United Ukranian Ballet’s “Giselle” captures the crowd.
We don’t need any reminder why the Ukrainian National Ballet is operating under difficult circumstances. The company, temporarily housed in The Hague, managed to pull off a beautiful evening of romantic ballet in the Kennedy Center premiere of “Giselle” on opening night—a performance that can best be described as “bittersweet.” Sweet as Giselle (Christine Schevchenko) won us over with her poignant interpretation of the peasant girl who falls in love with a prince, though he’s promised to another Royal, Princess Bathilde (Marta Zabirynnyk). Bitter because here is a company of 50 plus refugees determined to share their ballet heritage with the world.
You could feel the tension in the capacity crowd last Wednesday evening when the scrim (backlit screen used in theater productions) was emblazoned with “The United Ukrainian Ballet” in giant letters. United, indeed, as international dancers and company directors contributed to this tour of “Giselle,” and we reap the benefits.
Before curtain, staff members of the Washington Ballet spoke with Kennedy Center patrons about the program and the connection between the two companies. They noted that Kateryna Derechnyna, one of the Washington Ballet’s star dancers, was scheduled to perform the role of Myrtha, Queen of the Wilis, during the run, and that she has been helpful with the logistics of bringing these artists to America.
England’s Birmingham Royal Ballet responded with their request to borrow sets and costumes. The list of in-kind donors range from transportation companies, ballet shoe providers, massage table manufacturers, hotel groups, and a host of others have offered invaluable technical support and moral encouragement.The United Ukranian Ballet program notes, “Our joint goal is to ensure that this crucial part of Ukrainian culture is not destroyed by the actions of its neighbors. Dancers have short careers but long traditions. Too long a break in activity could break both.”
Under the artistic direction of Igone De Jongh, this “Giselle” was choreographed by the world renowned Alexei Ratmansky who has both Russian and Ukrainian roots. There’s no doubt that his tender, totally Ukrainian rendition—with themes of love, betrayal, death, and forgiveness—spills into the real world of today. Last winter, Ratmansky walked off the Bolshoi Theatre stage in Moscow to protest his homeland’s brutality towards his adopted country.
“Giselle” is a demanding task for a dancer. It has been called the “Hamlet of dance,” partly because of it enduring qualities, but mainly for the dual role of dramatic interpretation, as well as technical expertise.
For me, the ballet—originally choreographed by Jules Perrot and Jean Coral, with book by Vernon de Saint-Georges and poet Theophile Gautier, and set to Adolphe Adam’s sweet score (sensitively conducted by Viktor Oliynyk with The Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra)—was pure poetry and has remained my favorite ballet since writing a college paper on the mid-19th century Romantic period.
The ballet relates the story of a simple peasant girl who goes mad and dies for the aristocrat who deceives her. In the after-life, she becomes a “Will,” a spirit in a white romantic tutu who forces her would-be-husband to dance until he dies.
When Schevchenko enters as a young, spirited Giselle, she skims the floor like a child running onto the playground. As the pretend peasant, Tiutiunnyk demonstrates that same joyousness. There was true chemistry between the two lovers in the opening night performance. You believe that Count Albert and Giselle genuinely love each other and you could feel it from their dancing.
Sergii Kilachin as Hilarion, a game keeper, pursues the heroine with his bravura technique, but her heart beats only for Albert, disguised as a peasant. The passion and jealously lead to intense romance, followed by a fight between the men and eventually Albert’s confession of infidelity. He is betrothed to Princess Bathilde, regally performed by Marta Zabirynnyk, draped in furs and jewels. Her costume, Hayden Griffin and Peter Farmer (who also designed the set) contrasted with the earth tones of the villagers.
Hilarion returns from his chores and stops before the home of Giselle. Villagers pass by on the way to the vineyards where they will harvest the last of the grapes before the wine festival. Count Albert arrives early in Act I, hides his sword and quickly disguise himself as a villager. After a brief squabble with Hilarion (a predecessor of “Oklahoma’s” Judy Fry) concerning who loves Giselle more, the festivities begin. Lines of villagers crises-cross the stage with grace and aplomb.
Giselle is warned by her mother that she is not well and should not partake in the exuberant dancing of lifts, leaps and festive folk steps. By the end of the first act, Albert is exposed as an imposter. Broken-hearted, bereft of her senses, Giselle performs the ballet’s grief-ridden “mad dance.” In this slow-moving solo, Giselle tremulously stumbles through steps she and Albert had danced together, and after a last frightened run she dies at the foot of her lover.
Ukrainian ballerina Christina Shevchenko, a classical dancer with a beautiful line and gorgeous feet, brought a special awareness to the role on opening night. The dark-haired beauty wasn’t content to merely dance Giselle, she became Giselle and her tenderness of acting matched her dancing. Tall, handsome Oleksei Tiutiunnyk showed off his sensitive partnering as her lover. He also pulled off a set of breathtaking high jumps with such “ballon” that is rarely seen these days.
Shevchenko and Tiutiunnyk did not completely steal the spotlight, however. Special note should be made of Elizaveta Gogidze as Myrtha, all-powerful queen of the Wilis, whose cold, imperious solo awakens the ghost-maidens and commands their lovers—who return each evening to place flowers on their graves—to dance until death. Gogidze was mesmerizing in her ghostly floats across the stage and, without upstaging anyone, made the spirit into the third lead role rather than a supporting part.
Often it’s the sublime second act that can make or break the reputation of a company. Happily, the United Ukrainian Ballet has a splendid, praise-worthy rendition with original dance variations added by Ratmansky. A group of men enter the graveyard and are soon scared away by ghostly apparitions. The mourning Count Count enters in search of Giselle’s tomb. As he thinks of Giselle, he can only feel her presence. When the loving couple finally reunites in a delicate pas de deux, the Wilis rush back and forth, cutting off all avenues of escape for both Albert and Hilarion, who is hidden behind a tombstone. The Wilis capture both men, but Albert is saved by Giselle’s insistence to dance for him. He is saved when the morning bell rings and Giselle returns to her grave.
Just how much of the original 19th century choreography remains at this point is hard to say. No notational system was used to record its exact movements, and the ballet no doubt has changed a great deal during its travels from country to country and company to company.
No matter what choreographic interpretation is used, Adolphe Adam’s memorable music is the common denominator of all productions. Providing more than rhythmic support to the dances the score boasts both musical continuity and effective leitmotifs that emphasize the story’s emotions.
Running Time: Approximately two hours and 25 minutes with one 15-minute intermission.
“Giselle” runs through February 5, 2023, performed by the United Ukrainian Ballet at The Kennedy Center Opera House, 2700 F Street, NW in Washington, DC 20566. Tickets are available here or by calling 800-444-1324.