There was magic in the air on opening night of the National Ballet’s Giselle, with remarkable dancing and acting that brought the classic Romantic era ballet to life.
The National Ballet of Canada/Giselle, choreographed by Sir Peter Wright, after Jean Coralli, Jules Perrot and Marius Petipa, Four Seasons Centre, Nov. 6 to 10. Tickets available at national.ballet.ca/Tickets.
When the stars align, magic happens, and the opening night of the National Ballet’s Giselle was an absolute triumph on every level.
Giselle debuted at the Paris Opera in 1841 and is the quintessential dance masterpiece of the Romantic era. The French ballet style of that period was marked by a focus on a plausible story line and a symbiotic fusion of dance and music. The performances by both the National’s dancers and orchestra certainly enhanced those all-important elements.
Giselle is a peasant girl who loves a village boy, Loys. When the forester Hilarion, who loves Giselle, exposes Loys as being Albrecht, the Count of Silesia in disguise, Giselle goes mad and kills herself. In the second act, Giselle has risen from the dead as a Wili. Under Queen Myrtha, the Wilis are the spirits of maidens who were betrayed by their lovers, and who force any unlucky man caught in the forest at night to dance to his death. Giselle saves Albrecht by keeping him dancing until dawn, when she and the Wilis return to their graves.
Svetlana Lunkina was just eighteen when she danced her first Giselle, the youngest ballerina in the history of the Bolshoi to do so. In her maturity, Lunkina is magnificent in the role. She is blessed with a delicate physical presence, which suits the shy, girlish teenager in the first act and the ethereal, airy spirit in the second. What is remarkable about her performance is her acting ability. Lunkina telegraphs every thought and every feeling of her character through a brilliant combination of movement and mime. Her dancing is impeccable with her precise placement and immense musicality. Lunkina is absolute lyricism in motion. She has to be one of the greatest interpreters of Giselle in the world today.
As Albrecht, Harrison James is every inch a prince, a true danseur noble. He commands the stage with a natural authority, yet he can show tenderness and vulnerability. He is a charming lover to Giselle, and then, a broken man at the end. James is also one of the National’s best dancers in terms of classical technique. He can toss of jumps and turns while never losing sight of character. There is a great deal of mime in Romantic ballet which helps tell the story, and like Lunkina, James’ gestural language and facial expressions are clean and clear. His chemistry with Lunkina makes for a real love story, and together they give a moving performance of love, loss and betrayal.
Sometimes Hilarion is played by an older character dancer, which is always a mistake, because as Piotr Stanczyk demonstrated last night, a younger man brings real energy and vitality to the role, and is a stronger foil for Giselle and Albrecht. Hilarion performs his part through mime in the first act, and like Lunkina and James, Stanczyk is excellent in execution. In fact, the mime work in this performance, which is such a key feature in Romantic ballet, is perhaps the best I’ve ever seen. In the second act, Hilarion does get to dance as the Wilis drive him to his death, and Stanczyk perfectly captures Hilarion’s terror in his frenzied series of jumps and runs.
The implacable Myrtha is a direct contrast to the fragile Giselle, and Heather Ogden is a cool, cold, and cruel queen. I’ve always felt that Myrtha is a difficult role to dance because the ballerina has to be downright mean, while being a lighter than air spirit. Ogden shows her mettle in her long opening solo when she summons her minions. Her little runny steps denote her other world quality, while the force of her arm movements convey power. She also throws herself into her jumps and turns with gusto, all of which adds to Myrtha’s merciless personality.
Ogden will be making her debut as Giselle this season, which should be quite the challenge as she finds vulnerability in place of vengeance. As Myrtha’s seconds, called Moyna and Zulme, no less, Tina Pereira and Jordana Daumec, two of the most reliable classicists among the National’s women, join their queen in a showy display of technique and spite.
The first act Peasant Pas de Deux is a showpiece of French style and form. In the original version, the divertissement was choreographed for one couple, but Sir Peter Wright, who set this Giselle on the National, elected to follow later custom and make the set piece a pas de quatre. Made up of a series of solos, duets and ensembles, the dance shows off the athleticism of the men, and the intricate point work of the women.
Siphesihle November and Skylar Campbell are both technical wizards who perform their movements with vigour cocooned in lightness. They also both happen to be short, so their ballerinas, Jeannine Haller and Miyoko Koyasu, respectively, are taller than they are. While this might offend ballet purists who demand that lines be everything, four talented dancers can bring a great deal to a performance. Haller and Koyasu demonstrate the precision and placement so important in the French style, and together with the men, toss off this eye-catching divertissement with aplomb.
And let’s hear it for the female corps de ballet, who danced very prettily in the first act harvest festivities, and absolutely nailed the Wilis. Against the dark forest background, the whiteness of their bodies and their long white tutus stand out in stark relief. If one ballerina is out of position, be it head, arm, leg or torso, it is completely visible in an instant. When Karen Kain took over the National as artistic director, she told me in an interview that she was determined to bring the classical technique of the company up to world-class standards. Well, last night this corps de ballet was exceptional and well-schooled. The Wilis are breathtaking in their togetherness, and the visual impact is unforgettable.
Years ago I did a series of articles on the Banff Centre, and I asked the artistic director at the time why they brought in the Calgary Symphony to play for the opera performances, and pulled together a ragtag group of journeymen musicians to provide the music for the dancers. His reply was that opera music was written by first-rate composers, while ballet music was composed by hacks.
Had that gentleman been at the Four Seasons Centre last night, he would have eaten his words. Conductor David Briskin led the National Ballet orchestra in an inspired musical journey through Adolphe Adam’s evocative score. In fact, I heard the music with fresh ears as Briskin highlighted every recurring motif, every mood change, and every dramatic moment. When everything is working on stage, the movement and music together become a glorious marriage, and you realize just how Adam’s score fits the story like hand to glove.
Whether villager or courtier or spirit, every member of the National was on his or her game last night, and I’m sure the excellence will hold true for all the different casts who are performing throughout the week. Kain should be very proud of the company and her hand-picked dancers.
[Disclosure — the author of this review contributed an educational article on the history of the ballet published by the National Ballet of Canada.]