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Four Giselles

American Ballet Theatre

by Jerry Hochman

June 9, 12, 13 mat, 13 eve, 2009 -- Metropolitan Opera House, Lincoln Center, New York

Contrary to popular rumor, I was not around to see Carlotta Grisi dance the first “Giselle” in 1841. Nor did I have an opportunity to see Anna Pavlova perform it (though we’re getting closer). However,  although I never saw these legendary Giselles, I have been fortunate to have seen perhaps dozens of different ballerinas dance this seminal role with many different companies. I can safely say, with few exceptions, that I loved them all.

But if I’ve seen any performance better, or that moved me more, than those I watched this week at ABT’s week-long “Giselle” marathon, even Gelsey Kirkland’s (whose Giselle, to me, remains the benchmark), I cannot recall it. And I’d remember.

I saw four Giselles this week: in order of viewing – Diana Vishneva; Nina Ananiashvili, Maria Riccetto, and Natalia Osipova. All were superb, but without taking anything away from the others, two were breathtaking. Although my favorite of the current Giselles that I’ve seen remains Diana Vishneva, Natalia Osipova’s debut with ABT was extraordinary. The hype was right.

“Giselle” the story is thin. It’s also unfair (as in – life is unfair). Nobleman-on-the-prowl Count Albrecht swears eternal love to a pretty, innocent village maiden he has become attracted to, knowing all along that nothing can come of it (or, depending on how it's played, knowing all along that all he was looking for was some extra-curricular dalliance). Giselle is wooed by Hilarion, the town’s huntsman/clueless nice guy/thuggish bad guy (depending on how it’s played), but has fallen head over toe shoes for Albrecht, the dashing new man in town. Alas, Giselle has a weak heart, which breaks when Albrecht’s emotional treachery is revealed. The next act gives Hilarion and Albrecht the willis. Nice guy doesn’t get the girl; the two-timing cad does (although, by then, she’s dead).

But “Giselle” the ballet is infinitely richer than the libretto. It is a story of betrayal, revenge, forgiveness, redemption, and ultimately, perhaps the purest balletic expression of eternal love conquering all. That it continues to be a compelling role to perform, and to watch, and, for the usual full-house audiences to be enthralled by, is testament to the artistic and emotional wallop that the ballet never fails to deliver.

Ms. Osipova is, simply put, remarkable. From her first steps after she leaves her front door in Act I, she seems never to be on the ground. Ms. Osipova looks like a pixie and moves through air as effortlessly as the petal of a flower borne by the breeze. And it is not simply her ethereal quality – technically, I saw nothing that was not perfection. Until Ms. Osipova’s performance, I thought that the most spectacular Act II entrance I’d ever seen was that performed by Ms. Vishneva a few days earlier. Ms. Osipova equaled it, and added a back-bend during the Act II pas de deux that seemed to defy basic anatomy.

So why am I still more moved by Ms. Vishneva’s Giselle than Ms. Osipova’s? The acting.

Diana Vishneva is every bit as accomplished a technician as Ms. Osipova. Perhaps not quite as dramatically ethereal, but hardly earth-bound. But what Ms. Vishneva gives is a perfectly balanced performance -- nuanced, subtle, and superb in every way.

Perhaps it reflects the difference between being nurtured by the Bolshoi as opposed to the Kirov (Ms. Vishneva), but Ms. Osipova’s characterization of Giselle was as unbound as her dancing. Ms. Osipova never failed to express an emotion facially – she showed the audience exactly what she was thinking and feeling every step – every beautiful step – of the way. While her acting was never inappropriate or over-the-top, it was, to me, more emphatic than necessary. We’re not talking about the kind of open-mouthed expressiveness that hits the viewer over the head with an anvil. This is nit-picking – to an extreme. She was wonderful to watch at all times. But even in Act II, where Giselle as a spirit traditionally shows no overt expression, Ms. Osipova moved her face to express emotion more than I’ve seen any other Giselle try, or feel the need, to do.

Ms. Vishneva, on the other hand, conveys the same emotions with a fraction of the apparent effort. A turn of the head, a glance of the eye, or a simple smile or hand gesture tells the same story in a simpler, purer way. Where, in Act I, Ms. Osipova was Giselle as a 16-year old little girl overwhelmed by her first love (which made her Albrecht look like he was robbing the cradle), Ms. Vishneva was the lovely ballerina-next-door who knew exactly how precious love was and that her Albrecht was it. Ms. Vishneva’s Giselle was even better than the performance she gave with ABT in New York a couple of years ago, although that hardly seems possible.

Perhaps I preferred Ms. Vishneva’s Giselle somewhat more just because I like her stage persona more. Objectivity is the goal, but the kinetic energy of dance works best, at least for me (and I suspect for others as well), when the transference of emotion is individualized – subjective and idiosyncratic as that may be. Whenever Ms. Vishneva is on stage (or any other dancer I like), I’m there too. Regardless, both Ms. Vishneva’s and Ms. Osipova’s performances were what make legendary ballerinas truly legendary, and it is a privilege to have been able to see them both.

Ms. Ananiashvili’s was a comfortable Giselle, which is not to say it was any less memorable than those of Ms. Osipova and Ms. Vishneva; just not quite as exciting. Her Giselle wears its experience on its sleeve; every step taken, every gesture and glance, has been honed to perfection. If she weren’t a seamstress, Ms. Ananashvili’s Giselle would have been an elementary school teacher – the type who everyone in town loved, and who no one in town could understand why she hadn’t found the right man yet. Her Giselle was more than innocent – she was genuinely a nice person – much as I suspect Ms. Ananiashvili herself is. That her technical prowess, extraordinarily fine as it still is, is slightly less than awe-inspiring makes not a bit of difference.

This overall performance, which was Ms. Ananiashvili’s final Giselle with ABT (her farewell performance, in “Swan Lake,” is scheduled for June 27), was also the most theatrically balanced of all four. Her Albrecht, Jose Carreno, was a nobleman in the truest sense of the word. His performance combined a refined and quiet dignity with unusual gravitas, free of upper-class gloss (no need to point when ordering Wilfred to go away – a simple, powerful glance was sufficient). Every bit his match was Gennadi Saveliev’s Hilarion. This character is frequently acted as a dolt, a bully or a wimp, or some combination of the three, but Mr. Saveliev’s portrayal conveyed not merely brute strength, but strength of character. His was the strongest Hilarion I can recall seeing in any “Giselle” performance, and to this viewer, he stole the show.

Gillian Murphy’s Myrta was as powerfully drawn as ever (all of the Myrtas – Ms. Murphy, Veronika Part, Stella Abrera (Myrta as dragon lady), and Michelle Wiles were flawless, but Ms. Murphy owns this role much as Martine van Hamel did in a previously generation. And Sarah Lane and Daniil Simkin were the strongest pair in the Peasant Pas (although, for this pas de deux, I would have preferred it if Mr. Simkin had reigned in his prodigious talent to avoid the appearance of “milking it”).

The fourth of the Giselle’s I saw was Maria Riccetto. Since I first saw her perform with ABT, it was obvious to me that Ms. Riccetto was a natural Giselle. In my mind’s eye, she even looks like a Giselle should look (perhaps if Giselle had been painted by El Greco). In Saturday’s matinee (she replaced an injured Xiomara Reyes), she danced the role with strength, fragility, and warmth. It would be grossly unfair to compare Ms. Riccetto’s Giselle with the “Russian” Giselles (ok – two Russians and a Georgian), but it was a very good portrayal. The ‘legendary’ may take a little longer.

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