Two Giselles to Remember
One of the painful things about a great performance is that one does not want it to end. One begins to dread the final note well in advance, to hope that each moment may last a little longer than usual and forestall the inevitable lowering of the curtain. Afterwards, the audience applauds insistently, commanding the performers to return again and again, putting off the moment of separation, the waking from the dream.
I experienced this just last week, not once, but twice, during exquisite performances of “Giselle” at American Ballet Theatre by two of the leading ballerinas of our time, Diana Vishneva and Alana Cojocaru. Each was dancing with one of A.B.T.’s finest male dancers, Marcelo Gomes and David Hallberg respectively. Both are based with other companies (Vishneva with the Mariinsky, and Cojocaru with the Royal Ballet), and both gave profound and highly personal readings of this great Romantic tale. On both occasions, as the climactic grand pas de deux began, I thought to myself, “oh no, not yet!” On Friday, after Vishneva’s performance with Gomes, I was lost in admiration; on Saturday, after Cojocaru retreated toward her grave, leaving Hallberg bereft and alone, I felt a powerful sense of loss.
Vishneva’s “Giselle” was full of detail, imaginative, and profoundly considered; Cojocaru’s seemed to come naturally. Vishneva was polished and musically precise; Cojocaru, more imperfect and less tied to the music. One had developed a complex reading of Giselle’s character, the other seemed simply to become her. One sang the role like an aria; the other spoke so clearly that one could practically hear the words.
The horse-race aspect of back-to-back performances is inescapable, but the truth is that both are artists of the highest order; to a great extent, one’s reaction to them is a question of taste and mood. “Giselle” itself is one of the most perfect ballets in the repertoire, with its lighthearted, pastoral first act and ghostly, sylvan second act in which emotions become rarefied and elevated to a fever pitch. It is not often that steps and feelings are so perfectly in sync. Giselle’s buoyant balloné jumps, with one leg moving flirtatiously in and out, express her flighty, child-like nature; her jetés across the diagonal, her joy a discovering first love; her crazed spiral in the second act captures the transformation from young girl to fearsome spirit; the slow rise of the leg and lowering of the torso into penché arabesque capture the weight and hopelessness of Giselle’s loss; the horizontal lifts high above Albrecht’s head are a chilling image of the lover’s ghost hovering over the man. It helps that American Ballet Theatre’s production is well-designed, straightforward, and satisfying.
So what were the main differences between the two ballerinas, and their partners? Vishneva’s interpretation of the role was the work of an artist of great imagination, refined and profoundly stylized. In the first act, her Giselle was simple to the point of simple-mindedness; she seemed “touched,” not only by illness—Giselle has a weak heart—but also by madness. Her eyes were saucers, her body racked with a shyness verging on fear in the presence of both Hilarion (the rejected suitor) and Albrecht (the Count in disguise). Meanwhile, her dancing had speed, buoyancy, strength. Her musicality was faultless. As is often the case with her, the steps seemed to transcend academic form; they flowed out of her body as if she were creating them on the spot. The only exception I would make to this was the way in which she moved her arms, which to my taste was overly languid and mannered for the young Giselle.
Vishneva’s mad scene was a rococo masterpiece, with frenzied eyes and an expression of abandon that reminded me of George Bataille’s description of the ecstasy of torment in “Tears of Eros,” or the eyes of Joan of Arc on the pyre in Rivette’s “Jeanne la Pucelle.” For most of the scene, her face was turned insistently toward the light, which brought out a pallid glow in her cheeks and eyes. Her body seemed to lose its coherence, like a cubist portrait; the angle of her head, shoulders, and arms seemed painfully out of whack. When she returned as a ghost in the second act, she had become a figure from a lithograph, the picture of nineteenth-century sadness and otherworldliness. This act was a marvel of coherence, and the technical high points–the vortex of high-speed turns in low attitude, the fishtail jumps in which the body creates a beautiful (and strange) arc in the air, the lightning fast entrechats traveling backward—were breathtaking. The audience was rapt.
Cojocaru was less perfect, less technically awe-inspiring—sometimes she was behind the music, her turns were less fast, etc–but her interpretation of the role was so pure, so honest, and had such sweetness, that its effect seemed magnified a hundred-fold. Here was a young girl, naïve and loving but not without a streak of rebelliousness, experiencing love for the first time. And even more impressively, this sweetness and sense of surprise overflowed into the second act. She was a ghost, but a gentle, loving ghost. Her face strained toward Albrecht’s, even in arabesque, so that it seemed that their lips might touch. When he lay on the ground, nearly spent, she hovered over his body, embracing him with her presence, even without touching him. And at the very end, as she floated toward her grave, she returned once more, drawn by her love for him, and one sensed that this was still the love a naïve young girl. Her one innovation was a skimming backward bourré at top speed which elicited gasps from the audience.
Her dancing in the first act had a freshness and simplicity that made the scene feel newly minted. She “spoke” with her body, her eyes, and her hands. When she “explained” to Bathilde that she had sewn her own dress, her gesture was so clear that one could practically hear her voice, and during the “kissing” game with Albrecht, she shyly but impetuously reached for his hand, and one could feel the excitement and rising attraction between them. Charmingly, during the peasant pas de deux, she danced along on the sidelines, grabbing her mother’s hands excitedly, like a little girl. Her mad scene was stripped down to its essentials; a torn dress, an empty look, a deadly listlessness. At the moment of death, she simply crumpled. She is one of the most natural, and most viscerally moving, dancers I have ever seen. How does she do it?
Both partners were at their very best. Marcelo Gomes, dancing with Vishneva, was warm, playful, and a touch caddish in the first act. His Albrecht was an experienced seducer, delighted at the charms of this young peasant; in the mad scene, he seemed to be thinking, “oh no, what will happen now?!” After her death, he rushed off like a criminal leaving the scene of a crime. But it was in the second act that he truly came into his own, with a devotion and warmth that elevated Vishneva’s dancing even further. The way he raised her in the overhead lifts was breathtaking; she hovered there, perfectly still, far above his head, forever. His solos were juicy, masculine, finely calibrated; in the deadly series of entrechats six—jumps in which the feet beat together to the front and to the back–he created a crescendo of power, throwing back his head in the end to magnify the effect of desperation and exhaustion.
David Hallberg, tall, blonde, fine boned, was a paragon of noble beauty, but also of boyishness and spontaneity. He was excitable and reckless, with flashes of temper. At several points, I felt he might actually kill Hilarion. He gave the role a clear sense of class distinction; he was a nobleman, charmed by Giselle’s simplicity, but conscious of his power. His treatment of his squire—played with admirable vividness by Julio Bragado-Young—embodied all his haughty authority. To the beauty and expansiveness of his dancing—what jumps! What beautiful shapes!—Hallberg has added a clarity and vibrancy of interpretation, touched with wildness. His series of impossibly big, clear entrechats was not only beautiful, but felt driven by an external power. The exhausting jumps were not done for show, but to satisfy the murderous commands of Myrtha, queen of the Wilis. With Hallberg, the excitement lies in the extremes of lyricism and recklessness. He makes the non-dancing moments count too: his slow approach to Giselle’s tomb, rolling through each foot, pausing quietly for reflection, is the poetic embodiment of sadness. And added to this, over the last year, he has developed a new responsiveness to the people around him: his rapport with Cojocaru, who is a full head shorter than he is, felt completely alive. His partnering has also become much stronger, though the overhead lifts were still a touch wobbly. In a way, it is a comfort that there is still more for him to accomplish.
A word on the rest of the casts. Veronika Part, as Myrtha, was majestic and strong, using all the power of her broad, sensitive shoulders and supple back to evoke the commanding sadness of her character. As always, she conjured up an inner world, a sense of mystery, and an aura of emotion. Her spiraling bourrés, with one arm extended and the other in front of her chest were contemplative, buttery, silky-smooth. The corps was a bit ragged in the first act, but once again Gemma Bond, as one of Giselle’s friends, was notable for her beautiful, breathing port de bras and for the way she rolled through her feet. In the silly, dance-hall-like “peasant” pas de deux in the first act, Daniil Simkin and Sarah Lane were particularly well-paired, with matching extensions and easy charm. Neither of the Hilarions I saw (Gennady Saveliev and Jared Matthews) had a particularly compelling read on the character, nor were they desperate enough in their struggle to evade death at the hands of the Wilis in the second act. As always, the dance of the Wilis was one of the highlights of the ballet, crating an otherworldly mood with their “breathing” port de bras forward and back while kneeling (quoted by Fokine in “Les Sylphides”), their chilling, inexorable advance across the stage in arabesque on flat feet, and their infernal diagonals. As the “lead” Wilis, Moyna and Zulma, Isabella Boylston’s and Hee Seo were particularly grand in scale and luminous in their dancing; Seo will dance the role of Giselle for the first time at the matinée on June 1st, and I plan to be there.
Diana Vishneva and Marcelo Gomes will dance “Giselle” on more time, on the evening of June 2.
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