London audiences were privileged to have seen rather a lot of Nina Ananiashivili when she danced with the Royal Ballet, but here she is in her element as the eponymous heroine in Yuri Grigorovich’s production of Giselle from 1991.
Grigorovich dispenses with much of the earlier characterisation, with Berthe in particular rather reduced in prominence, for instance not warning of the Wilis as she scolds Giselle for dancing with Albrecht. He also favours the rather weak option of Giselle dying of heart failure and shock rather than the much stronger original where she uses Albrecht’s sword to commit suicide.
However, these are mere quibbles as this is a haunting production with fabulous performances all-round. Hilarion is here sympathetic rather than the crude clodhopper that some dancers chose to make him. He gets a rough ride as he does everything he can to nurture and then save Giselle and ends up being danced to death and tipped into a lake by the vengeful Wilis, whilst, Albrecht, the complete cad, gets away with it.
Victor Barykin, less familiar outside of Russia, is a cool Albrecht. He contrives to change from a crass, arrogant aristocrat to a truly penitent adult. One might almost think that he deserves Giselle’s devotion. His batterie is lightning fast and he has a powerful jump, although neither are allowed to overshadow his strong characterisation. In Act I he is the charming lad, toying thoughtlessly with the peasant girl and attempting to hide guiltily with no thought for anything but himself as the hunt arrive and find him out. By Act II, he enables Ananiashvili to appear to float like thistledown after first seeming to be grasping a hologram as she flits in and out of the gloom and the mist.
Myrtha here is one of the best that I have ever seen. Glacially controlling, she is rock solid in the adage and as sharp as a broken icicle in the allegro. She musters her equally impressive Wilis with aplomb as they seem to be strung together, so united and co-ordinated are they. They deserve every second of the applause that the knowledgeable Bolshoi audience grant them. One moment they are ethereal spectres, the next vengeful, jilted women, bent on revenge.
But, without a doubt, it is Ananiashvili who takes the breath away. Her dark Georgian beauty makes her a bonny peasant and provides a wonderful contrast for her pallid Wili in Act II. She is naiveté personified in Act I and heart-rendingly tragic in the mad scene, her huge, dark eyes flashing as she hurls Albrecht’s sword around.
She saves her real power though for Act II where suddenly, she becomes all-knowing and strong. Fighting for Albrecht’s life she manages to make standing still monumental as she uses her body to shield her erstwhile lover from Myrtha. When she first approaches Albrecht, there is a stunning moment as she stretches to the utmost but still cannot quite touch him as he kneels in penitence. Then she flits like a key from a dandelion floating in a wayward wind as he tries to grasp her.
The strength in her relevés enables her to appear to be powered by hydraulics, so smooth is the movement. Her developés a la second, shaded by acres of frothy tutu, extend forever, making use of every split second of the music without ever seeming vulgar as the arcing crescent of her foot peeps out from under the tulle. Both she and Myrtha have the most incredible bourées and could probably balance a loose piece of paper on their heads as they go with barely a flutter.
Some of the camera placements mean that a lot of Act II is truncated at the bottom with large amounts of black void at the top. Dancers are proportionally small in the frame and are often chopped off as the camera zooms in. This can be a little irritating but it does not detract from the fact that, again, this is a production with performances that have truly earned their title of iconic.
The Russian Ballet Collection (five classic ballets) are available via www.russianballetcollection.com or by calling (UK) 0344 543 9801.