Betrothal, betrayal, and the ultimate forgiveness: these are the themes that shape Giselle into one of the beloved ballets of the Romantic canon. This week exuding resilience, courage, and patriotism, an ad hoc ballet company named the United Ukrainian Ballet re-invigorates this warhorse of a ballet, while demonstrating the indomitable spirit of the Ukrainian people.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine disrupted daily life, including the performing artists and ballet dancers of many of the nation’s opera houses. A ballet dancer’s career is brief, and the inability to train and perform can make it briefer. While many female dancers fled their homeland, amid a barrage of Russian strikes on cities and towns in Ukraine, including its capitol, Kyiv, men were conscripted to fight. Ballet company leaders requested that male dancers be released from military service in order to serve the Ukrainian people through their art. It was granted.
Sixty dancers from Ukraine and around the world, including the National Opera of Ukraine, Doinestk Opera House, Kharkiv National Opera House, and Donbas Opera, to name a few, found their way to the Hague, Netherlands. They have been joined by Ukrainian nationals, among them Cristina Shevchenko from American Ballet Theatre and Kateryna Derechyna from the Washington Ballet.
Together this ad hoc group is breathtaking in conception and physical prowess, rallying to create a unified company, which can take years or decades, in just months, while their homeland is fighting for its survival. That sense of urgency, particularly in act II, is palpable and came to a pinnacle with the bows and curtain calls on opening night. Lead dancers Shevchenko and Oleksei Tiutiunnyk took center stage draped in a vibrant blue-and-yellow banner stating “Stand with Ukraine,” followed by Russian-Ukrainian choreographer Alexi Ratmansky proudly stretching the Ukrainian flag above his head.
The journey to Giselle and the Kennedy Center wasn’t easy but was eased by fortuitous circumstances. A former conservatory-turned-refugee center in the Hague became the haven and home for this new Ukrainian ballet troupe. Last year the company performed in London, Australia, and Paris; this relatively late booking at the Kennedy Center Opera House is the only U.S. performance, and it only happened, according to a Kennedy Center staffer, when the cancellation of the National Ballet of China caused a hole in the ballet series. United Ukrainian Ballet filled the bill nicely.
When choreographer Alexi Ratmansky heard the Ukrainian dancers had taken refuge in the Hague, and they needed a ballet, he didn’t hesitate. The renowned ballet maker and stager, while born in Leningrad, has a Russian mother and a Ukrainian father; his heart, he has said, fully beats for Ukraine.
Ratmansky gifted this ingathering of fleeing dancers a fully realized and reinvigorated version of the 19th-century Romantic classic. The result: a refreshingly compelling evening that draws from historical precedents, which Ratmansky unearthed in research into archival notes and accounts of the ballet that originated in 1841 in Paris. He’s done this before with The Sleeping Beauty, among other classics.
The story of Giselle, a vivacious young woman besotted by Albert (Albrecht or Loys, in some versions), who is a nobleman slumming as a villager, is an oft-done standard in the ballet canon. A stable of the repertoire, Giselle offers up two acts of elegant dancing, along with the pathos of heartbreak when Giselle discovers her suitor isn’t who he claims and is engaged to a noblewoman. As a jilted bride who dies before her wedding, she is resigned to haunt the forest as a ghostly spirit called a Wili. The second “white act” — in the midnight forest — features these ghostly beautifully terrifying Willis, clad in shimmery, bell-shaped gossamer tutus. But their beauty deceives: having been jilted by their fiancés, they haunt the forest to take revenge on single men whom they dance to their doom.
While basing the work on choreography by 19th-century ballet master Marius Petipa, after Jean Coralli and Jules Perrot, from the early 19th century, Ratmansky resuscitates what can, depending on the company, be a staid experience aimed at ballet stalwarts. Here he returns to mime passages that often receive short shrift, particularly by American troupes. The codified gestures typically express basic feelings of love, fear, and promises to marry and presage death. This version allows Berthe (Olena Mykhailova as a fierce helicopter mom), Giselle’s mother to “speak,” miming her worries and the spooky backstory of what happens to young ladies who disobey their mothers’ wishes and court someone in secret. Her sharp gesture as her forearms form a cross pointed to the ground rings true for all the mothers of teenagers over millennia who declared, “Be careful or you’ll find yourself in an early grave.” Sergii Kliachin’s Hilarion, Albert’s rival for Giselle’s attention, broodingly eyes the happy couple as he plots his revenge in order to win Giselle’s heart. He’s a bit like outsider Judd from the Rogers and Hammerstein golden-age classic Oklahoma!
Throughout both acts, small and large details provide for a more compelling Giselle than I’ve seen in decades of dance-going. Some, I’m not sure are fully necessary, like shifting the first-act demi soloists’ variations during the villagers’ variations to a more formalized grand pas de deux structure. For those who know, the four-part grand pas de deux is typically reserved for four-act classical ballets and allows the principal ballerina and danseur to demonstrate their technical virtuosity.
In act II, before the Wilis appear, a bumptious forest scene features a group of drinking buddies out at night for a lark. This “bro” moment, when they toast each other and nearly bump fists, feels like any testosterone-filled Saturday night at the pub. Then Hilarion, and later Albert come upon them. A distant bell chimes midnight and the thought of ghosts makes them scatter. The Wilis, led by the imperious Myrtha, fearsome mean-girl Elizaveta Gogidze, dart and even fly across the stage as they gather to dance under the watchful eye of their tall leader, their translucent veils whisked away as if by magic.
Ratmansky has furthered beautified and given weighted meaning to this white act, through his sensitive staging and floor patterns. The dancers gather, tracing circles and lines and, most notable, forming themselves into the shape of a cross as Giselle’s fresh grave stands to one side. Other intriguing moments include the fight-club-like rounds of dancing Albert is compelled to do at the behest of Myrtha, her gaze steely, her arms crossed across her chest. He is pushed and pulled up and down a diagonal line of Wilis until he collapses in exhaustion.
Shevchenko imbues her Giselle with a vivid personality, she’s girlish but a bit of an adventurer in the first act. Often Giselle is scolded by her mother for her weak heart; this Giselle projects a feisty spirit. It’s no wonder that Count Albert falls for her vivacity. Tiutiunnyk, lean and leggy, is not nearly as caddish as many Albert/Albrechts I’ve come across. His leaps soar, suggesting he’s used to a larger stage than the Opera House, and he’s a fine partner to Shevchenko, guiding her gently into balances. Shevchenko, who returns to the Opera House later this month as Juliet in her home company American Ballet Theatre’s Romeo and Juliet, has a lovely sense of ballon, or rebound, which is perfect for the many versions of the “Giselle step,” a gentle hop on one foot as the other leg opens and closes at the ankle like a hinge. It’s her signature dance — made for a 15-second TikTok video.
The Birmingham Royal Ballet (Great Britain) lent its sets and costumes for this production. Act II’s Wilis shimmer in moonlit colors of palest gray-blue rather than the traditional stark white Romantic tutus, which only Giselle wears.
The new staging of Giselle’s final moments, when she forgives Albert, completely shifted the demeanor of the ballet. Giselle settles herself into a raised berm or hillock at the corner of the stage — resigned to her fate as a jilted woman, foretold by her mother in act I. As Albert approaches her aggrieved one last time, she lifts her head and shoulders, and gestures to him — the sunrise in the background showing the royal retinue arriving — to go to his original fiancée Bathilde. Giselle earns her wings forgiving and releasing her beloved. She will remain a Wili, resigned to a ghostly life only to arise at midnight in the forest.
In a Giselle filled with moving moments, this final gesture was deeply felt and resonated with the resilient and unstinting performances of the company. At the final curtain call, the company stood together, shoulder to shoulder, as the orchestra struck up the Ukrainian national anthem:
The glory and freedom of Ukraine has not yet perished
Luck will still smile on us brother-Ukrainians.
Our enemies will die, as the dew does in the sunshine,
and we, too, brothers, we’ll live happily in our land.
We’ll not spare either our souls or bodies to get freedom
and we’ll prove that we brothers are of Kozak kin.
Running time: Approximately two hours 20 minutes, with one 15-minute intermission.
Giselle plays through February 5, 2023, presented by the United Ukrainian Ballet performing in the Opera House at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, 2700 F Street NW, Washington, DC. Tickets ($45–$135) are available at the box office, online, or by calling (202) 467-4600 or (800) 444-1324.
The program for Giselle is online here.
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