Review: Mikhailovsky Ballet - Giselle, Ou Les Wilis - London Coliseum

Performance: 26 - 29 March 2013
Reviewed by Graham Watts - Wednesday 27 March 2013

Mikhailovsky Ballet Natalia Osipova in 'Giselle, Ou Les Wilis'. Photo: John Ross

Nikita Dolgushin (1938 – 2012) was one of the finest male dancers in soviet ballet but sadly never nearly so well known in the west as Nureyev, Baryshnikov or Vladimir Vasiliev. This is mostly because he left the Kirov prematurely (in his early 20s, after a disagreement with the artistic director) to spend the larger part of his dance career with St Petersburg’s second ballet company, then known as the Maly and now transformed into the Mikhailovsky. Like so much else in modern Russia this transformation was effected by the sudden injection of private finance from one man, Vladimir Kekhman (although this oligarch’s money was not built from oil, gas or telecoms but from bananas). Dolgushin died last June. His last job had been as the Mikhailovsky head ballet coach (one of the first appointments made with the new money, in 2007) and his lasting legacy to the company will be this production of Giselle, which premiered at the company’s beautiful, newly refurbished, 180 year-old theatre on Arts Square, less than a month after the company’s reopening.

For a man who was steeped in the heritage of Russian ballet (he had been the chairman of the Vaganova Academy’s exam committee at the time of his death – Vaganova being the staple classical technique of Russian ballet), it is not surprising that such a comparatively modern production should appear to be so old. The sets and costumes (designed by Viacheslav Okunev) are resolutely traditional with plenty of stiff-backed birds of prey and spears carried in the Duke of Courland’s hunting party. Perhaps the only concession to modernity is the riding whip unnecessarily held by Albrecht’s fiancée, Bathilde (since there is never a horse in sight). The sets are also very traditional and it appears that the action has been pleasantly placed into a trompe l’oeil version of an 18th century French landscape painting. I like sets where the forest seems to be composed of individual trees. Unfortunately, the set did not behave as it should and two panels of greenery bounced up and down like a yo-yo during the very important introductory solo for Myrtha (the Queen of the Wilis, the ghosts of jilted brides who haunt the forest after dark) causing quite an unnecessary distraction to the eye. We have been having some strange weather but I’ve never encountered a gale force wind uprooting trees in Giselle before (especially one that then puts them back in order to do it all again).

The person who raised the bar for this ballet (probably by two whole stars if we played that game) was Natalia Osipova in the title role. I have watched her career develop with the same huge interest as all keen followers of ballet but – until today – I never thought that Giselle was her forte. But bar-by-bar we could see that she has taken this ballet apart to gain meaning in everything that her character does – from the crestfallen little flat-footed step back when she realises that the game of “she loves me, she loves me not” that her paramour is playing with the petals of a flower is going to end up negative; to the ferocious speed of her rotating, swirling arabesques when she is introduced as the newest recruit to the ranks of the Wilis; everything has been honed into a much improved reading of the role. That this young woman (now 26) is a superb prima ballerina with an exceptional all-around technique is beyond doubt. She jumps well (and not always high) and her terre á terre style of incredibly fast and grounded footwork is probably unmatched; her slow développé into arabesque reaches the physical limit without a tremor of apparent effort or loss of perfect balance. The strength of Osipova’s elevation – especially in the sequences of springing jumps (technically, soubresauts) – and the sprinter’s speed of her turning steps (tours châinés) in her Act II variation made this a remarkable interpretation of an iconic and memorable dance. In the “mad scene” that closes Act I, we could see Giselle’s confused pain and understand that her damaged heart was failing fast and yet I couldn’t feel it as I can with, say, Alina Cojocaru or Marianela Nuñez; and this heightened dramatic expression is the lone piece of the jigsaw that Osipova needs to find to make her one of the greatest prima ballerinas of all time.

I admired her partner, Ivan Vasiliev, for allowing Osipova to shine. He plays Albrecht – the count who poses as a villager to dally with Giselle – as a naughty boy having a bit of fun on the side. When his fiancée turns up unexpectedly with the hunting party and his duplicity is uncovered, the change in his demeanour is striking. Here, for once, the virtuoso dancing for which he is now world-famous was largely sublimated to a finely-nuanced acting performance very much in the supporting role.

The Wilis were well matched in terms of musicality and step uniformity although the mixed-up heights and angles of the group arabesques were temporarily unsettling. As the ostentatiously-attired Bathilde, the flame-haired Olga Semyonova was rather a cartoon character, appearing like a clockwork doll at times in her strange movement and poses. Vladimir Tsal was an unsympathetic Hilarion (Albrecht’s rival for Giselle’s affections), a village wimp who took rather pathetic delight in exposing Albrecht’s disguise, whatever the consequences for his beloved’s health. For the first time, I was quietly encouraging the Wilis as they threw him into a watery grave. The best of the rest for me was Ekaterina Borchenko’s Myrtha, the Queen of that ghostly parish. She survived the intrusions of the inappropriately moving forest to deliver a fine performance and her incisive jetés (forward jumps, like an arrow) were as sharp as a scalpel carving through space.

The first week of this very welcome Mikhailovsky tour is really all about Osipova and Vasiliev who will take every one of the three opening nights. This first night was also, however, clear evidence of an 80 year-old company that has undergone a substantial regeneration in the last 5 years and is now capable of delivering the classics to a high standard. In the final moments of the ballet, having saved her man from the Wilis, Giselle dissolves into the forest, free at last to rest in peace. In this moment, the ballet also became a timely memorial to Dolgushin, a much under-rated hero of Russian ballet.

The Mikhailovsky Ballet are at the London Coliseum with several programmes until 7 April 2013

Graham Watts writes for, Dance Tabs, Dancing Times and other magazines and websites in Europe, Japan and the USA. He is Chairman of the Dance Section of the Critics’ Circle in the UK.

Photos: John Ross

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