Moscow, Bolshoi Theatre
21, 22 November, 2019
In the past few years, the choreographer Alexei Ratmansky has devoted a good portion of his time and attention to “reconstructing” nineteenth century ballets from historical sources. Reconstruction is a misleading term. These ballets exist in the world as living organisms, not archeological artifacts that need to be dug out of the dust and put back together. The secret in ballet is that what seems definitive seldom is. And so it is interesting to have a choreographer consult whatever records exist and consider: What do they reveal? What can be gleaned from the archival sources that can be useful, interesting, or transformative?
Ratmansky has now undertaken this process with Paquita (2014), Sleeping Beauty (2015), Harlequinade (2018), and La Bayadère (2018). This year, it’s Giselle’s turn, where he was assisted by his wife, Tatiana Ratmansky. His new Giselle premièred on Nov. 21 at the Bolshoi Ballet, a company that already has two other versions of Giselle in its active repertory, one by Yuri Grigorovich, the other by Vladimir Vasiliev. Both of those stagings have largely eliminated the use of mime, so central to 19th century ballet; the technique has also been rendered more robust, with big overhead lifts and, in the case of the Vasiliev version, additional, and very vigorous, choreography for the men (particularly Hilarion, Giselle’s thwarted local admirer). It would seem that the current director of the Bolshoi, Makhar Vaziev, has been eager for a production that brings the ballet closer to its mid-nineteenth-century Romantic origins and style.
But this is a somewhat vexed question. Giselle has existed in one form or another since 1841, when it premiered in at the Paris Opéra, choreographed by Jean Coralli, with Carlotta Grisi and Lucien Petipa in the lead roles. It has subsequently been revived and re-staged many times, including in St. Petersburg, first by Antoine Titus (in 1842), then by Jules Perrot (1850), and finally by Marius Petipa in the 1880’s.
So there are many versions of the ballet, some notated, some passed down by tradition or modified according to the taste of the choreographer or ballet master. For this staging, Ratmansky drew on a slew of sources: Two partial Russian notations made in 1899 and 1903 in the Stepanov system; a notation in long-hand and with miniature drawings of the choreography by the French ballet master Henri Justamant from the 1860’s (no-one is certain of the year); several musical scores with notes scribbled into the music, from various Russian archives. As Ratmansky said before leaving New York to begin working with the Bolshoi dancers, “It’s going to be a mix from different sources, and from all of that material I’ll make choices.” With a few exceptions, he used the Stepanov notation for the steps, while for the mime and stage action, he followed Justamant.
What has emerged from this process is a Giselle that is both familiar and new. Watching it on opening night and on the following evening, with different casts, was like seeing a faded painting regain its colors. The choreography and characters had been re-considered from various angles, honed, sculpted. Unlike his Sleeping Beauty and La Bayadère, the results didn’t feel radically new. But the characters emerged with engaging clarity, as did the relationships between them. A long list of details in the choreography and scenario glistened. The inclusion of more mime, even in the second, ghostly act, added texture and richness to the story.
We know the story: Giselle is a young peasant girl who loves to dance. Count Albrecht is a young aristocrat who has fallen in love with her, despite being engaged to marry a noble lady, Bathilde. When Giselle discovers his duplicity, she goes mad and dies of a broken heart. After which, in Act II, she reappears as a spirit, member of a vengeful tribe called the Wilis, women who have died before their wedding day. As retribution, they hunt and kill men by forcing them to dance to exhaustion. In a final act of love and sacrifice, Giselle saves him from their wrath.
None of these plot points has changed of course, but much of the mawkishness that has crept into the character of Giselle over the years has been swept away. She’s not sickly, and in fact can be rather mischievous. At one point she indicates to Albrecht that they should be quiet, so as not to alert her mother. And Albrecht, in particular, is loving and passionate, deeply attached to Giselle despite being engaged to another.
A spirit of lightness pervades the first act, accentuated by Robert Perdziola’s elegant and slightly naif designs of two thatched huts, tall skeletal trees, white cliffs, and a mountain-top castle in the distance. The look is inspired by Alexandre Benois’s 1910 and 1924 designs for the Ballets Russes and the Paris Opéra. The second act has a dark bluish tinge; the trees are menacing and gnarled, like the trees in a ghost story. The production’s chief characteristic is balance and a lack of indulgence, in the designs as in the choreography and performances, but also in the musical setting. The tempi are brisk, the characterizations clear and legible and touching.
The more lively tempi accentuate the danceyness of the choreography. In the first act, for example, a group of young people gather to dance in the village square. The mood is celebratory: the dancers clap their hands overhead, or play tambourines. The whole village is dancing. This scene contains a well known passage for two unnamed peasants, who perform a virtuosic pas de deux. Much of the choreography here is more detailed than what one usually sees, particularly for the man, with double tours one way and then the other, beaten jumps, and non-stop dancing. Turns are often done with the leg in a low position, between the calf and the knee. The style of dancing is less explosive, but more detailed, quicker, and often more musical.
The bigger surprises lie in the second act. Some of them are scenic. I was particularly struck by the entrance of Myrtha, the queen of the Wilis. She reveals herself slowly, in the half-dark, from behind a tree, very much like a ghost. But mostly they are choreographic. After Giselle emerges from her tomb (an platform brings her up to the stage), the Wilis suddenly arrange themselves in a cross formation, neat, stark, deadly. Later, when they surround Albrecht in a semi-circle, preparing to kill him, Giselle runs desperately behind them, breaking through and leading him away to the safety of the cross on her grave, with the Wilis in pursuit. When she leaves the shelter of the tomb at Myrtha’s command, she urges Albrecht to stay by the cross. Later, during the famous pas de deux, the usual fishtail lifts are replaced by floating arabesques culminating in a lift in which Albrecht turns her over in the air to face in the other direction. It’s heart-stoppingly lovely, and unexpected. When they stop dancing, he kisses her forehead and she covers her face, as if crying. According to the program, this detail is from the Justamant notation. Their love is real, and human.
Ratmansky has included a fugue that was cut early on in the ballet’s history. The style of the music is incongruous with the rest of the score – almost baroque in temperament. But the short dance for the Wilis here (choreographed by him) is striking: in groups of four, they traverse the stage in a diagonal toward Giselle’s tomb, then retreat, covering their eyes as if repulsed by the sight of the cross.
And at the end of the ballet, rather than retreating back into her grave, Giselle is carried by Albrecht to a grassy knoll on the opposite side of the stage. But even so, he can’t keep her alive; before disappearing into the earth once again, she exhorts him to marry, pointing at his ring finger. At that moment, a group of nobles, including Bathilde, appears. Life will go on for Albrecht, it seems.
The sum total of all these changes presents an immense challenge to the dancers. New steps, new tempi, re-imagined characters. Both casts I saw acquitted themselves well, as did the company as a whole. Ekaterina Krysanova, who led the second cast on Nov. 22, was more vivid, with a hungry jump and a naturalness that suited the role of Giselle particularly well. She did most of her fast (chainé) turns on half-pointe, which gave them a lovely girlishness. In contrast, Olga Smirnova was sweeter, more charming and naïve-seeming, with less of a jump, and a less keen musicality. Smirnova did all her turns on pointe, and had a tendency to raise her leg quite high, though never to the 180 degree split one sometimes sees. Of the two Albrechts (both excellent), Artemy Belyakov, Smirnova’s partner, was more elegant and poised, while Artyom Ovcharenko had more pliant, elastic phrasing. Both managed what is very tricky choreography with aplomb. Both peasant pas de deux couples (Dariya Khokhlova and Alexey Putintsev on opening night and Elizaveta Kokoreva and Georgy Gusev on the 22nd) danced buoyantly, with clear beats and lively feet. Both of the men did tours to the left and the right with no problem, but their arms were tense in the Bournonville-like second male solo. Of the two Myrthas, Angelina Vlashinets danced with more authority and bigger jumps.
Some things worked less well. The grassy knoll, for example, is poorly lit and difficult to make out. A few of the technical tricks fall flat, as when Myrtha crosses the rear of the stage on a scooter; the idea is to make it seem as if she’s floating, but the device is too obvious. When the clock strikes midnight, lights begin to flicker in the trees, but the effect is marred by the slightly neon-tinge of the lights. The use of a zip-line-like system to carry one of the Wilis through the air is loud enough to mar the illusion of flight.
What stands out here, though, is a sense of overall harmoniousness. Some of the cobwebs have been swept away, and what is left is, simply, Giselle.