United Ukrainian Ballet Giselle Review
February 1, 2023 | Kennedy Center – Washington, D.C., USA
From its opening moments, the performance of Giselle by the United Ukrainian Ballet at the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C., was charged with high emotion and poignancy. The audience was deeply moved by this outstanding production and by the inspiring dancing of the entire cast, which, at the end of the performance, gathered on the stage of the Opera House to sing the Ukrainian national anthem.
It has been nearly a year since Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine. The United Ukrainian Ballet, which is currently based in the Hague, Netherlands, consists of more than sixty refugee Ukrainian dancers and artists who join their creative forces in a fight to preserve Ukrainian culture and traditions.
This production of Giselle – the quintessential Romantic classic – was staged specifically for the newly-minted United Ukrainian Ballet by one of the most prominent and gifted choreographers of today, Alexei Ratmansky.
Ukraine has a special place in Ratmansky’s heart. His father is Ukrainian; the choreographer began his professional dancing career with the Ukrainian National Ballet in Kyiv, where he spent part of his childhood; his parents still live in the war-torn capital of Ukraine.
Ratmansky has Russian roots as well. He was born in St. Petersburg, Russia and studied ballet at Moscow’s Bolshoi Ballet Academy, graduating in 1986. He was the artistic director of the Bolshoi Ballet from 2004 to 2008. In fact, he was in Moscow in February 2022, when the war broke out, working on a new production for the Bolshoi. The choreographer immediately left Russia, ceasing all his work on the new ballet and has become a vocal opponent of the war.
Ratmansky’s new staging for the United Ukrainian Ballet is primarily based on his production of Giselle created for the Bolshoi Ballet in 2019. In this version, the choreographer reconstructed the 19th-century classic using a variety of archival sources, including the famous Stepanov notations.
He also introduced some changes to the ballet’s scenario and characterization, as well as the music score. This Giselle is a handsomely made ballet that preserves the dramatic logic but brings to a new level all the emotional ardor and heartbreak of the familiar story.
In its Kennedy Center’s debut, the United Ukrainian Ballet’s dancers rose to the occasion. They delivered a potent, heartfelt performance, giving full justice to Ratmansky’s choreography.
United Ukrainian Ballet Giselle Review
On opening night, Christine Schevchenko looked like an ideal Giselle: her delicate features and sweet demeanor and the supple grace and sincerity of her dancing suited perfectly for the ballet’s title role.
A principal dancer with American Ballet Theatre, Shevchenko brought an undeniable star power to her performance, unearthing a wide range of her heroine’s dramatic possibilities. Her dancing was technically impeccable, spacious, and deeply musical.
In the beginning of Act I, Shevchenko’s Giselle was vivacious and charming – the embodiment of sheer happiness and youthful energy. Visibly infatuated with Albert and ignoring her mother’s warnings, her heroine briskly skipped and hopped about the stage without a trace of frailty or vulnerability, her every step reverberated the excitement and joy of first love.
When she learned about Albert’s deception that he was in fact not a villager but an imposter – a count, disguised as a commoner, betrothed to another woman – she went into a deep shock, moving absentmindedly as if in a trance. Witnessing her sudden transformation from a lively girl to an emotional wreck was heartbreaking to watch.
It was impossible not to fall in love with Oleksii Tiutiunnyk’s Albert.
Tall and handsome with a beautiful mop of dark curly hair, this young and talented Ukrainian dancer, who graduated from the Kyiv National Ballet School in 2012 and danced as a principal with the Ukrainian National Ballet, delivered an exceptional performance of the role.
His Albert was a spirited, kind youth who found in the gentle and vibrant Giselle not only the love of his life but also a kindred soul. His dancing was secure and evocative at every turn; and the emotional touches he incorporated into his acting revealed him as a dancer of notable dramatic gifts.
In the most productions, after Giselle dies, Albert flees the village. In Ratmansky’s staging, the hero remains at the scene, utterly devastated and brokenhearted, tenderly caressing Giselle’s lifeless body, surrounded by the mournful crowd of villagers.
The second act of Giselle takes place in a forest populated by Wilis – the spirits of young maidens who died before their wedding day. Ethereal and graceful in appearance, they are ruthless in their desire to avenge their woeful fate, forcing every man who ventures into their kingdom to dance to his death.
Adorned in a shimmering white tulle dress, Shevchenko as a Wili looked spectral and eloquent, yet her dancing still transmitted youthful energy and ardor. Her love duets with Albert were full of dramatic tension making all the more palpable the tragedy of their love.
The supporting cast was in top-notch form as well.
Olena Mykhailova gave a memorable rendition of Berthe, Giselle’s caring and insightful mother.
Sergii Kliachin was a pitiful Hilarion, the village gamekeeper and a rejected suitor of Giselle.
Elizaveta Gogidze delivered an excellent performance as a merciless and vindictive Myrta, the Queen of Wilis.
Marta Zabirynnyk, in the role of Bathilde, was equally glamouros and charming. (In Ratmansky’s version, Bathilde is rendered as a sympathetic character. In her final gesture at the end of Act II, Giselle is imploring the grief-stricken Albert to marry his noble fiancée.)
One of the highest points of this production was the enthusiastic and dedicated dancing of the corps de ballet. Ratmansky devised supremely challenging sequences for the ensembles (particularly in harvest festivities in Act I), and the company’s dancers navigated the technical demands of the choreography with commitment and admirable skill.
Featured Photo for this United Ukrainian Ballet Giselle review of Christine Shevchenko, Oleksii Tiutiunnyk, and The United Ukrainian Ballet in Act I of Alexei Ratmansky’s Giselle. Photo by Mena Brunette.
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