Mikhailovsky's Lifeless, Leaden Giselle

I'm lucky enough to have seen Natalia Osipova's evolution in Giselle. I first saw her in this role when she debuted it with the ABT. That was 2009, five years ago. I remember that as a really special night at the ballet. Her Giselle was different -- she imbued those overfamiliar steps with her incredible elevation and ballon, and inhuman speed. Along with those remarkable dancing skills her interpretation I remember as being fresh and unpretentious. I also saw a 3-D film she made at the Mariinsky Ballet a year later, and another live performance in 2012, and another HD film she made with the Royal Ballet just this year.

Osipova's Giselle was never going to be to everyone's taste. Certain things don't come naturally to Osipova -- her face doesn't have the doll-like sweetness we expect in Giselle, and her style of dancing can come across as overly athletic and even aggressive. With that being said, I never thought I'd see her dance a Giselle as soulless and unmoving as the one I saw her dance tonight.

The Mikhailovsky Ballet is in town for two weeks, and Osipova, who's now a principal dancer at the Royal Ballet, flew in for an appearance with her other main company. (For those keeping track, Osipova started at the Bolshoi, went to the Mikhailovsky, then the ABT, then the Royal Ballet). The Mikhailovsky Ballet is thought of by some Russian balletomanes as just as fine of a company as the more well-known Bolshoi and Mariinsky. And indeed, the production by Kirov legend Nikita Dolgushin looks out of a 19th century storybook. The peasants weren't wearing generic Giselle peasant frocks, but really lovely, well-designed dresses that suggested that in this village, the mama's are very talented tailors. The scenery was picturesque and I liked how carefully the choreography and blocking separates the noblemen from the peasants.

In Act Two Dolgushin included a variation for Myrtha and the Wilis and some extra music in Giselle's initiation scene that are cut from other standard productions of Giselle. I suspect this music was probably in the 1842 version but 86'ed over the years. Dolgushin also included some 19th century theater effects -- moving trees that flew up and down to hide a dramatic "reveal" of a character, and veils on the Wilis that were attached to strings that "magically" flew off. Did it add much to the experience? Not really, but it was different, and you can't see it in other productions.

But the performance didn't work. For one, the Mikhailovksy seems to have underestimated how narrow and shallow the Koch Theater stage is -- all that shrubbery in the second act made it hard for the Wilis to dance. The stage was also too brightly lit for both acts -- in Act One, the bright lighting made the whole thing look sort of Disneyish, and in the second act, the bright lighting took away from the spooky ghostliness of the story. Kind of hard to get scared when it all looks like a merry party in the woods.

The Mikhailovsky's casting tonight was also off. Natalia Osipova and Leonid Sarafanov are both excellent dancers. They just shouldn't dance together. The chemistry was entirely non-existent. Osipova's Giselle has now acquired some grand diva mannerisms -- her attempts to seem shy and sweet in Act One looked stilted. When Giselle discovers Albrecht's treachery, there's a big moment when Giselle throws off the necklace Bathilde had given her. Most Giselles are able to make this moment very frenzied and even angry. Osipova just calmly picked off the necklace and tossed it on the ground as if she were a prima donna rejecting an unflattering wig. Sarafanov is a simple, boyish, uncomplicated Albrecht. He looked like a teenager playing hooky rather than a caddish count. This might have worked with a Giselle that was naturally childlike, but next to Osipova's Diva it did not work at all. Osipova's dancing was technically magnificent -- her Spessivtseva variation included her making a small circle onstage in the middle of her diagonal on pointe. Her pique turns were so expansive she seemed to be flying across the stage.

Here's a video of her Giselle variation:

I thought the lack of personality would be alleviated in Act Two, which contains more pure dancing and less mime and acting, but it was actually worse. Sarafanov and Osipova seemed to be dancing on entirely different planets. On paper they look like a great couple. He can jump, she can jump. And in those simultaneous assembles, boy could you see it. Both flew across the stage and landed in a tight fifth. But they were onstage at the same time, and dancing inches from each other, and yet there was no sense of reconciliation and connection. Instead, both decided to go to the Olympics. Osipova's Giselle still has that incredible ballon and elevation, and her grand jetes don't just soar, they fly to the moon and back. Her initiation turns were so fast they were demented. Her exposed developpes and arabesques were completely still and secure. And those series of backwards entrechats -- no one can hang in the air like Osipova. But beyond those incredible athletic gifts, there was nothing. I've seen her Giselle with David Hallberg. I know she's capable of so much more than she gave tonight.

Sarafanov's Albrecht was even more callow in Act Two. His lifts were labored -- there seemed to be some poor timing, as I noticed that Osipova was giving her feet the little "pushoff" before the lift, but Sarafanov seemed to ignore those cues and delay the lift until it looked like he was carrying a lead balloon. His worst misfire was in the series of entrechat sixes that he dances at Myrtha's command. Oh, they were incredible entrechats. Those feet tight and the crosses crisp and fast, and amazing height. But the point of the entrechats is that Myrtha is ordering him to dance till exhaustion. Sarafanov started flying, and the crowd started clapping, and he was so excited that he pumped his fists in the air as Usain Bolt would after the 100 m dash, and decided to go for another round of entrechats. But just as many figure skaters often stumble in the last minute of the long program, Sarafanov overestimated his jumping stamina, and fell out of the entrechats with a messy spill. Gold medal lost, and oh wait, Osipova is already standing upstage, ready to "rescue" Albrecht! I happened to glance upstage and Osipova had the most impatient look on her face as she watched Sarafanov's antics. So Sarafanov had to haul ass and finish out the floating arabesque variation with a visibly pissy Osipova. Awkward city.

The strange thing about Osipova and Sarafanov's Giselle Olympiad is that the other dancers seemed to be dancing another ballet altogether. The company as a whole has pleasing manners and grace. Vladimir Tsai (Hilarion) had the virtue of being both better looking than Albrecht and also is played as a gentle giant type. The peasants in Act One formed a merry little community -- they all cheered on Giselle's dancing with a genuine enthusiasm. Veronika Ignatyeva and Andrey Yakhnyuk (peasant pas de deux) had their moments of hesitation but overall invested this often formulaic piece with a winning sweetness and charm. Ekaterina Borchenko (Myrtha) and her Wilis had a beautiful softness and flow. I loved watching their arms and the way they swayed back and forth with the music. Borchenko isn't like the stereotypical Myrtha -- she's not fierce looking and her jump is actually sort of weak. But she and her Wili sisters' graceful romanticism made it believable that these Wilis were heartbroken brides.

In fact, I wondered at the end of the evening whether I'd really experienced the Mikhailovsky Giselle at all. Is this what a performance in their home theater would be like? Or are we seeing a "Stars of the Russian Ballet" touring version, with the principals throwing in a dog and pony show because that's how audiences overseas expect Russian dancers to dance? I bought several tickets for the Mikhailovsky. I hope the next performances are better.


  1. Thanks for your review, enjoyed reading it(:

    I saw the Mikhailovsky giselle about 2/3 years back in Japan and emerged with mixed feelings.( I loved oksana Shestokova, in giselle though) I had assumed that the company has improved greatly but it seems judging by recent reviews that it continues to have its strengths and weaknesses. I am hoping to see Anastasia Soboleva one day though, I have heard many good things about her. and perhaps the company will be stronger in their 'own' rep like flames and class concert.

    Hope you enjoy the rest of their performances! (and cant wait to read the reviews)

    1. I think the Flames of Paris and Don Q will be better. I think the Giselle was just very bad pairings of Albrecht/Giselles.

  2. Осипова ужасна и как балерина и как Жизель,хотя вот многие сходят с ума.
    Но она помогает оттенить красоту других Жизелей- не сопливых сельских
    дурочек,а романтичных красавиц достойных любви и лесничего,и графа.

  3. Да,а куда делась интересно Оксана Шестакова(Шадрухина),давным давно
    не появлялась в Михайловском, хотя в труппе продолжает числиться.

    1. I think that was the 2010/11 Japan tour, She danced it with Farukh Ruzimatov. I thought it was a more traditional reading of giselle in the best possible way.


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