Altynai's Giselle

Is Altynai Asylmuratova not the most beautiful dancer to ever step onstage? Those Asian, exotic features, the huge, dark eyes, the sweet cherry smile is enough to make me have a girl-crush on her. She's one dancer I really wish I had seen live.

Unfortunately videos of this exquisite dancer are hard to find, even on youtube. So imagine my excitement when I found this (see after the jump):

It's 20 minutes of excerpts from Altynai Asylmuratova's Giselle. I wish it included more, but I'm grateful for what I have. I never got to see Asylmuratova live -- by the time I was even vaguely interested in ballet, she had retired. She's not that well-represented on video either -- there's a La Bayadere, Le Corsaire, Les Sylphides, and a VHS of Sleeping Beauty that has long been out of print. She's also featured in a documentary called Backstage at the Kirov. She's featured in some Kirov compilations, including one where she dances the Esmeralda pas de six with so much beauty it's hard to even watch anyone else dance this piece. She's exquisite in all her videos, but except for La Bayadere and the Esmeralda clip, I think her greatest strength as a dancer -- her sense of drama -- is not really captured in the extant videos. Her video of La Bayadere is what got me really hooked onto ballet. Now when I watch the video the strength of her characterization as Nikya still astounds me. In the Shades pas de deux, notice how she lifts her arms with such force and triumph, as if to remind Solor that even in an opium dream, he is not forgiven.

Anyway, back to the Giselle clip. Asylmuratova was never known as a strong technician, and you can see this in the clip -- she seems to tire at the end of her Act Two variation. Her upper body, especially her incredibly supple back, was her glory, but her lower body lacks terre a terre strength. Her entrechats are a bit sketchy. Her arabesque is uneven -- not always lifted to the same height, and her effort to raise her leg in arabesque is sometimes apparent. But the effortless, girlish charm of Act One, and the rather unique take on Act Two are wonderful. Asylmuratova, unlike many Russian ballerinas, wasn't blessed with one of those big, floating, airy jumps. She can get in the air, and has decent elevation, but not much ballon. Sometimes her jumps tend to land with a hard thud. Her arms also don't have that feather light look of so many Giselles. She has her own methods of appearing ethereal -- in the series of lifts, she lifts her arms higher and higher, as if being pulled towards the heavens. Asylmuratova works around her rather hard jump and forceful attack -- it gives her Giselle a sternness that I very much like in my Act Two Giselles. Mariinsky ballerina Diana Vishneva today does a very similar interpretation -- the stern wraith no longer reachable by anyone, driven only by a mysterious inner force to save the man who betrayed her.

There are many Giselles who turn Act Two into a rather sappy story of forgiveness. But Asylmuratova, with her intense face, and her forceful, un-mannered style of dancing, shows that love =/= forgiveness. I especially love the way she ends the ballet. Once Albrecht has been saved, Asylmuratova lifts his arm, but avoids physical contact. Albrecht carries her back to the grave and she really appears lifeless, no longer of this earth. As she bourrees farther and farther away from Albrecht, she lifts her arms a little each time, but it's not clear whether she's reaching out to Albrecht or whether she is already in another world. She has become distant and unreachable.

The staying power of Giselle is the idea that love can be real, yet impossible. In the second act, Giselles will sometimes descend into a series of litographic poses, and one will forget that this can be a blood-curdling ghost story about death, revenge, and redemption. Although I wish a complete Giselle with Asylmuratova existed, I'm excited to see this extensive clip that gives a hint of how special she undoubtedly was in the role.


  1. I saw her as Giselle at the Met about 1989. Beautiful, ethereal, unique and indescribable!

  2. Unfortunately, AA's Giselle on YouTube is not her best. There is a much better one, from Germany, from 2000 that (outside of a couple of technical glitches) is one of the finest Giselle's I've ever seen. Only Ulanova's is superior and she only technically so. Her beats here, in the coda (which you think she seems to tire in the Kirov version) are spectacular. All the more incredible is that she is nearly 40!!!!!

  3. Did you know she made People Magazine's Fifty Most Beautiful People in 1992? I'm sure if you googled it, you'd find the picture they used. I downloaded it and used it as the home screen for my phone for awhile.

    I did see Asylmuratova once, in 1986, as Odette/Odile. She wasn't the strongest technically, and her Odile was played more minx-like, a la Leslie Caron - very lightweight - but she was assuredly the most glamorous, the most charismatic, and the most beautiful. All she would have had to do was stand in sous-sus with her arms in fifth, and light up the auditorium with that megawatt smile, and she would have had the audience on their feet, without dancing a single step. The best part was that they saved Asylmuratova for the last Saturday evening performance, her looks and dancing shining lustrously compared to the technically spotty, grim harridan looks of Galina Mezentseva, the heavily promoted Wednesday opening night ballerina, whose performance almost did in the much awaited week-long run.


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