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Flash Review, 7-19: Strasvichay!
A Spirited "Giselle" from the Bolshoi

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2000 The Dance Insider

"Giselle," staged by Vladimir Vasiliev after Jean Coralli, Jules Perrot, Marius Petipa, Alexander Gorsky, and Leonid Lavrovsky, is an odd choice with which to open the Bolshoi Ballet's first trip to New York City in ten years. This epochal company made its biggest U.S. splash with the 1959 tour of Lavrovsky's "Romeo & Juliet" and, indeed, that ballet has been featured on the rest of the current Bolshoi U.S. tour. (See Flash Review 1, 5-31: The Return of the Bolshoi.) As important, programming-wise, R&J is eternally relevant, whereas "Giselle," written by Theophile Gautier and Vernoy de Saint-Georges (after Heinrich Heine), asks us to believe that a young woman would die for the love of a deceiving clod, and then there are those pesky Wilis, dancing men to death. This baggage falls squarely on the shoulders of the players, particularly the ballerina enacting Giselle, because if she can pull the story into her body and own it, she might just make us believe too. Then it becomes not so much a matter of buying the far-fetched premise, as believing in one ballerina-actress. Nina Ananiashvili, performing Giselle in last night's U.S. premiere of the Vasiliev production at the New York State Theater, used her Vaganova-based technique at its expressive best, giving us at least one believable character. And providing a schooling in why technique matters.

The first thing I noticed about Ananiashvili, reviewing her in "La Bayadere" at American Ballet Theatre in 1996, was indeed the way she used her technique to express emotions. Not just in the way she varied the meter and weight of her pointework, almost Flamenco-like in the way her feet expressed and verbalized different reactions, but even in her arms, about as expressive a pair of arms as I've seen on a ballerina. There's a moment in "Giselle," in the first act after she has gone crazy upon discovering Albrecht is betrothed to another, when arms are floating, legs on pointe and rigid, torsoe teetering, and head wavering; she's paid close attention to the nuance of each plane of body parts.

The few times I've seen Ananiashvili since 1996, she seems to have been not fully putting out. Don't get me wrong; Ananiashvili coasting (on her unique beauty, idiosyncratic and quirky charm, and ready technique) is still better than most principal dancers at full-throttle. But I'd been disappointed that a ballerina who had blown me away with her crystal use of technique for expression seemed just a bit less than super.

A colleague suggested that what I might be seeing is the effect of a travelling star who has little time to rehearse with the many companies of which she is a star -- including ABT, Houston Ballet, the Bolshoi, and the occasional "Friends" tour. I suspect that she might have become infected with the general apathy that marks most of ABT's performances these days, particularly in its corps.

Based on what I saw last night, both of us might be right. Surrounded by the electrifying, proudly dancing Bolshoi last night, Ananiashvili seemed to be truly in her element, in her home company. She stepped it up, going to new levels. And I realized that the power of her technique is not so much in its volume as in her ability to modulate the decibel level for effect. The disappointment of last year's Maryinsky tour was that for those ballerinas, with the exception of Uliana Lopatkina, technique seemed to mean kicking that leg up to the ear. For Ananiashvili, technique is measured not in the distance of her toe from the ground, but in, well, her ability to precisely measure it out. Fragile, naive, shy, tentative, and girlish in the first act, Ananiashvili's Giselle, after passing over in the second act is strong, confident, a woman. Delicate and insecure as the peasant girl, seeming to be watching Sergei Filin's Albrecht at every moment, wondering if he approves of her and still has eyes for her, once in the land of the Wilis she is invincible and watches him only as his protector, trying to prevent Myrtha, Queen of the Wilis, from dancing him to death.

Ah, there's the rub; and indeed, it has always been the rub for me with Albrechts. (I should note that I've only seen "Giselle" three times, and the first of these was ABT and that doesn't count, not withstanding the successfully ethereal Alessandra Ferri and the dogged Gil Boggs as the hunter Hilarion who gets danced to death first.) He always seems to have just performed a variation which, if not easy, certainly looks no more grueling than the standard male virtuoso variation, and suddenly there he is grasping his heart. I know what you might be saying; hey, it's not easy to look like you're dancing yourself to death without, er, dancing yourself to death. But most of the Hilarions I've seen have achieve this, none better than the convincingly reckless Alexander Petukhov did last night. Indeed, Petukhov was at times no less than the engine propelling the work forward, his very body on a precipitous slant. Filin, by contrast, was pretty but passive, limited in his physical and facial expression.

Getting back to Ananiashvili's Giselle, tho: My initial reaction was that, well, sure, she got the ethereal right, not only becoming bigger and stronger than her corporeal self was in the first act, but making it seem appropriately, ghostfully effortless. But I didn't see the same desperation to keep Albrecht alive -- i.e. that the reason she kept coming on and dancing, and dancing with him, was to buy time until sunrise when the Wilis would have to retire -- as I did in Ferri.

But then, discussing the Wilis with my colleague Aimee Ts'ao, she pointed out that, essentially, these gals are gone. Meaning that whether pursuing Albrecht or protecting him, whatever they do is determined but it's also dispassionate; bloodless, the world no longer riles their blood. Even though Ananiashvili was, then, determined to defend Albrecht's life, it's her actions, not her facial expressions, that demonstrate her eternal love for him. Similarly, Aimee explained, Myrtha and the rest of the Wilis are not supposed to be evidently angry or hateful; this is simply their automatic, unavoidable reaction when a man enters their mist's midst.

Ah yes, the mist. If there is a through-line in Vasiliev's production of "Giselle," it seems to be the way dancing, movement in general, technical effects, scenery, and even costumes indicate that this whole story is taking place in a bog of a spell -- of time, of place, of mood. It's just a little less foggy in the peasant square where the action begins than in the swamp where it ends. A mist of steam permeates the atmosphere, hovering above the ground when the curtain rises. The sets -- bookended by the hovels of Giselle and of Count Albrecht in his disguise as a peasant -- are particularly ramshackle, as if arrested in a state of near-collapse.

There's a spell over the townspeople too, as when they watch the peasant pas de action that here seems to take the place of the peasant pas de deux sometimes seen elsewhere. In ABT's recent production, the peasant corps was a corpse. When they're not moving, they're, well, not moving! In the Maryinsky's production, seen here last year, they were downright rambunctious in their reactions to the peasant pas. As envisaged by Vasiliev, they, too, are under a spell, mesmerized. They take in the action and respond with gently swiveling arms, and heads at times too. Their reaction is rhythmic in its repetitions, and right on the music.

Oh yes, the music. Here I have to quote Anna Kisselgoff of the New York Times, as cited in the program notes: "Alexander Sotnikov, an outstanding Russian conductor, accomplishes a miracle. He treats the serviceable scores as if they were first-class compositions; the music sings." Just as the dated scenario of "Giselle" relies on the ballerina to breathe contemporary life and meaning into it, the melodramatic score, by Adolphe Adam, needs convicted conducting and earnest playing to make us believe it's sincere and real. Sotnikov, conducting the New York City Opera Orchestra, delivered.

And to bring this full circle, here's what I think explains Ananiashvili's re-elevation of her style: Last night, she performed as if at home. That's a credit to her, sure, but more important is what it says about the elements arrayed around her. This was not, as Ananiashvili's ABT performances seem to me, essentially a "Nina and Friends" tour. Sure, she's the prima ballerina, but what allows her to exhibit and display these talents is all the other elements -- highly charged and PROUD dancers, effective if simple scenery and costumes, spirited playing of the music, and, most of all, Vasiliev's energetic and tight production.

"Giselle" continues at the New York State Theater through July 23, with Ananiashvili dancing opposite Andrei Uvarov on July 22, and Svetlana Lunkina and Nikolai Tsiskaridze taking the leads on matinees July 22 and 23. The company, in New York as part of the Lincoln Center Festival, dances a mixed program tonight, Thursday, and Friday. For more info on the Bolshoi, visit the company's web site (which includes an English option). In addition to the Flash Review cited above, we also reviewed the Bolshoi and Ananiashvili's recent Chicago performance of "Don Quixote." See Flash Review 2, 6-10: The Bolshoi Lives.

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