BWW Reviews: The Mikhailovsky Ballet's GISELLE
Early in Giselle, the heroine starts picking petals off flowers. Does he love her or does he not? That's very much the way I felt when I went to see the Mikhailovsky Ballet's November 14 performance of Giselle at Lincoln Center's Koch Theatre. I thought the odds were against me. When you have seen the ballet close to 1000 times, some great, some good, and some beyond mention, your spirits don't exactly soar with anticipation. So what can I say after seeing Giselle 1001 times? Welcome back. It's nice to see you in such pristine shape.
The story of Giselle is very simple. A peasant girl finds that her lover is really a Count and betrothed to another. She then goes mad and dies, immediately joining the ranks of the Wilis, the spirits of women who have been jilted. Their job is to dance these men to death if they come into their territory. When the Count comes to mourn at her grave, Giselle protects him from this fate until morning, when the Wliis return to their graves, to return once more at night.
Yes, the plot is beyond believable. You'd think they would have made a silent picture with Lillian Gish and Richard Barthelmess as Giselle and the Count. Luckily, that was never done, so the ballet could live on in its own shape. It has been praised, damned, sneered at, dismissed, and, for most of us, held in the highest echelon of ballet history and, most importantly, the opportunities it affords to dancers who take on the role of Giselle.
Giselle is a killer, no doubt there. In the first act she has to dance with simplicity and mime with reality. She just can't wave her hands and cast her eyes upwards to the heavens. The role calls for real dance mime for character portrayal and insight. You can't fake it. In the second act the ballerina has a great hurdle to overcome. Real truth not told by mime, but by dance and weight, because she is now disembodied and no longer a creature of earth. So it requires great technique to change from perkiness to madness to death and to the heavens. It almost sounds like an entry into ballet canonization. I've seen too many dancers who have failed: they don't have the required dancing or mime skills and, more importantly, any kind of personality. So let's define personality.
When Angelina Vorontsova, who danced at the performance I attended, came on stage, she immediately reminded me of a high energy New York City Ballet dancer. She looked as if she had energy not only for herself, but for the entire stage. So was this going to be another implausible Giselle or the first movement of Symphony in C?
How wrong I was. If she did not become the character of Giselle, the character molded her. It was like watching a double performance: we got to see the interior and exterior all at once. Her dancing in both acts was both convincing and real. After seeing too many dancers fake it-you can just wonder what the artistic director is yelling off stage-here is the time when you can actually experience it. In the second act she must be light and airborne. She must be a creature who doesn't know earth, only sky. While I do not throw bouquets of words at most dancers, I hereby toss them at Angelina Vorontsova. I look forward to seeing you again.
Matching Vorontsova in both character and dance was Ekaterina Borchenko as Myrtha, the Queen of the Willis. Myrtha's role is relatively short, but her presence is definitely felt. I have heard Myrtha referred to as regal, nasty, horrendous, and lots of other things through the years. But as a good friend pointed out to me, Myrtha is doing her job. I'm not sure what her job description entails, but you can be sure that dancing and death are written in somewhere. But barring this, Borchenko was every inch a queen, one who was frightening, but also one who had to get her hands dirty if she was to succeed. And succeed she did. Borochenko's dancing was quick, concise and up to the standards of a prima ballerina. At present, she is a first soloist in the company. I hope she is promoted because there are other roles calling out to her.
Ivan Vasiliev is, at first, puzzling. I've seen him many times, but it is always a shock to see his physique. It is definitely not one of a premier danseur. He is short, you might say squat, and he doesn't seem like a cavalier or partner. But I'm always proven wrong. Buoyant in Act One and pensive and remorseful in Act Two, he was a striking presence, both complementing and almost challenging Vorontsova to a duel of dancing prowess and acting ability.
The late Nikita Dolgushin (1938-2012), staged this production. Having performed it many times during his career, he knew both the greatness and the pitfalls. His production was both balletically and dramatically nuanced. He told a story that unfolded simply and directly; like a 1940s MGM film, it went straight to the heart, the place for all outstanding Giselles.
Giselle marked the Mikhailovsky's first appearance in New York. Words from Russia made one hopeful, and I was not disappointed. Although the company has a long history, it was not until 2007 when Vladimir Kekhman, a well known Russian entrepreneur, took it over, hiring the renowned Mikhail Messerer as ballet master, that the company rose to prominence. I can't predict the future of the company, I do hope that it will continue to flourish, especially during these Russian winters of discontent and unrest. Please come back soon.
Photograph: Jack Devant