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Kirov Ballet - 'Giselle'

Disappointing debut: Yulia Bolshakova's 'Giselle' leaves room for development

by Catherine Pawlick

February 19, 2006 -- Mariinsky Theatre, St. Petersburg

A young dancer’s debut in a staple role of the classical repertoire is often the indicator of a ballerina’s blossoming career, the promise of a sparkling future, the intimation of her name joining other great names in dance history. As such, it is laden with high pressure and even higher expectations. On February 19, St. Petersburg ballet adorers filled the Mariinsky Theatre to every possible corner in order to get a glimpse of Yulia Bolshakova in yet another debut.

Bolshakova, now in only her second season with the Kirov and still listed as a member of the corps de ballet, has nonetheless already debuted in quite a few soloist roles. Her Odette/Odile confirmed her elevated position in June of 2005, and in October of last year she danced Princess Florina in California during her first tour with the company. It was with great interest then that audience members awaited the rise of the curtain on Sunday night.

To the assuring mastery of Boris Gruzin’s attentive baton, Bolshakova’s entrance augured well for the rest of the evening. For Giselle’s first appearance on stage Bolshakova emerged radiant, naive and hopeful, a smile wide on her face. Her acting was fresh even in its rawness as she mimed the sequence “who knocked at my door?” Her youth became more apparent as the role developed: when Evgeny Ivanchenko suddenly appeared as Albrecht, she was shy and determined to return home to her mother. Bolshakova’s Giselle underlined the character’s lack of dating experience, and her fear (in this case warranted) of the unknown.

Ivanchenko as Albrecht was clearly the older, more experienced type, set on achieving his goal at all costs. This was the Albrecht we love to hate, in it for the love of the game, rather than the Albrecht truly enraptured by the peasant girl. This first scene between them revealed the innocence of Bolshakova’s Giselle in her quickly trusting attitude. Albrecht’s vow of love was not enough to make her believe, but the proof of his word as truth based on the daisy petal count just moments later was a recipe for instant and, it must be stated, blind trust.

Whereas other interpretations suggest Giselle perhaps as equally besotted with her prince-in-disguise, Bolshakova’s character reinforced the old adage: she appeared more smitten with his love for her than with the man himself. The flower interlude underscored this point. After seeking reassurance that her mother’s premonition of her own early death was incorrect, Bolshakova’s Giselle relaxed at Ivanchenko’s false reassurances, which were delivered, of course, with a smile.

Everything then went smoothly and according to plan, until Giselle’s first variation. It was unclear if soft shoes, painful feet, fatigue, or lack of strength was to blame, but Bolshakova could not manage the hops en pointe, one of the signature steps in this famous role. After the first two hops she came off of pointe awkwardly, and performed something like a pas de bourrée, piqué arabesque (the impression was that she had prepared other steps, should this section not go so well).

She attempted the hops a second time and again fell, and then finished the sequence in soutenue. In the final manège of piqué turns, she slipped, falling completely to her derriere, where she remained for the last eight (at least) counts of the music, getting up to her knee for the final pose. The question of injury arose, undoubtedly, in more than one mind, but the look on her face portrayed only horrific embarrassment and shame. Luckily, when she reappeared on stage for the remainder of this Act, she was composed, as a true professional should be.

Following the lovers’ light romp around the stage, Hans (Hilarion), danced estimably by the talented Dmitri Pikhachev, intercepted the couple for the first time, enraged to see Giselle with another and determined to find proof of Albrecht’s dishonesty. To this interruption, Bolshakova gave a guilty look and evaded him, hoping to avoid conflict at all cost.

Pikhachev’s acting talents make any trip to the theater worthwhile. Were no performance to be given, he would still capture an audience of any size with his ability to accurately depict both villain and victim, depending on the roles he dances. Perhaps Pikhachev’s most poignant moment was following Giselle’s death, when Albrecht takes his sword in panic and rushes towards Hans. Pikhachev here falls to his knees, arms and head thrown back, his chest thrust out towards the sword, ready to die, confident of his own innocence. It is a dramatic moment that makes clear that the blame lies entirely on Albrecht’s shoulders.

Pikhachev’s second, more violent interception of the lovers at the end of the First Act caused Giselle more alarm. Bolshakova looked at him with fear, stepped back and confirmed her ties to Albrecht. But when Hans brought out the cape and sword, Bolshakova looked at them in disbelief and then immediately seemed uninterested in the details, burying her head in her mother’s shoulder. This moment was awkward dramatically and made the link to the mad scene weaker. She emerged again to intercede when Albrecht kissed Bathilde’s hand, and the rest of the drama continued.

Despite that minor acting bobble, Bolshakova’s mad scene is the stuff that ballerinas are made of. Her black hair completely free, she reached into the air at imaginary objects, racing around the stage, her eyes looking into another dimension, already parted from the mortal world. Her final dash to Albrecht was barely finished before she fell lifeless to the floor. From several moments in this scene, one had the impression that a few years from now, without the nerves and pressures of opening night, a truly stellar Giselle will be given us by Bolshakova.

Mention, even if brief, should be given to those who danced the Peasant pas de deux in the First Act. Philippe Stepin, a recent Vaganova graduate, partnered veteran Yulia Kasenkova in a rather wobbly rendition of this section. This is the first time since last June that I recall seeing Stepin on the Mariinsky stage, and despite the passage of time, he seemed unprepared for the challenge.

Stepin clearly has the aptitude to perform two double tours in a row and finish in fifth position plié, but each of his came off as wobbly. Likewise, with his arms straight as arrows in the faille assemblés, the image of an airplane came to mind, and then the casting choices became questionable.

Kasenkova was only slightly more successful than Bolshakova. While her variation was reliable, it was marred by rather stiff fingers. And the pirouettes during the finale (which finish with the girl hooking her arm through her partner’s elbow as a means of stopping the turn) appeared as if she was grasping for dear life. This is partly an issue of old choreography that is difficult to successfully execute, but following Bolshakova’s two flounderings, nerves were not prepared for the additional instabilities.

It came as a bit of a relief when the curtain opened on the Second Act, a proverbial fresh start with a change of scenery (no pun intended). With diamond-cutting precision and as cool as ice, Viktoria Kutepova danced Myrtha. She fits much better in classical roles than in the pulsing, buzzing extremes of extension of Forsythe’s choreography, which we saw her in just one week ago.

Ksenia Ostreikovskaya danced Zulma – graceful, cool, streamlined, she matched Kutepova’s excellence in adhering to the classical paradigm. Kasenkova reappeared as Moyna, dancing heavily in contrast to Ostreikovskaya’s lightness, her staccato movements seeming out of place in the lyrical choreography.

In Act II, Bolshakova fit the image of ethereal being, sylph. As with her graduation performance as Nikiya, she excels in otherworldly roles where her long lines and slightly elusive nature are best utilized. With the exception of the partnered hops in arabesque – in one of which she, or Ivanchenko, or both, faltered – Bolshakova delivered a performance marked by smoothness and even some moments of high virtuosity.

Notable were her feet as she ran downstage to Myrtha, a blur of many miniscule steps that gave the impression she was in fact just skimming the ground. Even better was the slow, seamless 6 o’clock penché at the beginning of the adagio with Albrecht – nary a wobble on her standing leg, nary a pause in the leg that lifted. This one moment had “Kirov” inscribed on her, and, dare one say, nearly compensated for her earlier missteps.

Ivanchenko drew applause for his brisé manège, and for a crystal clear quadruple pirouette, ending slowly but in time with the music. Whatever one’s preferences for the character of Albrecht, he was a steady partner for Bolshakova throughout, and she is lucky to have a veteran performer on whom to rely for a debut.

Boris Gruzin conducted conscientiously throughout, and his kind efforts to aid the dancers with supportive, synchronistic timing should be appreciated.

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