Two Great Giselles

American Ballet Theatre
May 27 and May 28, 2011

The whirlwind spring ballet season continued this week with me seeing two consecutive performances of Giselle at the ABT. Last night I saw Diana Vishneva and Marcelo Gomes give what I thought was an unbeatable performance of Giselle. But the ballet is so great that a different night, a different Giselle, gives a completely different experience. Alina Cojocaru and David Hallberg tonight were as different from Vishneva and Gomes as could be, and I just feel lucky that I got to see two of the best possible Giselles and Albrechts two nights in a row.

Diana Vishneva's Giselle is absolutely unique -- it really has to be experienced to be believed. From the moment she steps out her cottage, Vishneva brings a kind of moody intensity to the role that can't be topped. Think Giselle is a pretty ballet about a girl who dies for love? Vishneva will make you think again. This Giselle will stare emptily at the ground, as if lost in her own world. When she did the Spessivtseva variation, in her hops on pointe she turned towards Albrecht, in an almost erotic exhibition of this girl's love of dance. Seeing Albrecht and Bathilde together will unhinge her so much that her hair falls out while she's breaking them apart, not when she falls to the ground. In the mad scene she bumped into Bathilde before making a curtsy, with a completely blank, demented look on her face. When she mimed the "he loves me, he loves me not" bit in the Mad Scene, she mimed herself angrily tearing up the flower. Vishneva now conserves some energy for Act Two, but the basic outline of her Giselle hasn't changed over the years (I've now seen it three times). She has a doll-like face, but emphasizes the serious, dark side to this ballet.

Vishneva in Act Two is still probably the most intense, well-rounded characterization I've seen of the role. When Myrtha initiates her as a Wili, Vishneva sudden dropped her head to the ground and started turning furiously, really possessed. Natalia Osipova's turns might have been faster, but they had a lightness to them that left a completely different impression. Vishneva was stern and unsettling, as she never lifted her eyes, never let you forget that this was a ghost. Her eyes remained downcast for the entire second act, even when she did the developpes or the bunny hops. She wore a huge white skirt with many layers that flew in every which direction, and her eyes were drawn with dark eyeshadow. There was a wraith-like quality to Vishneva's Giselle that was frightening. She used her long arms to create an impression of a complete ghost, as she often would whirl her arms in different directions as she danced. When she grand jeted across the stage, she pounded her feet hard. One great example of a dancer reworking a role to suit her strengths -- Vishneva doesn't have the effortless, airy jump of, say, Alina Cojocaru, so she even makes her jumps fierce and forbidding.

Diana had wonderful chemistry with Marcelo Gomes, the Albrecht, who brought his own moody intensity to the ballet. Technically he was superb, but he made the dancing serve the drama, just like Vishneva. In Act One when Giselle expired in his arms Gomes visibly panicked more than any other Albrecht I've seen. When Myrtha commanded him to dance, he did a series of entrechat sixes that moved closer and closer to Myrtha, as if drawn by some sinister spirit. Gomes was a great partner -- he lifted Vishneva as if she were paper. Perhaps the greatest moment of last night's Giselle was when the clock struck four, and Albrecht was saved. Gomes carried Vishneva to her grave, and Vishneva let all life drain out of her. Her arms and legs dropped lifelessly, and all of a sudden Albrecht was carrying a corpse. It was spooky. Vishneva then repeatedly crossed her arms whenever Albrecht tried to touch her, really as an untouchable spirit. She bourreed farther and farther away, and then she was gone. She never looked at him directly. Vishneva and Gomes made Giselle an unsettling, unforgettable gothic love story.

Veronika Part as the Queen of the Wilis was tall, stern, commanding, and really Vishneva and Part together made for one scary stage of Wilis. Myrtha is one of Part's best roles -- it takes advantage of her strengths (her commanding appearance, the surprising lightness of her jumps), and she really has the role perfected. The imperious sweep of her arms as she commands her intendants, Giselle, and Albrecht was something else. Maria Riccetto and Jared Matthews gave one of those "nothing special" performances of the peasant pas de deux.

If Diana was so ghostly that it made your hair curl, tonight Alina Cojocaru, David Hallberg, and Stella Abrera (subbing for an injured Gillian Murphy) made Giselle a kinder, gentler ballet. Cojocaru is naturally sweet and waif-like, Hallberg a sort of blond prince whose elegance of dancing is accompanied by a nice guy stage persona. The two of them were adorable in Act One. It was puppy-love at its most endearing -- I loved the way they giggled together while sitting on the bench. Their dances together had the joy and spring of young love. Cojocaru was really believable as a peasant too, not just as a ballerina posing as a peasant. Her hair was almost casually pulled behind her head with some flowers, and she smiled and curtsied to everyone with a winning artlessness. In the Mad Scene she didn't really run around the stage and swoon dramatically, but often stood or sat alone, arms folded, crying, like a teenager. 

Here's a video of her Mad Scene with the Royal Ballet:

In Act Two, Cojocaru and Hallberg made it a continuation of their love story in Act One, rather than a shocking contrast (as Vishneva and Gomes made Act Two). They touched each other gently throughout the ballet blanc. It almost felt like in Act Two, this Giselle and Albrecht finally consummated their relationship. The same white Giselle costume looked ghostly on Vishneva but looked like a wedding dress on Cojocaru. Cojocaru was not really wraith-like -- this was the same sweet girl of Act One. Whereas Vishneva had her eyes downcast the entire act, Cojocaru often looked upwards, as if drawn by some kind of divine, benevolent force. Cojocaru and Hallberg embraced tightly when the clock struck four, and Cojocaru did something I've never seen any other Giselle do -- she steered Albrecht away from her grave until the last possible musical cue, at which point she all of a sudden stopped and bourreed offstage, but not before dropping a daisy center stage. This Giselle simply could not be morbid, even in death. Giselle might not have had a happy ending, but there was something uplifting about it as portrayed by Hallberg and Cojocaru -- two lovers who cannot be together in life reunite in the afterlife.

Cojocaru has had a number of injuries, and there were moments where she visibly had difficulty with the technical demands of the ballet. One such moment was the Spessivtseva variation. Cojocaru's feet are disfigured by bunions, and I imagine this kind of pounding on pointe must be extremely painful. For a moment I thought she simply would not do the variation, as she stopped onstage and seemed frozen. But she grimly did the hops across the stage, but not traveling very far. Her arms were gripped tightly to her side. She stopped around center-stage and to everyone's relief went to the pique turns that end the variation. In Act Two, she had a wonderful lightness of movement and an airy jump, but I notice she was careful with the series of backward-traveling entrechats. Her initiation as a Wili didn't have the breakneck fury of Vishneva, but Cojocaru is able to make everything so enchanting. She accelerated her turns, and made the audience forget that she was doing less actual rotations. Cojocaru took advantage of what she does have -- namely, exquisite flexibility, elevation, grace and lightness.  Even her bourress are so silky she drew applause just for bourreeing offstage. She brought her own personality to the ballet -- Cojocaru was the most lovable Giselle I've ever seen. You practically wanted to run onstage and give this Giselle a hug. Whereas Vishneva made her arms spooky looking, Cojocaru always had her arms tilted in these series of soft Romantic poses.

David Hallberg complemented Cojocaru beautifully. His Albrecht is not really a cad, just a good-looking and somewhat careless playboy. He's much taller than Cojocaru, but their body line matched each other and they looked born to dance together. In Act Two, Hallberg was the same as he was with Natalia Osipova two years ago -- somewhat reserved, but inspired to dance beautifully. Whereas Gomes collapsed beneath Myrtha, Hallberg looked like he could have danced all night without collapsing. His entrechats had a wonderful spring to them. His less Byronic portrayal would have clashed terribly with Vishneva's Grimm Brothers approach to the ballet, but it matched Cojocaru's softer approach perfectly. He's really a very elegant-looking dancer, and he and Gomes are really stepping up to the plate this season as the ABT's male roster seems to be disappearing.

Here are two pictures I took of Alina and David during the curtain calls:

Stella Abrera stepped in for an injured Gillian Murphy and she's a beautiful dancer, but I kept thinking that this was a Giselle rather than a Myrtha. She didn't have the block-like torso and imperious "queenly" look of most Myrthas. Hee Seo was a standout as Zulma, really beautiful and elegant. Danil Simkin and Sarah Lane in the peasant pas de deux were technically impressive in their variations but had some visible partnering problems. At this point he's too skinny and scrawny and short to partner most ballerinas, even if he is a technical wunderkind.

One last thing -- the curtain calls. Both Vishneva and Cojocaru took them "in character." Vishneva stared moodily at the stage, her face stern and her eyes blank, for all of the curtain calls. She never looked up at the cheering audience, and never dropped character. Cojocaru on the other hand echoed the low curtsies and shy smiles of her Giselle. They were both works of art.

Giselle is such a great ballet because it really requires dancers to put the whole of their personality and technique into the role. I've met both Diana Vishneva and Alina Cojocaru offstage, and their personalities matched their Giselles. Vishneva was a dark-haired, intense woman, gracious but serious and a bit aloof. Cojocaru was just effortlessly sweet and humble. That is what I saw onstage the last two nights. No wonder ballerinas are famous for clinging to this role even after their technique flags and audiences I've seen scream and cheer after this ballet like no other. Besides being the ultimate female wish-fulfillment (men are faithless and women have to save them -- literally), Giselle is about love of dance, love for a man, and, when the Giselle is great enough, it's a love affair between the audience and the ballerina.


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