Giselle review – a poignant act of defiance

Giselle review – a poignant act of defiance

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High emotions inevitably surrounded this production of Giselle by Alexei Ratmansky, once artistic director of the Bolshoi Ballet and now living in New York but raised in Kyiv, a Ukrainian passport holder and a powerful advocate against the atrocities of the Ukrainian war.

It is performed by a company of Ukrainian dancers now based in The Hague, some of whom have fled their homeland, all of whom still have friends and family there. The stark reality of the events was brutally made clear by the fact that on the eve of the London premiere, Ukrainian dancer and choreographer Oleksandr Shapoval was killed during fighting in the Donetsk region.

In such a context, the decision to assert the cultural significance of dance and dancers for Ukraine is very powerful. “Dancers have short careers but long traditions,” as the program says, and the evening celebrates both.

What Ratmansky has done is use his dance detective instincts to launch a production of Giselle which takes it back to its origins in 1841. You can debate whether this is always useful or dramatic, but it is undoubtedly fascinating to see a version of a famous ballet that removes some things and adds ingredients completely unknown from recent versions.

Some of the interpolations change the effect of the ballet. Here, Giselle does not kill herself in despair when she discovers that her much-loved fiancé, Albrecht, is engaged to someone else, as she does in Peter Wright’s version; she dies of a broken heart in a scene full of poignant silence and not much running around. At the end, even more strikingly, she not only disappears back into the tomb after rescuing Albrecht from the Wilis, the vengeful female spirits trying to kill him, leaving him the legacy of his betrayal. Instead, Giselle sinks into the earth in a gesture of supreme forgiveness, giving the living a chance for a future unburdened by the mistakes of the past.

Some of the restored mime is heavy-handed and a bit silly. Some of the new – or rather, old – sequences, like a fugue for Wilis after Giselle and Albrecht seek refuge at the cross of her grave, feel strained. But it is all danced with heartfelt understanding by dancers who have only worked together (under the direction of Igone de Jongh) for three months and who perform in costumes borrowed from the Birmingham Royal Ballet and – when it comes to the minor. characters – look like they came from a child’s dress-up box.

There is not much strength in depth, but the corps de ballet, with their graceful arms and lithe backs, are charming as gambling peasants and as the misty Wilis, moving in delicate unison. At both shows I saw, the guest managers were exceptional. On Tuesday, Christine Schevchenko, of the American Ballet Theatre, was a gentle Giselle opposite Oleksii Tiutiuunyk’s Albrecht, his entrechats as loud as his emotions.

Wednesday brought the treat of Alina Cojocaru, always a wonderful Giselle, returning to the role opposite Alexander Trusch’s Prince Charming, filling the stage with such dramatic, suffering intensity that she added an extra level of meaning and emotion to an already charged evening. In the second act she was simply sublime, flying across the stage with a freedom and artistry that wordlessly underscored Ratmansky’s case for the value of art as an essential ingredient in life itself.

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