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American Ballet Theatre

'Giselle'

by Jerry Hochman

May 27, 28 (matinee and evening), June 1 (matinee) -- Metropolitan Opera House, New York, NY

I recently wrote that some ballets are long absent from a company’s repertoire for a reason. It is also true that some ballets are rarely absent from a company’s repertoire for a reason. “Giselle” premiered in Paris in 1841, reportedly has not been out of the repertoire of one company or another since then, and consequently is regarded as the oldest continually performed ballet. But “Giselle” is more than that: “Giselle” is the Romantic ballet, both in style and substance, and may well be the greatest ballet of all.

Recent performances of “Giselle” during American Ballet Theatre’s week-long “Giselle”-marathon at the Met illustrate why: "Giselle" has everything. Of course it features music (by Adolphe Adam), and choreography (by Jean Coralli and Jules Perrot, later revised by Marius Petipa), that convey and enhance the story, that enable and encourage virtuosic performances (as actors as well as dancers), and that move the action inexorably forward with a contemporary sensibility even within its historical Romantic framework. More than that, however, “Giselle” is ballet theater at its best: its dramatic storyline features innocence, deception, treachery, noble peasants and ignoble aristocrats, religion and superstition, dead animals, live animals, a sword, folklore and the supernatural, real people and unreal people, an arrogant cad, an arrogant dolt, an overprotective mother, jilted brides, penitence, atonement, madness, sudden death, a maiden, grapes, wrath, and redemption. It’s enough to give an audience the willies.

But all this is only what makes the ballet interesting. What makes it more than that is its simple purity. Just like its heroine, at the heart of “Giselle” is its heart. It is a ballet about the power of love, and whether that love is deserved or appropriate or complicated or understandable is irrelevant. And “Giselle” has been a story about love, and motivated by love, from the day it was created. Its story, told in the context of its creation and the lives of the people involved in it, would make a great romantic ballet film – a sort of R-rated “The Red Shoes,” or “Hans Christian Andersen.”

“Giselle” was conceived by Theophile Gautier, purportedly based on a paragraph from an 1835 story, “De l’Allemagne” by Heinrich Heine, that described the Wilis – sprites in white gowns who died before their wedding day, often having been jilted, and who were said to have roamed the forests throughout the night exacting revenge by forcing captured males to dance to their deaths. Gautier created the ballet for the ballerina Carlotta Grisi, with whom, reportedly, he was in love. [That Gautier was married to Grisi’s older sister, a celebrated opera singer, is… interesting.] Expanding on Heine’s folkloric idea (which wasn’t restricted to German folklore – the concept is also reflected in Slavic folklore, and probably that of other cultures as well), Gautier and Jules-Henri Vernoy, Marquis de Saint-Georges, completed the libretto in three days. Gautier is then said to have convinced Perrot, a celebrated ballet dancer/teacher, to pitch it on Grisi’s behalf to Coralli, First Balletmaster of the Paris Opera Ballet. Grisi, who Perrot helped ‘discover’ and who was to become one of the most celebrated ballerinas of her time, was Perrot’s student – and companion. [That Grisi bore a daughter by Perrot, when she was 18, and later another daughter by another man, and apparently never married, is…interesting.]

In order for a performance of “Giselle” to be fully successful, in this viewer’s opinion, this ‘love’ (there’s no other adequate word to describe it) must be felt by the audience both objectively (seeing it convincingly communicated by the characters on stage) – and subjectively (feeling it for the stage persona of the individual dancer). In this sense “Giselle” is not particularly different from other intensely romantic ballets where the audience must develop some feeling for the dancer in order for the performance to work at its best (e.g., “Romeo and Juliet”). But it’s particularly important in “Giselle,” where the blind love portrayed makes no logical sense (‘I don’t care that you’re out of my class and a deceitful villain who broke my heart and made me die, I’ll love you forever anyway’). I’ve never seen a bad performance of “Giselle” because the ballet works so well. However, what makes certain performances more memorable than others is not only the execution of the steps and the quality of the production, but the emotional transference from the stage to the audience.

This quality of communicating more than just the story and the steps was evident in the four performances of “Giselle” that I was able to see this week, which included three portrayals of Giselle by three ballerinas whom I had not previously seen in the role.

I’ve waited not-very-patiently for eight years to see Alina Cojocaru dance Giselle. Seven years ago I reviewed Ms. Cojocaru’s July 16, 2004 performance of “Cinderella” with The Royal Ballet, and whined about The Royal’s not having brought its “Giselle,” and her performance in it, to New York. In the review, I described Ms. Cojocaru as an ‘ethereal diamond’ combining strength with gentleness, speed, and the cleanest of lines, but that what made her different was that “the entire package is wrapped in a fresh and natural grace that makes you at once wonder how anyone so talented can appear to be so nice.” The description still holds, and her Giselle, performed on Saturday evening, was worth the wait.

With Ms. Cojocaru, it’s not just the quality of her dancing and her characterization – it’s how she makes anyone with a fully functioning heart feel. Ms. Cojocaru’s Giselle is the sweetest of any I can remember – and the most child-like (from descriptions I’ve read, her stage persona and performance quality appear to closely resemble those of Ms. Grisi). And it’s not just that she comes across as an uber-sweetheart. To this viewer, her technique is impeccable - she is feather-light, has remarkable extensions that take forever to get where they’re going, and then stay put, and incredibly secure balances (as I mentioned in reviewing her Kitri earlier this season). Her performance as Giselle included all of that and more, including the most flat-out fabulous hydroplaning ‘pas couru’ bourrees that I’ve ever seen – her toes seemed never to leave the floor. It almost goes without saying that she epitomizes the Romantic ethereal quality that all Giselles must have. Her ‘mad’ scene was particularly interesting, adding nuances (e.g., repeatedly recounting the daisy petals, increasing the frenzied speed of the count each time; grabbing the faces of various townsfolk as she wove her way through the crowd, as if trying to remember who they were) that were both spot on and unique to her. And her love for Albrecht was so overwhelmingly portrayed (almost, but not quite, over the top), that it was clearly understandable that her love for him would never diminish even in madness or death.

I have to acknowledge that some technical flair was omitted from this performance – for example, Ms. Cojocaru executed the hops en pointe in her Act I solo perfectly, but she appeared to be concentrating solely on the perfect hops – she did not look over to Albrecht as she did them as other Giselles routinely do; she also appeared to have deleted certain toe-work from Act II. [I’ve been told that she was favoring a slight injury. I cannot vouch for that, but it makes sense since I do know, having seen it, that she provided a much more dazzling display of filigreed virtuosity at a dress rehearsal the previous day.] But this made no difference – Ms. Cojocaru's characterization was so dominating that, to be fair, nothing else really mattered.

In the matinee performance that same day, I was able to see Irina Dvorovenko’s Giselle for the first time also. As I mentioned in my review of her performance in “Lady of the Camellias” last season, Ms. Dvorovenko is a highly underrated dancer (at least as compared to other ABT superstars), and her Giselle is easily underrated also. Hers was an extraordinarily ‘pure’ Giselle. Not fragile, as Gelsey Kirkland’s Giselle was, or sugar-sweet, like Ms. Cojocaru, but she has a porcelain-like quality that is unmatched, and any nit-picking I could do is just silly. It was a marvelous performance. And although all performances of Giselle at this level demonstrate single-minded focus and determination as well as extraordinary technical ability and acting prowess, Ms. Dvorovenko was unusually aware not only of what she was doing on stage, but of how she appeared to the audience. At one point, during her ‘mad scene,’ Ms. Dvorovenko’s long hair came to rest over part of her face. Most dancers would be so focused that they wouldn’t notice, or would decide to ignore it – but Ms. Dvorovenko had the presence of mind, in the middle of this critical scene, to recognize that it was important for the audience to see her face, and she brushed her hair from her face – without breaking her concentration or changing a single step.

Wednesday’s afternoon performance was the also the first time I, or anyone else, was able to see Hee Seo’s Giselle – it was her first time dancing the role. My expectations for Ms. Seo were not high – she’d been injured and hadn’t danced for a lengthy period of time, her Moyna on Saturday was tentative, and a friend advised that she did not dance as scheduled in the peasant pas de deux earlier in the week. Perhaps she was saving her strength for “Giselle.” Regardless, it was a very promising debut. Ms. Seo has a quality of delicacy about her that makes her a natural Giselle. But her performance was better than just delicate – her characterization was intelligent and unexpectedly nuanced, and her second act was particularly notable for her successfully-communicated lighter-than-air quality (her assisted glides across the stage in Act II were astonishingly good – for any ballerina at any level). What she didn’t do was take chances – her extensions weren’t as high as others, her characterization not as animated as others, her penchee arabesques not as deep, her Romantic port de bras a little too stretched. But compared to what she accomplished, these are relatively minor observations – she isn’t, and couldn’t be expected to be, on the same level as ballerinas who have danced this role for years. This was her debut performance – it deserves to be recognized for being as good as it was, and for the future performances that it promises.

And then there’s Diana Vishneva.

I’ve previously written that, in this viewer’s opinion, Ms. Vishneva is the best of the current Giselles that I’ve seen, and that experiencing any of her performances is a privilege. Two years ago, in reviewing Ms. Vishneva’s Giselle, I wrote that her performance then was even better than the performance she gave with ABT a couple of years earlier, though that hardly seemed possible. There was no way that Ms. Vishneva could again make what was already more perfect than perfect even more perfect. But at Friday’s performance, she did. Having said that, I must concede that I don’t know what ‘perfect’ means in the context of a ballet performance – except that it means more than just doing everything right and making no mistakes. Essentially, you know it when you see it, and at Friday’s performance, I saw it, as the audience clearly did as well. She was incandescent.

Ms. Vishneva is difficult to stereotype – she’s a dancing chameleon, changing stage personas with every role. Perhaps that’s why she’s as versatile as she is – the only audience expectation is that in whatever role she dances, which includes most every lead role in the ballet repertoire, she will likely give the best performance of it that anyone has seen. And no matter how ‘perfect’ her execution and characterization is, Ms. Vishneva changes something in every performance. While some variation from performance to performance is natural and inevitable, for Ms. Vishneva it appears to be a product of a constant effort to try something a little different that might make her performance a little better, and in Friday’s performance I saw things I never saw before in her performances as Giselle, probably because they weren’t there before.

This would be the part of the review where I give examples of what Ms. Vishneva did that made this performance better than perfect. But a laundry-list of adjectives and superlatives is both insufficient and unnecessary. It was everything, from the consistent Romantic-curved extended (but not over-extended) arms to the impossible penchees to leg beats that matched every single beat of the music (as opposed to the usual fudging of a beat or two because the ballerina’s legs and feet can’t possibly match the speed of the musical beats). And if I ever have the opportunity to see Ms. Vishneva dance Giselle again, I’m confident that that performance will, somehow, be even better than this one.

Friday’s performance wasn’t just Ms. Vishneva. Great performances by Marcelo Gomes as Albrecht and Veronika Part as Myrta have come to be expected as much as one expects the sun to rise in the east. But both of them seemed, to this viewer, to have surpassed their previous performances.

Mr. Gomes’s Albrecht was a first-rate cad. He relished being the rakish nobleman-about-village anticipating his latest conquest. His execution in all respects was impeccable. Although I would prefer to see brises rather than etrechats in Act II, Mr. Gomes took his entrechats and moved them sideways and upstage as if pulled by the same invisible string that so memorably pulled Mikhail Baryshnikov’s brises. But more than his technique and execution, his partnering is without peer.

Ms. Part took her usual strongly performed Myrta to another level. She didn’t simply execute perfectly or command the stage – the best Myrtas, from Martine van Hamel and Cynthia Harvey to Gillian Murphy, all do that. Ms. Part added an other-worldly quality that I had not previously seen in anyone’s Myrta. She was not portraying the spirit of a deceased girl or the queen of mean – Ms. Part was a supernatural being with different sensory ability – moving her head sharply as if instinctively compelled – like an animal, or an insect…or a vampiress – to respond to every sound that her inhumanly high level-of-awareness allowed her to hear (I’ve been informed that the Slavic word for ‘vampire’ is ‘vili’, which translates as ‘wili’ in German). This instinctive-like angularly sharp head movement in response to stimuli was a dynamic counterpoint to the Romantic softness of Ms. Vishneva’s Giselle; and consequently it enhanced not only Ms. Part’s Myrta, but the performance as a whole.

Time and space do not permit a thorough reference to or description of other ‘supporting’ performances that I observed, but, all too briefly: Stella Abrera’s Myrta was viciously eloquent, as it always is. Her ability to act evil through her commanding presence is in marked contrast to the approach that Michele Wiles appears to have taken – Ms. Wiles performs a fine Myrta, but recently appears to have decided that in order to be mean, she has to bare her teeth like an angry dog. This doesn’t help convey Myrta’s power – indeed, it sometimes makes it look as if Ms. Wiles is smiling, or trying to keep from smiling, which is decidedly not a component of Myrta’s character. Jared Matthews, Isaac Stappas and Gennadi Saveliev all were superb Hilarions, and Kristi Boone, Luciana Paris, and Leann Underwood made Bathilda, Albrecht’s real betrothed, believable. [Ms. Underwood, who I do not recall previously seeing in the role, added an interesting touch – instead of acting as if she’d been insulted and was above the resulting turn of events, she was palpable furious at Albrecht, and would have given him a swift kick in the knees, or some other part of his anatomy, if that had been the ladylike thing to do.] Yuriko Kajiya was a rock-solid Zulma, and the peasant pas de deux of Maria Riccetto and Mr. Matthews, Isabella Boylston and Mikhail Ilyin, and Sarah Lane and Daniil Simkin were beautifully done – but Ms. Lane, who dances with a quiet radiance in addition to her secure technical ability, was not helped by Mr. Simkin, who consistently pulled her off center and failed to assist her sufficiently in partnered turns in each of the two performances in which I saw them together. Mr. Simkin is a spectacular dancer on his own (and may do very well as a partner with Natalia Osipova, with whom he is scheduled to perform later this season, because she’s capable of dancing a pas de deux by herself – and yes, I meant that the way it reads). But Ms. Lane is entitled to more than what Mr. Simkin was able to provide. [Ms. Lane also is entitled to dance the role of Giselle. I am not privy to the decision-making process at ABT, but although the quality of her performances have not changed (if anything – as with her Amour - her performance quality has never been better), Ms. Lane appears to be stagnating. She deserves to be encouraged by new challenges, not discouraged by repeatedly being relegated to dancing roles she’s already done dozens of times, both for her benefit and for the future benefit of the company.]

To replace the injured Maxim Beloserkovsky as Ms. Dvorovenko’s Albrecht, ABT was able to quickly recruit Johan Kobborg. This was Mr. Kobborg’s initial performance with ABT, and it was memorable. Mr. Kobborg, who is well-known from his affiliation with The Royal Ballet and his frequent performances with Ms. Cojocaru, comes across as a more experienced Albrecht – at first appearing to be a little tired and rubbery looking. That all disappeared once he started moving. Mr. Kobborg has classic form and crisp, clearly enunciated technique – and he’s a consummate partner. It was an impressive, if belated, ABT debut. David Hallberg also danced a commendable Albrecht – he was always engaged, always appeared devoted to his Giselle (indeed, Mr. Hallberg was the only one of the three Albrechts I saw who clearly loved Giselle from the outset, rather than as a result of guilt over having contributed to her death), and his execution was remarkable (his entrechats deservedly brought down the house). But his strength as a partner leaves much to be desired. I previously commented that Mr. Hallberg had difficulty lifting Polina Semionova when they danced “Don Quixote” together earlier this season – but Ms. Semionova is a relatively tall ballerina, so his difficulty lifting her was understandable. But having difficulty lifting Ms. Cojocaru and Ms. Seo, particularly in the first series of lifts in Act II, is inexcusable. I recognize that that is easy for me to say, but it has an impact on the performance – particularly in “Giselle,” where the appearance of weightlessness in Act II is essential – and should be addressed.

In the overall scheme of things, however, these observations are unimportant. “Giselle” is so well-crafted a ballet (the current ABT production is particularly good), and so well-performed by the ABT dancers who are given the opportunity to dance it, that for a member of the audience, ABT’s “Giselle” is above criticism. The story is complex yet simple to follow, timeless, universal in its appeal, truly romantic (as well as classically Romantic), and emotionally devastating. Every time. Not bad for a lady who, in less than a month, will turn one hundred and seventy years old.

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