Opera House, The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Washington, DC; May 20, 2014
I had high expectations for the Bolshoi Ballet’s “Giselle” because American David Hallberg was dancing the role of Count Albrecht. Hallberg is rather like Beyonce in that he’s very talented and it’s almost un-American not to love him. Likewise, it’s probably quite un-Russian not to be enthusiastic about the Bolshoi. With the two combined, it would be big news for a critic to bash the beloved Hallberg in his American debut with the popular Russian ballet company. As it turns out, I can’t bash Hallberg or the Bolshoi, but the production nonetheless disappointed me.
Hallberg and his partner Svetlana Zakharova, as the peasant girl Giselle, made a comely couple. The pair were well matched, their dancing sensitive, beautiful, technically proficient, and perfectly in tune with each other. My complaints arose not from Hallberg and Zakharova’s efforts (or the efforts of Vitaly Biktimirov as Hans, the gamekeeper, and Maria Allash as Myrtha, Queen of the Wilis) but from the overall performance, which was too sedate for my liking. The Bolshoi’s “Giselle” unfolded slowly and quietly, so meek that the elderly gentleman next to me began to snore. Zakharova, at the end of Act I, danced madness sweetly and carefully, making her the least crazed Giselle I’ve ever seen. Allash as Myrtha also came across as bland and emotionally subdued. The Wilis appeared almost polite as they delicately expressed their supposed rage.
The bigger problem may be that I’ve seen too much of “Giselle” lately. Although it was a childhood favorite of mine, I’m sad to report I’ve grown weary of it. I probably should put in on a 5 or 10 year rotation, like I’ve done with “The Nutcracker.” It’s not really the fault of the Bolshoi that “Giselle” is, well, a bit boring. The Bolshoi’s dancers performed it as I imagine it was meant to be performed, it’s just not all that enthralling in the first place without adding some sass and spunk. I have to wonder what Matthew Bourne would do with it. I admit I’d prefer my next “Giselle” to be on the campy side of things.
So, why is “Giselle” still being performed so frequently? This is an interesting and important question. Sure, it’s a classic, but isn’t there room for new ballets? In an interview with the Washington Post’s Pulitzer Prize-winning dance critic Sarah Kaufman, the Bolshoi’s artistic director Sergei Filin said he didn’t choose “Giselle” for his company to perform in the United States. He pointed the finger at the Kennedy Center and the Bolshoi Theater’s touring department, claiming that ticket sales prompted the selection. Sigh, of course. If anyone out there making these decisions reads this, please consider ditching “Giselle” in favor of something bold. Let Filin bring what he’d actually like to show off next time, and stop catering exclusively to the tastes of wealthy senior citizens to generate ticket sales. Be brave enough to support new ballets, and lower ticket prices so that going to the ballet is an accessible experience for young people. Stuffy and pricey programming consisting primarily of dusty classics runs the risk of alienating those who might otherwise become future dance patrons.
That’s one rant. My second rant has to do with the set, the curtains, and the flowers. The Bolshoi’s backdrop had a water-color-like simplicity to it. A canopy of trees seemingly painted with childish wet brush strokes arched over the stage, on which two crooked little huts sat. Not all bad. But in Act II, when Christmas lights on giant tropical-looking plants began to twinkle, the set screamed cheap. “Giselle” doesn’t have to have machines blowing dry ice making fog that rolls in as the Wilis take over, but for the high price of a ticket, one hopes for more than a few strings of homely lights to add some magic. One also hopes for a smooth-running stage, including curtains and curtain calls. Not so on opening night. After Act I, the curtain flew up quickly to reveal dancers frozen in place, and then it raised again, stopping half way and showing the dancers scurrying about. Oops. After Act II, two red jacketed Kennedy Center employees found themselves lost on stage with armfuls of flowers as the dancers took their bows. Confusion abounded as the men stood at center stage, seemingly unsure who to approach with flowers, and the dancers scooted forward and back, bowing and ignoring the poor guys. Laughter erupted when Hallberg finally accepted a bouquet of flowers and then rested them on the stage.