The Bolshoi Ballet’s ‘Giselle’ at The Kennedy Center

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The Bolshoi sweeps into The Kennedy Center with dreamy ‘Giselle’: Catching up with ballet’s romantic masterwork

Any time you have David Hallberg on a ballet bill, you are guaranteed a sellout. Better than a sellout, the presence of this American native, now Russian-based ballet star guarantees the kind of excitement that only a star can generate. Hallberg is not just a dancer – a moving body that you watch as he leaps flawlessly across the stage. He is an experience – a theatrical whirlwind that’s impossible not to get caught up in.

Svetlana Zakharova (Giselle) and David Hallberg (Albrecht). Photo by E. Fetisova.
Svetlana Zakharova (Giselle) and David Hallberg (Albrecht). Photo by E. Fetisova.

One word can describe last night’s opening of the Bolshoi Ballet’s presentation of Giselle at The Kennedy Center Opera House: “Dreamy.” Hallberg’s portrayal Count Albrecht appeared not as the cad seen in so many other Giselles but as a caring partner showing his love for the peasant girl, danced with joy and abandon by the Bolshoi’s principal ballerina, Svetlana Zakharova.

For more than a century, Giselle has been called the “ultimate romantic ballet.” At its premiere in Paris in 1841, it was hailed as one of the greatest of all dances, topping even La Sylphide, which ushered in the “Romantic Age of Ballet.” It remains today the supreme achievement of that era because dance and drama are perfectly fused here. Hardly is there a moment of choreography that doesn’t also further the narrative line.

When Zakharova enters as a young, spirited Giselle, she skims the floor like a child running on to the playground. As the pretend peasant, Hallberg demonstrates that same joyousness. There was true chemistry between the two lovers in the opening night performance. You believe that Albrecht and Giselle genuinely love each other and you could feel it in their dancing.

At last night’s show, one could sense the audience riveted to the plot of Giselle and what would happen to the seemingly happy couple in the first scenes. Vitaly Biktimirov as Hans, the gamekeeper, pursues the heroine with his bravura technique, but her heart beats only for Albrecht, disguised as a peasant. The passion and jealously lead to intense romance, followed by a fight between the men and eventually Albrecht’s confession of infidelity (he is married to Princess Bathilde), regally performed by Maria Zharkova, all decked out in furs and jewels.

A fellow critic once observed that in authentic productions of Giselle, the peasants never mingle with royalty. True last evening as the Duke, Alexander Fadeechev, and his attendants made their grand entrance to the familiar music by Adolphe Adam, sensitively conducted by Alexander Kopylov. Meanwhile the peasants gathered around Giselle to celebrate the grape harvest in a setting of sunny yellow by Simon Virsaladze. Bolshoi soloist Igor Tsvirko was a replacement in the Peasant Pas de Deux, nice but not quite up to the Bolshoi’s standard for brilliance and dazzle.

At the end of the first act, broken-hearted, bereft of her senses, the heroine performs the grief-stricken “mad dance,” which has become the litmus test of prima ballerinas. In this slow-moving solo, Zakharova tremulously stumbled through steps she and Albrecht had danced together, and after a last frightened run, dies in her lover’s arms, another romantic touch as she usually falls into her mother’s arms for the closing scene.

Often it’s the sublime second act that can make or break the reputation of a company, especially the all-female corps, which matches, if not surpasses, all other international ballet troupes, including the Mariinsky. Indeed, the Russians have a praise-worthy 1987 version by Yuri Grigorovich, the Bolshoi’s renowned Choreographer and Ballet Master. And even with the justified criticism that Washington only gets to see one work while New York has a full repertory scheduled, Giselle is worth catching before it closes this Sunday afternoon.

In many ways, Giselle could be called the first feminist ballet with Myrtha, Queen of the Wilis, best described as a strong woman who won’t back down in punishing the men who have caused heartache. Maria Allash (another replacement in the cast list on opening night) never broke character, not even a tiny smile after her demanding solos. When she lifted the branch of Rosemary (a symbol for remembrance), she was firm in her stance. Men who have forsaken their brides-to-be must die. Giselle, meanwhile, stands for her man to the end and keeps him alive by dancing in his place. Albrecht is saved when the bells toll four at sunrise, and the Wilis return to their graves. Can you get more romantic than that?

The Bolshoi Ballet’s Giselle continues at The Kennedy Center’s Opera House – 2700 F Street, NW, in Washington, DC tonight, Wednesday, May 21, at 7:30 p.m., Thursday, May 22, at 7:30 p.m. Friday, May 23, at 7:30 p.m., Saturday, May 24, at 1:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. and Sunday, May 25, at 1:30 p.m. For tickets, call the box office (800) 444-1324 or (202)-467-4600, or purchase them online.

Running Time: Two hours, with one intermission.

Casting for the remaining six performances:

Wed., May 21 at 7:30 p.m.

Anna Nikulina (Giselle), Artem Ovcharenko (Albrecht), Denis Savin (Hans), and Angelina Karpova (Myrtha)

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Thu., May 22 at 7:30 p.m.

Svetlana Zakharova (Giselle), David Hallberg (Albrecht), Vitaly Biktimirov (Hans), and Maria Allash (Myrtha).

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Fri., May 23 at 7:30 p.m.

Ekaterina Krysanova (Giselle), Rusian Skvortsov (Albrecht), Denis Savin (Hans), Maria Allash (Myrtha).

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 Sat., May 24 at 1:30 p.m.

Anna Nikulina (Giselle), Artem Ovcharenko (Albrecht), Vitaly Biktimirov (Hans), and Angelina Karpova (Myrtha).

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Sat., May 24 at 7:30 p.m.

Ekaterina Krysanova (Giselle), Ruslan Skvortsov (Albrecht), Denis Savin (Hans), and Maria Allash (Myrtha).

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Sun., May 25 at 1:30 p.m.

Anna Nikulina (Giselle), Artem Ovcharenko (Albrecht), Vitaly Biktimirov (Hans), and Maria Allash (Myrtha).

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