Deception, despair, jilted lady-ghosts exacting deadly revenge – Giselle is a ballet dripping with drama, so I was surprised to find myself checking my watch several times throughout this production of the normally riveting Romantic classic. Moscow City Ballet’s offering is certainly not bland – the troupe’s dancers are nothing if not animated – but I found it altogether too tame a take on the haunting ballet, lacking the fire that elevates Giselle’s tale from merely sad to all-out tragic.
See, Giselle isn’t a simple story of heartbreak, it’s a wrenching one of vulnerability and retaliation and deliverance. The titular peasant girl pines for her lover Albrecht’s affection, she burns when she learns he’s betrayed her, she literally perishes at his hands – and then returns with a spectral sisterhood to do something about it. A tale like that should consume its audience; it should have viewers on the edge of their seats, tugging at their own hair as the crumbling heroine pulls out hers. Unfortunately this show provokes no such responses, instead chugging along flatly as its characters putter on a far-too-small stage swamped with distractingly cartoonish scenery.
I hesitate to fault the dancers here, for the principals competently embody their respective characters and the corps, though looking slightly under-rehearsed, support them with charm and vigour. There were a few mishaps the night I attended – an errant cast member dashing out of view during the opening curtain rise, for one – but on the whole MCB’s troupe appeared able and committed to their roles.
The problem is that many of these roles are contoured as one-dimensional stock characters rather than figures capable of feeling and acting on the complex emotions they’re ascribed. For all Talgat Kozhabaev’s natural charisma (and he’s got a lot of it), his Albrecht comes across as a mildly dim every-prince with improbably little investment in any of the narrative’s events, including his own potential death. Elsewhere Artem Minakov’s Hilarion is more clumsy than conniving, and Ekaterina Tokareva’s Myrtha, Queen of the Wilis, is glittery but strangely passive: there’s little trace of heat or purpose in the vengeful crusades she leads.
Fortunately, Giselle herself is more elaborately drawn: the village girl is sweet and joyful, with warmth and hints of coyness in all the right places. Liliya Oryekhova brings a certain dignity to the role that prevents it from becoming too sing-song, and approaches her miming with sincerity, her dancing with care. She’s tasked with some stilted choreography in the first act, but her climactic ‘mad scene’ and subsequent cavort with the Wilis in Act II prove smoother; from here her gorgeous lines and light-as-air balances get a proper look in.
The rest of the dancing too improves in the second act. The female corps find new purpose as Wilis, moving as a coherent pack, and the final scene, in which Giselle convinces them to spare Albrecht’s life, is warming and well paced.
I suspect first-time Giselle-goers will like this bright production just fine. Veteran viewers, on the other hand, might find its mildness harder to swallow.