Moscow Stanislavsky Ballet
by Toba Singer
June 14, 2003 -- Orpheum Theatre, San Francisco
In this “Giselle,” some of the names have changed. “Hilarion” is “Hans”and “Albrecht” is “Albert.” Right from the start, this production bears the Stanislavsky imprimatur. In nearly all versions I’ve seen, Hilarion is danced as a colorless, feckless loser, who one can easily imagine boring Giselle, if I may be allowed to say so, to death. (A notable exception is Cuban-trained Jorge Esquivel’s Hilarion.) Here, Hans is an earnest, somewhat rakish fellow, whose heart, while worn on his sleeve, is at the same time present in his dancing and characterization. He is in no way a cipher: You know this guy; he probably grew up in your neighborhood, and worked at the local Home Depot. He’s stuck with a set where there’s just a cottage, bench, hunter’s shed and no backdrop. Rumor has it—can anyone confirm?—that the backdrop didn’t meet the fire code in Southern California, and was dropped from the set. So, we would not have “seen” the forest or the trees in this production were it not for Anton Domashev’s alternately woodsy, alternately “aw shucks” dancing of the role of Hans. In this version, staged by Tatiana Legat, Hans deposits a big bunch of purple flowers in a vase tacked to the cottage doorsill. He is modest and unassuming down to the last detail. Even a novice audience thus gains enough perspective to be certain that Hans and Giselle are way too supplementary to make a go of it as a complementary pair.
On the other hand, Hans’ rival, Albert, danced ever so perfectly by Georgy Smilevsky, takes the stage by storm, all in white, every inch of him polished to a high sheen. When Giselle (Natalia Krapivina) steps forth from her cottage, we learn to our delight that we will know her by the gossamer inclination of the head and extension of the arm and hand. In the courtship segment, we see exquisite technique, tempi and full dramatic dispatch of any body part that can send a subtle message. For example, her shoulder retreats and the pectoral muscle juts forward in a mixed message of “No, no!” and “Come hither” that could set back the anti-date rape “‘No’ Means ‘No’!” campaign several millennia. Contrarily, the “he loves me, he loves me not” petal-pluck on the bench presses the comic element forward way beyond the usual “cute.” In this version, Albert’s athletic single petal toss cum jete tells us he’s rounding the bases to home plate. In the confrontation between Hans and Albert, Hans makes an amazingly sudden and defining transition from bumbling to angry and determined. In this scene, the dancers confirm that the Russians are obsessively concerned with just about every detail except the pointed toe.
Without the dogs and pageantry of a full-scale production, the ambience of noblesse is conveyed by the corps dressed in the shiny white of Albert’s costume with a black stripe or a red or green—depending, one divines, on the heraldry. The grandeur of the hunt is somewhat diminished by the tiny size and sound of the horn that announces the hunting party. Bathilde’s entrance in red and white is a set all unto itself. She (either O. Popova or E. Bortchenko—the casting sheet did not specify) assumes full command of the toddlin’ town that this little clearing in the woods has now become. Every glance is in the imperative. Giselle takes an extra dip in her curtsey when she is sent off for something for Bathilde to quaff. When Giselle reverently touches Bathilde’s hem and moves to kiss it, Bathilde abruptly pulls her dress elsewhere, taking not the slightest notice of Giselle’s tribute. The Peasant Pas de Deux, danced by Ekaterina Safonova and Vitaly Breusenko, is a bit uneven—with unsteady moments in the adage, and somewhat tipsy pirouettes.
At first Giselle seems too girlish to go mad when the truth about Bathilde and Albert is revealed to her. The role of Berta is low profile, and so there’s not a lot of foreshadowing going on, and truthfully, Giselle seems like such a casual girl that she’d just as likely grin and bear the troubling news as she might a bad hair day. To make matters more confusing (to me), Ms. Krapivina’s uncanny resemblance to the actress Sally Field in her youth, makes you believe for a split second that you’ve been momentarily transported back to the future to a scene from something credibly titled, “Gidget Goes Crazy.” So, Stanislavksy notwithstanding, it takes a moment or two to trust the believability of the mad scene. The sword brandishing is, in my book, a test of its dramatic artistry. These dancers are expert sword deployers and thanks to that, this scene more than makes the grade.
By the time we are back from the lobby for Act II, Ms. Krapivina as Giselle, has matured considerably. In the company of her sister “Vilises” (Wilis), who are quintessentially serene and bride-like in costumes that flatter their perfect line, she now seems wise beyond her years. Her earlier coltishness is absent in the pas de deux with Albert, here costumed in purple tights and a black tunic. In their grief, they dance a paradox: A partnership in solitude. She offers us a heavenly battue changement saute, and breathtaking moments in the coda, as she switches back and forth in the fouettes en l’aire. Legat’s staging is brilliant here, as are the saut de Basques she gives Myrtha (Oksana Kusmenko—who, incidentally, also dances the role of Berta).
Myrtha’s unveiled bouree entrance is simpler and less dramatic than in most versions, as is the brief voyage by the corps, but the pristine angel brides and flawless dancing by the entire company drive the production values up into a cresting wave that carries it all the way through to the story’s powerful denouement. The Moscow Stanislavsky will enthrall you!
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