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The leads of KC Ballet’s ‘Giselle’ bring a combination of newness and experience

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Giselle, one of the most challenging ballets in the classic repertory, is currently being tackled by the Kansas City Ballet at the Lyric Theater, with performances running through the weekend.

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Last performed by KCB in 2003, this season’s Giselle features Kimberly Cowen in the title role, one she’s previously danced twice for the company. However, the male lead character of Albrecht will be performed by Geoffrey Kropp, a sixth year veteran of the Ballet but one to whom this demanding role is new.

“I’ll definitely admit when we first started I was terrified—it’s a huge ballet,” Kropp said in a recent interview with him and Cowan after a rehearsal at the Ballet’s headquarters. “In the second act, you don’t stop dancing.”

Cowan, 19-year veteran of the company, admits to her own trepidation the first time she danced the ballet, which features a complicated storyline about a disguised nobleman’s romance with a peasant girl and a band of vengeful female ghosts who seek to dance their male victims to death.

“I remember the first time being overwhelmed,” Cowan says. “There’s just so much to wrap your brain around…And I remember thinking, there are lots of people who go out there and never get that moment.”

But this time around, Cowan has been able to share her familiarity with the ballet with her fellow lead. As Kropp says, “I’m really fortunate I get to dance with someone who does have a lot of experience with this ballet. She’s really been able to help me along. Both of us have done a lot of research, watched a lot of videos, read a lot.”

Like virtually all ballet dancers, Cowan and Kropp have been at their crafts since childhood. “I grew up in St. Louis, so I’m a Midwest girl,” says Cowan proudly. “I started dancing at age four. The first ballet I ever saw was Peter Pan.” As a teen, Cowan trained in Seattle at Pacific Northwest Ballet, and later with the Joffrey Ballet.

Kropp comes from California’s Central Valley. “I grew up in Bakersfield, and my parents like to tell me when I was a toddler, I put pennies in my socks and tap danced in the kitchen...Like Kim, I did summer programs all over.” And, like Cowan, Kropp’s early experience includes Pacific Northwest Ballet, where he appeared in The Nutcracker, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Merry Widow.

Regarding the extremely daunting work that their present ballet offers, Cowan has her own take: “For me, I’ve always been one of those dancers who prefers dancing when there’s some kind of story line. It doesn’t necessarily have to be as elaborate as this one, but I think I dance better when there’s a purpose behind the steps that I’m doing. It’s surprising how much, when you’re feeling something, how that comes out from the steps, and also, you’re doing the steps better. And [you ask] ‘how is this happening?’”

Another striking aspect of Giselle is the transformation it offers from act one, which is a simple pastoral, into act two, in which Giselle has died and comes back as a potentially pitiless ghost.

“At the beginning, it’s very, kind of simple, and she [Giselle] is especially a very simple character,” Cowan says. “But every step, every part of this story, as it progresses, prepares you for the next thing you’re going to do. It’s an extremely well-crafted ballet…It’s very easy to get wrapped up in it, and you’re no longer thinking of the technical aspects and all these details—it just kind of takes you on this journey…It takes a little while to find the connection to the ballet, but, once you do, it’s really a great feeling. There aren’t a lot of ballets that can do that for you.”

Kropp echoes these sentiments, speaking about how difficult the role is. “The process has been great, [but] we’ve definitely put in a lot of work, a lot of hours…It’s really fun though. Like, I wouldn’t want to be doing anything else.”

Kansas City Ballet’s Giselle runs through Sunday at the Lyric Theater. For tickets and more information call the box office at (816) 931-2232, or visit the company’s website, kcballet.org.

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