Giselle is a well known story ballet having first been performed in 1841. Why it remains popular to this day has a lot to do with the poignant tragic story and the stunningly beautiful dancing in the famous white second act. While The Thespian has seen many productions of Giselle, from the traditional to the Creole version performed by the late, lamented Dance Theatre of Harlem, The Thespian can truly say that upon Tuesday last, she saw the definitive performance of the title role.
For those unfamiliar with the story of Giselle, it is a tale of Count Albrecht, engaged to a Princess who decides to dally a while in a local village. He falls in love with Giselle, a young peasant girl who happens to have a potentially fatal heart condition and is warned by her mother not to dance or over excite herself. Convinced he is going to marry her she joyfully ignores the warnings of her jilted suitor, Hans, who does not believe Albrecht is who he claims to be. The Princess arrives with a hunting party and Giselle charms her with her dancing. Hans discovers Albrecht's sword and cape and calls back the hunting party. When Giselle learns the truth she goes mad and dies of a broken heart. Both young men visit Giselle's grave by moonlight and encounter the Willis, the spirits of young women who died on the eve of their wedding. Their Queen, Myrtha initiates Giselle into their group. The Willis force Hans to dance to his death and they throw his body in the nearby lake. Catching Albrecht he is condemned to the same fate. Giselle pleads with Myrtha having forgiven the man she loves, but mercy is refused. Giselle dances with Albrecht giving him the strength to last until dawn when the Willis spell is broken. As they vanish, Albrecht collapses in gratitude on Giselle's grave.
The dancing of the Mariinsky Ballet is simply amongst the world's best. The Corps de Ballet, particular the unison work of the Willis is beyond compare. Maria Shirinkina and Alexey Timofeyev were charming in the Peasant Pas de Deux. Yuri Smekalov danced a bitter and passionate Hans. Ekaterina Kondaurova's height added a level of pure majesty to her Myrtha and she danced the role in complete command of the stage. Andrian Fadeyev was almost overshadowed in Act One, yet grew in his leaps of desperation as he struggled to survive in Act Two.
The most astonishing performance of the evening was given by the great Diana Vishneva as Giselle. No one can embody a role so completely as Vishneva. Here was a Giselle who wore her emotions so openly and displayed a complete physical vulnerability. Many Giselles show very little why we should be afraid that she will drop dead upon the stage, but Vishneva made it very clear that every movement was a struggle for this very ill girl. Her mad scene was riveting. There was not a sound in the Opera House as Vishneva became unhinged, replayed her love for Albrecht, tried to kill herself with his sword and then simply collapsed as her weak heart gave out under the stress. In Act Two Vishneva was ethereal, at first as cool and detached as the rest of the Willis, but then permitting a remembrance of human love to break through and allow Giselle to save Albrecht's life. It was Vishneva who embodied the strength in Giselle and Albrecht's dancing in Act Two. Fadeyev ably danced Albrecht's exhaustion and waning hold on life, allowing Vishneva to support him through his ordeal. A masterful performance.
The Mariinsky Ballet will perform Giselle at The Kennedy Center Opera House through February 13, 2011. For tickets and other performance information please visit www.kennedy-center.org.