ve ever done, but it’s the one where I’ve grown the most,” she says during a rehearsal break, pinning up her hair to match that of the Wilis — ghost girls spurned in life by lovers whom Giselle joins in Act II after her death. “It’s so very different. You go from young and innocent to crazy, then dead and sad, to ethereal.”
“Giselle’s been really good for Katharine,” says Wood-Ennett. “She’s had to work on speed and agility.”
So has the rest of the Studio West academy. It’s the first time anyone has performed the ballet in Olympia, partly because it’s so demanding. While Wood-Ennett has modified steps for younger dancers, the rest is original 1884 Petipa choreography, from the disciplined corps de ballet of the Wilis to their vengeful Queen.
For Albrecht, the nobleman who breaks Giselle’s heart, Wood-Ennett managed to snag Pacific Northwest Ballet soloist Joshua Grant, thanks to her professional connections.
“It’s been amazing to work with Joshua,” Wood-Ennett says. “He walks in here and everyone is inspired. He’s a beautiful person inside and out.”
Wood-Ennett and co-director Mary-Cecelia Piper are using sets from Eugene Ballet and Nashville Ballet, with costumes from Memphis Ballet to recreate the setting of a vaguely medieval European forest village.
While Wood-Ennett acknowledges that many Olympia folks might not be familiar with the ballet, and that it’s not a happy-ending story, she’s still excited to be doing it.
“It’s tragic, but it’s beautifully tragic,” she says. “I always get goosebumps during the mad scene. It’s risky (to put on), but it’s good for our dancers and for the audience.”
For Cowan, it’s another step toward a possible future as a professional ballerina.
“This is good for her, going into her next adventure,” Wood-Ennett says. “It’s a really different thing, being in the big world of dance. She has to have it all together.”