A.B.T. vs. the Kirov: A Tale of Two Giselle s

You know where you are with Giselle. The text is clear (unlike that of Swan Lake, say); the only real

You know where you are with Giselle. The text is clear (unlike that of Swan Lake, say); the only real interpretive question is whether Albrecht is a wicked aristocratic seducer (the preferred Soviet slant) or a well-meaning young man whose love for a peasant girl blinds him to his responsibilities back at the castle. Today’s Albrechts almost inevitably choose the latter path: Albrecht does something wrong, yes, but how he suffers! Look how his cloak billows out around him as he rushes across the stage; see how many lilies he drops at Giselle’s grave ….

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The role of Giselle is like Hamlet for actors—every ballerina wants to dance it, and almost every ballerina does. Just in my lifetime we’ve had Markova, Fonteyn, Ulanova, Chauviré, Alonso, Kolpakova, Fracci, Makarova, Kirkland, to name only the most famous. This past week, A.B.T. presented five Giselles, and at the Kennedy Center in Washington, the Kirov came up with three.

At first glance, the two productions appear to be very much alike—Act I is set in the same storybook village square, framed by trees, a castle off in the distance; Act II takes place deep in the forest in a deserted churchyard, gravestones everywhere. And the action follows the same course, with two exceptions. The Kirov omits the traditional mime sequence in which Giselle’s mother explains about the Wilis, the ghosts of affianced girls who die before their weddings because of faithless men. And the Russians shoo Bathilde and the Prince into Giselle’s house before the Peasant Pas de Deux begins, which makes no sense at all since it’s clearly being danced for their benefit. Otherwise, apart from minor details, we have the same ballet.

And yet there’s a world of difference between the two versions. The Kirov’s approach is studied, almost impersonal. They’re not interested in personality or human behavior as much as in expressing essences—the Giselle I saw, Daria Pavlenko, suggested rather than embodied a happy peasant girl with a bad heart. (She achieved real pathos in the mad scene, even if it somehow seemed more generic than personal.) In the second act, her black hair like raven wings covering her ears, she was more a lithograph than a debutante Wili, though her dancing was composed and secure. You could say she was faultless without being fascinating.

On the other hand, the Wilis themselves, and their Queen (an implacable Viktoria Tereshkina), were superb. They are the heart of the Kirov production with their superb carriage and their devotion to a morbid Romantic ideal. Bathed in beautiful cold moonlight, moving in inexorable unison, they’re enough to terrify the most stalwart Albrecht. As peasants in the first act, however, the corps was characterless and uninteresting. Over at A.B.T., the peasant boys and girls are human, alive; it’s as Wilis that they’re not believable, although the dancing itself is competent. They’re just too down to earth to believe in ghosts.

The strongest dancer in the world today must be Diana Vishneva, a Kirov star who regularly turns up to ornament A.B.T.’s spring season at the Met. As I reported here last year, she’s a miracle of technical refinement with a pronounced dramatic bent as well as a wide range—as effective in Balanchine’s “Rubies” as in Swan Lake. Her Giselle this year at the Met seemed slightly less focused on technical perfection and somewhat more emotionally involved. In Act I, she doted on Albrecht, her love for him quickly conquering her shyness; in Act II, her first passages were turbulent rather than otherworldly. She isn’t really an ingénue—she radiates polish. But she finds a key to the first act through the charm of her dancing, her deeply musical phrasing and her amazingly expressive arms.

With Vishneva, you first and foremost see the dancer. With Paloma Herrera, you see the girl. In the first act, she was simple, lyrical, openly in love, her dancing unaffected. In the mad scene, she was deeply touching in her affliction (Vishneva was more intense). And yet Herrera lacks the exquisite line and easy mastery that Act II demands. Her experience and taste carry her through, but she’s more convincing as a lovable girl than as a spirit from the grave.

Herrera is having a remarkable rebirth. When she left the School of American Ballet in 1991, she was an infant phenomenon—a technical whiz-bang whom A.B.T. instantly scooped up, despite the urging of those who thought she would benefit from another year of seasoning in the school. She immediately became a star and an audience favorite, but it was all surface. Some years later, as an established ballerina, she grew so tense, so brittle—to me she looked scared—that it was painful to watch her. Then, last year, she began to show a new openness and confidence, even a radiance. Her Sylvia was both strong and sympathetic, and this year she was easy and in command as Medora in Le Corsaire. Something has happened to her. She used to be hardworking and driven; now she’s hardworking and happy.

Vishneva’s Albrecht was the exciting Vladimir Malakhov, he of the endless legs and immense leaps; his authority and attack are a splendid complement to hers. Herrera’s young Count was Marcelo Gomes, both manly and boyish—convincing both as an aristocrat and a lover and, as always, deep in his role. In the second act, he played down the cape and the lilies to concentrate on Albrecht’s inner state, his bewilderment and remorse. Does he actually experience Giselle’s reappearance and the Wilis’ mortal threat, or is he dreaming them? He certainly makes them real for us.

There was a standout performance of the unlucky Hilarion by Sascha Radetsky. He made Hilarion’s love, resentment and grief believable and moving. (The Kirov’s over-refined Dmitry Pykhachev was a figure out of routine melodrama.) Radetsky, a consistently fine dancer and actor—a true artist—is an unsung hero among A.B.T.’s infinitely expandable stock of brilliant boys.

Alas, the Kirov brought a second program to Washington—an all–William Forsythe evening that got the cool reception it deserved. How curious to watch these Russian dancers so eagerly embracing the chance to quit being peasants and get Modern! They throw themselves into Forsythe with absolute confidence that they’re dancing something meaningful. How they relish the jagged exaggerations, the crazed extensions!

There were four works on the program, and they all did the same thing in the same vocabulary (once seemingly revolutionary, now already stale), although his most famous work, In the middle, somewhat elevated, does seem more organized and therefore more effective than the others. Forsythe doesn’t extend ballet vocabulary, he just hammers at it—again and again. Which is why seeing four of his works on one program is such a dismal experience. What were the Kirov and the Kennedy Center thinking? If In the middle were tucked into a mixed bill, it might stir things up (if you’d never seen it before).

The poor old Kirov doesn’t seem to know which way to turn. It gives us “authentic” revisions of the classics; it takes on Balanchine; it dips back into Fokine. Its wonderfully trained dancers deserve a more consistent vision of what ballet in the 21st century can be.

A.B.T. vs. the Kirov: A Tale of Two Giselle s