Ratmansky's New-Old Giselle

Olga Smirnova and Artemy Belyakov
On Sunday, January 26 the Bolshoi Ballet had a cinemacast that was an Event for balletomanes -- it was the live transmission of Alexei Ratmansky's reconstruction of Giselle. Ratmansky has reconstructed Sleeping Beauty and Harlequinade for ABT and Swan Lake for Zurich Ballet. In each of those reconstructions he not only restored altered steps but he insisted on restoring a facsimile of 19th-century Imperial Ballet style. Low extensions, modest jumps, more expressive mime. For Giselle Ratmansky has as usual relied on the Stepanov notations for Petipa's productions for the Imperial Ballet, as well as choreographic sources from Henri Justament who documented a production of Giselle in 1860.

Village dances
So what did Ratmansky do with Giselle, the ultimate 19th century Romantic ballet?At first glance: not much. First of all this looks like your regular Giselle -- the costumes and sets are very typical. All of Giselle's steps are virtually un-altered. There are a few musical repeats that are not in the "standard" Giselle but the famous steps are all there. Giselle still exits her cottage with a series of joyful sauté-ballone jumps, she still plays "he loves me, he loves me not" on the bench, she still runs around the stage with her hair undone in the Mad Scene, she's still initiated as a Wili with a series of furious turns in arabesque. She still leaves the cross and does an exposed high developpé to arabesque. She follows that with the familiar series of bunny hops to backwards traveling entrechats. Are Giselle's steps virtually unchanged because her choreography has remained extremely well-preserved, or because Ratmansky decided not to mess with a good thing?

The only major noticeable differences are some steps in the second act pas de deux and Giselle's Act One variation -- Ratmansky has Giselle do the Olga Spessivtseva diagonal rather than the familiar manège of pique turns.

He loves me, loves me not
Albrecht's choreography in Act One is reshuffled but mostly the same. In Act Two when Myrtha commands him to dance to death he doesn't do the entrechats or brisés but rather a circular series of traveling sautes. In Act Two there are no big overhead lifts in either Giselle and Albrecht's first encounter by her grave or the grand pas de deux. There's instead smaller, floating lifts that look just as ethereal. But again, the actual choreography for Albrecht is very familiar. There's nothing that would make you say "Whoa, hadn't seen that before."

Instead the changes are in the smaller accents and tone of the ballet. The storytelling is much stronger in Act One. The mime that is usually excised in Russian productions is back. Therefore we get Mama warning Giselle that she will die and become a Wili. We get Giselle miming her love of dance to Albrecht. But I expected that in Act One -- the excision of mime in Act One never made sense.

It was Act Two which companies now perform as a rather abstract ballet-blanc that was the surprise. The act begins with the villagers having a drunken revelry around the graveyard. Hilarion enters and broods -- he is very much Not In the Mood. The grand pas de deux ends with Giselle putting her face in her hands -- a very concrete expression of grief. During the big confrontation between Giselle, Albrecht and the Wilis, Albrecht physically hides behind the cross more than once. The finale of Giselle has Giselle explicitly directing Albrecht to return to his life at court before she sinks back into her grave (or in this case, a grassy mound) forever. To drive this point home, Bathilde and the courtiers enter and find Albrecht clutching some white daisies. This ending is harsher than the usual sight of Albrecht alone, center stage. It's a cold slap back to reality.

These changes add a bit of fussiness to the second act. Myrtha crosses the stage in a motorized scooter. The ending didn't work well either. As I mentioned early Giselle is not carried back to her grave, but to a grassy mound. There's too much back and forth between Giselle and Albrecht before Giselle sinks into that grassy mound. I also prefer the "traditional" ending of Giselle returning to her grave. After all she arose from her grave. Doesn't it make sense that after she saves Albrecht she returns to it?

Angelina Vlashinets as Myrtha
The dances of the Wilis has some changes. For one, after Giselle's initiation the Wilis form a majestic cross sign around her. It's one of the production's most striking images. Less simpatico (at least for me) was the restoration of a fugue that comes right after Giselle protects Albrecht from being killed. Although the fugue allows the Wilis to make some interesting corps patterns I can see why it was cut before the original production went live -- the fugue disrupts the inexorable march towards the battle of wills between Giselle and Myrtha. It also sounds out of place -- Adam's score is lovely and very Romantic. The fugue sounds baroque.

This reconstruction doesn't for a moment look musty and part of that is the strong performances from the entire cast. Even the character parts like Berthe (Ludmila Semenyaka) were strongly cast. Bolshoi Wilis are hard to beat -- they are inexorable and terrifying with the strong forward momentum of their movement.

Peasant pas de deux
Olga Smirnova looks a bit tall and mature for Giselle but dances and acts the part with a minimum of artifice and much beauty of movement. I knew she'd be lovely in the vaporous poses but didn't expect her to be so strong in the petit allegro of the work like the backwards traveling entrechats. Artemy Belyakov is a very Soviet Albrecht and I mean this in a good way -- big hair, bigger jumps. His acting was the best part -- in Act One he perfectly captured the vacuous playboy part of Albrecht's personality, as well as the part of him that's genuinely in love.

Angelina Vlashinets was a strong, forbidding Myrtha with big, space-cleaving jumps. Daria Khokhlova and Alexei Putintsev were delightful in the Peasant pas de deux. They both had quick feet and bouncy jumps. Usually the Peasant pas de deux is a bit of a fridge break for me. Not here. Denis Savin was a vivid, pitiful Hilarion.

This Giselle also feels fresh because even though many steps are slightly tweaked and so much mime restored, the style of dancing doesn't have the self-consciousness that often hampers "reconstructions" -- in this case, the dancers dance in a modern style. Legs go above 90 degrees in both arabesque and developpé, grande jetés are done with the big Soviet style splits. In other words, the style is rather "Bolshoi." It looks and feels natural and organic, not a style imposed on the dancers for the purposes of a reconstruction.

This reconstruction brings up an interesting debate -- is it more important to restore Steps or Style? At least in this reconstruction the focus is on the steps. And I for one found it a completely satisfying compromise between the Old and New.

Coming soon: some reviews of NYCB's winter season for bachtrack as well as performances I've been following.


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