The Giselle Marathon

 This week I attended three Giselles at the ABT -- one on Thursday, and two today. Last year the Giselles of Cojocaru and Vishneva were so great in their own way that I had to see them again this year. I also had to see the Giselle of Natalia Osipova. That's a lot of Wilis in a short amount of time.

The first Giselle I saw was Alina Cojocaru, this time dancing with Angel Corella. If last year's performance was absolutely transcendent, this year Cojocaru's Giselle was actually a bit of a disappointment. For one, the injuries that have plagued her throughout her career are now detracting from her dancing. She had technical difficulties with many of the steps in Giselle. She was unable to do the hops on pointe in the Spessivtseva variation. She started it, fell off pointe quickly, tried to start again, and couldn't travel. In the second act, she had trouble with the bunny hops and entrechats. She's still a lovely dancer -- her back and arms remained as soft and romantic as ever, her jumps airy and ethereal, and she has a great deal of flexibility so her legs and arms just seem to float upwards. But she really can't complete the petit batterie anymore. Even her characterization of Giselle was less affecting this year. She still is girlishly innocent, but this year she was a bit too reserved, and it just didn't have the inspiration. I just got the uncomfortable feeling that I was watching a dancer try to dance through a painful injury.

Another issue with the performance was Angel Corella's Albrecht. He's a good partner, still in excellent shape, and his boyish looks and physique complemented the tiny Cojocaru. But there was just no chemistry between them. Chemistry is a weird thing -- offscreen, Astaire and Rogers were not even friendly acquaintances. Onscreen, they were magic. Overall, the performance between Alina and Angel never took flight. Last year, I remember Alina guided David to the middle of the stage, dropped a daisy, and bourreed away. This year, there was none of that tenderness. Even the normally excellent Gillian Murphy was strangely stiff and unmemorable as Myrtha.

This afternoon's performance with Natalia Osipova and David Hallberg (pictured above), on the other hand, just flew magically the Osipova took her first huge jump out of Giselle's cottage. Osipova by now has become famous for her superhuman elevation and ballon -- not only can she jump higher, she can stay in the air, suspended, for what seems like an eternity. I saw Osipova's first Giselle at the ABT two years ago. She was a sensation, but she still had the freshness of an ingenue who wasn't quite used to such adulation. Since then, she's gotten more sophisticated -- her Giselle now wears a rather glamorous, unpeasant-like sleeveless dress, and there's more Russian Diva to her. There wasn't real pathos or tragedy in Osipova's Giselle. Her Mad Scene was a bit generic, and her hair remained perfectly coiffed and flowered. But her technique is such that it creates an almost entirely different ballet that is not quite Giselle, but more like Giselle Olympus: Citius, Altius, Fortius. In the Spessivtseva variation she hopped on pointe halfway across the stage, found time to do a full pirouette, still hopping on pointe, before completing the diagonal and then starting a series of superhuman pique circle turns. In the second act, she flew onstage in her initiation turns, and gave the impression of an uncontrollable spirit, freed by death. If her feet ever touched the ground, I never saw it. Her jumps didn't seem like normal ballet jumps. It was more like an eagle spreading its wings and flying to parts unknown. During her entrechats, she just seemed suspended in the air as she traveled diagonally backwards across the stage. She was more Sylph than Wili -- a mysterious, not-quite human dancing spirit. I'm not sure she'll ever make her Giselle really tragic, but I do know that this kind of dancing only comes along once in a lifetime, and I'm lucky to have seen it.

David Hallberg was the perfect Albrecht last year to Alina Cojocaru's Giselle, but this year Osipova was so overwhelming that Hallberg's dancing took on a life of its own as well. He still had the impeccable lines of a true danseur noble, but his dancing also became more feral. His usually perfectly oiled blond hair turned wild as he danced to the death -- not so much for Myrtha, it seemed, as to follow Giselle's uncontrollable spirit. His entrechats were incredible -- huge and springy. After the performance he seemed completely drained, while Osipova looked like she could have danced the ballet again on the spot. Stella Abrera is a lovely dancer, but I still think she's fundamentally miscast as Myrtha -- too lyrical, as if the Lilac Fairy had wandered into the Wili forest.

I thought nothing could top Osipova and Hallberg, but the evening performance with Diana Vishneva and Marcelo Gomes was in its own way just as unforgettable.  Diana is quite a bit older than Osipova, and while she has good elevation, her jumps never did have the springy, airy quality of Cojocaru and Osipova. Nor does unaffected innocence come naturally to Diana. In Act One, she was appropriately girlish and infatuated, but her Giselle didn't really kick into gear until the Mad Scene. She wasn't "ballet mad" -- she was actually scary. She ripped off Bathilde's necklace, threw it on the ground, her hair went tumbling and wild, she grabbed Albrecht's sword and swung it at the villagers, who backed away from her. She really looked like she was going to kill someone. It was out of a horror movie, like the sweet girl who all of a sudden starts wielding a knife. She even tilted her head in that classic horror movie pose. Some people might find it over-the-top, but I like that Vishneva doesn't just sketch madness in the usual ballet-pretty way. After all, two of the most famous Giselles, Olga Spessivtseva and Anna Pavlova all stood out because of the intensity they brought to the role.

In Act Two, Diana was and still is the most convincing ghost I've ever seen. She tatters the sleeves of her dress, so they fly in every direction when she dances. Her dark hair, saucer eyes, plenty of eyeshadow, and a stern, forbidding face completes the Gothic look. Her initiation turns are almost as fast as Osipova's, but her jumps are completely different. She wears hard blocked pointe shoes, and likes to pound the floor when she jumps. She jumps on the downbeat, hitting the floor in an often loud thud. It's not really ethereal, but it is spooky. At the same time, when she's lifted, she looks as light as paper. It's a real continuation of the girl who completely snapped in the Mad Scene. She no longer has that much flexibility -- her developpe a la seconde didn't have the soft, effortless look of Cojocaru and Osipova, and there was even a hint of a wobble in her arabesque penchees. But in terms of detail and characterization, Vishneva's Giselle is absolutely in a class of its own. When the clock strikes four, whenever Albrecht reached out to her, she crossed her arms and backed away, like a spirit who was now completely not of this world. And the most wonderful moment of her Giselle is still when Albrecht carries her back to the grave. She drops her arms and legs lifelessly and closes her eyes, to give the impression that he's actually carrying a corpse. One of the major suspensions of belief in this ballet is how can someone who's dead still be dancing onstage? Well, Vishneva proved that it is possible to dance frantically and still be frighteningly, vividly dead. I've seen Vishneva's Giselle four times now, and it never fails to completely unnerve me.

Marcelo Gomes as Albrecht was as intense as Vishneva, and the two of them really made the ballet well, not G-rated. In Act One the bond between them was definitely that of actual lovers, not little kids playing puppy love games. In Act Two, Gomes performed the same series of entrechats, but while Hallberg emphasized the jump upwards, Gomes emphasized the downbeat. If Hallberg was the dashing prince, Marcelo played Albrecht as a real suave Casanova.

The Myrtha of the evening performance was Polina Semionova, a tall, stern-looking dancer with a solid, steely technique. It was a great face-off with the equally imposing Vishneva. Another standout in the evening performance was Danil Simkin in the peasant pas de deux. The ABT strangely is short on male principals, but seems to have a great stock of Hilarions -- Sascha Radetsky, Patrick Ogle, and Gennadi Saveliev all bringing more depth than usual to this thankless role.

Giselle is such a great ballet, but I have a feeling it's one of those ballets that cannot really be "taught." A ballerina either has it in her to be a great Giselle, or she does not. Cojocaru, Osipova, and Vishneva in their own way all have that "it" quality that makes them unforgettable Giselles. The rest of the world is just lucky to watch them in action.

By the way, here are the three ladies doing Giselle's initiation turns:





  1. Pff you didn't acknowledge your kind benefactor who gave you the front orchestra seats to Osipova. Diva.

  2. Thank you for your thoughtful and thought provoking review and the fascinating video comparisons. I saw Osipova on May 20, 2012 and thought the performance was phenomenal. Saw Vishneva 2 years ago and she also was wonderful, but have never seen Cojocaru.


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