(Nina Ananiashvili in Giselle, photo by MIRA, from ABT website)
Last night began ABT’s Giselle week. Nina Ananiashvili and Marcelo Gomes debuted the leads, with Gennadi Saveliev as Hilarion, the village huntsman in love with Giselle, and Gillian Murphy as Mytra, the second Act’s Queen of the Wilis.
It’s not hard to see why Giselle is the oldest ballet that’s still performed today. It’s a quintessential ballet — dance being at the heart of the story — and there’s plenty of drama, with emotionally complex characters, lots of room for acting, and of course really beautiful dance.
Basic story is this: Giselle is a peasant girl with a weak heart (both literally and metaphorically) who nevertheless loves to dance. Count Albrecht is a nobleman who pretends to be a fellow peasant so that he can seduce her. She buys his disguise, falls for him, and then realizes, via Hilarion, that he is not who he claims to be, and is in fact, engaged to a princess. Her heart breaks, she goes mad, and dies.
(image of the Wilis scene taken from Voice of Dance)
Act two takes place in the land of the Wilis — women who died heartbroken, their love unrequited. During the nighttime, they rise from their graves and dance to death any man who enters their realm. Hilarion, visiting Giselle’s grave, meets just such a demise, but when Albrecht arrives at her grave, now heartbroken and deeply remorseful for what he’s done, Giselle is able to protect him from Myrta and the other Wilis. He is nearly danced to death, but she saves his life. If danced and acted well, it ends up being a beautiful, deeply human story of forgiveness.
Last year when I saw this ballet I was annoyed that Count Albrecht seemed to lack proper motivation, that he wasn’t a fully-drawn character. But I thought Marcelo did really well at fixing all the loose ends. At the beginning, he is kind of a jerk (to the extent that Marcelo can ever be ), really there just because she’s a pretty peasant girl and she likes to dance and it’s fun to dance with her, and who cares about toying with her feelings? She’s just a peasant girl. Of course he doesn’t know how weak she is and how much he’s going to fall for her. And then when Hilarion exposes him and he’s presented with his fiance and has to kiss her hand and bow to her, and Giselle subsequently goes mad and falls dead, he realizes what he’s done. The impact hits hard.
I don’t think it works if Albrecht is all dreamy up front, when he first approaches Giselle. He could just be a romantic in love with two women, but then what is he doing out there in the peasant village in the first place? When did he first see Giselle and fall for her? And is he an idiot? What does he think is going to happen with his prior marriage commitment to the Prince’s daughter? I think it only works if Albrecht is a careless playboy up front, like Marcelo’s. And then that gives him a dynamic range, so he can change later on.
Then the second beautiful Act consists of his prayer for forgiveness, which I’m convinced no one is going to do as well as Marcelo! He was really heartbreaking. Marcelo does this thing (which a man in the audience also recognized and remarked to his friend on the way out) where he throws his head back after landing a jump. So, he’d do these long jumps across stage and on the landing arch his neck back and throw his chin up. It looks all the more Romantic and all the more expansive and all the more prayerful and all the more heart-wrenching! I’ve never seen anyone else do that.
And he kept crashing to the ground during the dance-to-death scenes. I’ve never seen anyone do it quite like that. He really fell hard to the ground at points. But he did it in such a way that it looked not only like he was dancing to death, as commanded by Myrta, but like he actually was so heartbroken and angry at himself that he wanted to die. It was a far more intense interpretation than I’ve seen before. (It looked more dramatic last night — maybe just because it was live — but you can see some of what I’m talking about here.)
Nina was gorgeous, particularly in the Wilis Act. I think I still prefer Julie Kent’s mad scene to everyone else’s, maybe because she was the first person I saw in the role and she had such subtlety. She didn’t overdo it; you had to read it on her face, and that made it all the more real, made her collapse into death all the more tragic. But the way Nina stood over Marcelo and held her arms up behind him, like she was now his angel, like she would be for the rest of his life — made me want to cry. And the way she’d bourree across the stage so light like a spirit — perfectly ghostly, both angelic and haunting.
And Gillian was an excellent Myrta. Because she’s sinister up front, commanding Hilarion’s death, and then remains all-controlling throughout, when Albrecht appears and Giselle makes clear she need to protect him, it’s ultimately Gillian’s Myrta who allows that to happen. So Myrta ends up forgiving as well, making the story all the more full and moving. Gennadi was very good in the dance-to-death scene, but I didn’t like him so well in the first Act. I think he was too mean and controlling. I know Hilarion loves Giselle and wants to expose Albrecht, but I might have been a little afraid of his Hilarion if I were her. Too angry and impetuous. But he’s a very good bravura dancer and those insanely fast chaines where he whips himself into a chaotic frenzy were stunning.
Curtain calls again were crazed. I honestly don’t remember hearing so many “Bravaaaaaaas” ever before. People were screaming. Nina is obviously a very beloved ballerina. Her last Giselle is on Friday, when Jose Carreno will dance Albrecht. And her last performance with ABT will be later this season in Swan Lake.