On the night of Tuesday 13th September 2022, a newly formed company, the United Ukrainian Ballet made its London début at the Coliseum. This company is formed of seventy Ukrainian dancers from various Ukrainian ballet companies, who fled their country following the Russian invasion on the 24th February 2022. It was put together by its artistic leader Igone de Jonagh, a former principal ballerina with the Dutch National Ballet, and is based at the old conservatory in The Hague, which has been converted into a refugee centre for Ukrainian dancers and others. The United Ukrainian Ballet made its world début last month in The Netherlands in Alexei Ratmansky’s historical production of Giselle, which he previously staged for the Bolshoi Ballet in 2019 and this week, the company presented the production for their London début.
Alexei Ratmansky, artist-in-residence at American Ballet Theatre, has been one of the most prominent of outspoken figures condemning the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Born to a Russian mother and a Ukrainian father in Leningrad (now, Saint Petersburg), Ratmansky grew up in Kyiv before travelling to Moscow to train at the Bolshoi Academy. Now one of ballet’s most renowned choreographers, there is barely anywhere in the world where he has not shared his choreographic genius, which he brings to a company that stands for the resilience and courage of the Ukrainian people during these dark times and to ensure the preservation of Ukrainian culture. It also acts as a way to unite all of us in the ballet world against a terrible tyranny that is continuously violating human rights with horrific war crimes in an invasion that has claimed and is still claiming many innocent lives. For their company’s début, they chose Giselle, the most famous of the 19th century Parisian classics that premièred in Paris on the 28th June 1841.
Ratmansky’s Giselle stands out from other productions because it is based on the historical documents of the 19th century productions. The most distinctive of these documents are choreographic notation scores by French Ballet Master Henri Justament and Nikolai Sergeyev, the regisseur of the Russian Imperial Ballet. Justament’s notations document the French productions performed in the 1860s, while Sergeyev’s scores cover the late 19th and early 20th century productions staged by Marius Petipa in Saint Petersburg. In turning to the historical productions, Ratmansky’s aim is to get as close to the original versions as possible and to strip away the modern trends and traditions that have stained the classics. In a recent interview with Graham Watts, Ratmansky said that the choreography we see today in the classics is “dancers’ choreography”, not “choreographers’ choreography” because it is filled with countless tricks that have been pulled right out of the circus and have nothing to do with ballet. In his historical productions, Ratmansky has disposed of these flaws and presented a vision of true artistry: a vision of what classical ballet is meant to look like.
The performance on the night of Tuesday 13th September, as the critics have reminded us, was filled with emotion. It began with a tribute to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, who passed away on the 8th September, aged 96, a tribute that concluded with members of the English National Opera singing a special rendition of God Save The King. Afterwards, to the conductor’s podium came Viktor Oliynyk, a Merited Artist of Ukraine and the conductor of the National Opera of Ukraine, a position he has held since 2017. With baton in hand, he conducted the ENO Orchestra with vibrance and colour, presenting a lively, invigorating performance of Adolphe Adam’s score.
Once the overture was over, the purple curtain of the Coliseum rose onto the Rhineland village that is Giselle’s home. It is the day of the grape harvest festival, and the villagers are preparing to celebrate with dances, wine, and the crowning of Giselle as Queen of the Vintage. On stomps the gamekeeper Hilarion, who is withered by jealousy because Giselle is in love with Albrecht, and they plan to marry. However, everything ends in tragedy when Hilarion reveals that Albrecht is a nobleman in disguise and is engaged to another woman. The shock causes poor Giselle to go mad and she dies of a broken heart. The differences in the characters in this production could not be made any clearer: modern audiences know Giselle as a vulnerable, innocent, delicate, and frail young girl with a love for dancing and there is much debate about whether Albrecht genuinely cares about her or is just sowing some wild oats before his marriage. This production does not present what one might expect because it restores the 19th century character portrayals – Giselle is no damsel-in-distress who suffers from frail health, but a feisty, healthy, strong-willed young woman who can stand up for herself, who knows what she wants and is not afraid to pursue it, as shown when she does not hesitate to rebel against her overprotective mother. Albrecht is not a careless, deceitful, heartless seducer; he is genuinely in love with the plucky peasant girl and although his actions are not selfless, he is good-hearted, and one really feels for him when their love story meets its tragic end. The first act is filled with sweet, romantic moments between Albrecht and Giselle, which confirm that their love is genuine and not one-sided. Their meeting scene is very different because it’s not their getting-together or Albrecht seducing the innocent Giselle, but a date since they are already a couple and a sweet date it is too. Their moments together only add to the tragedy of the act’s finale: the curtain going down on Albrecht cradling Giselle’s lifeless body was just heart wrenching.
Hilarion is usually sympathetic in today’s productions, but not here – he is a jealous brute who only proves himself unworthy of Giselle’s love, especially when he almost hits her after she rejects him. The arrogant way he publicly exposes Albrecht does not help his image either, not in the least because it results in Giselle’s tragic demise, something that, of course, he could not have foreseen. The only time when one does sympathise with Hilarion is when he becomes a victim of the wilis because does anyone really deserve such a fate? Berthe is still very much Giselle’s overprotective mother, who repeatedly warns her daughter against dancing, not because she has a weak heart, but because Berthe fears that Giselle’s love for dancing will ultimately turn her into a wili. And then we have Bathilde, Albrecht’s fiancée, who is often presented as cold with a sneer, but in this production, she is a kind, gentle woman who cares for Giselle and even mourns her death.
After the first act’s tragic finale, we have the second act, which is a sharp contrast to the first with its Gothic atmosphere and setting in the dark, haunted forest that bears an unhallowed graveyard of betrayed, unmarried women. The clock strikes midnight and out comes Myrtha, the ever-vengeful Queen of the Wilis. Ratmansky has stripped away all the “Les Sylphides-ness” that some modern productions have imposed onto the wilis and presents them in their true nature as an army of killer ghosts. These ghostly brides are not fairies of the night coming out to play with flowers, but vampiric phantoms who rise from the grave every night to seek out fresh victims. They draw Giselle into their deadly cult, but she refuses to take revenge against the grieving Albrecht and instead protects him from the clutches of death until dawn. The ballet ends with an ending many are not familiar with that is based on the original ending from 1841, in which Giselle beckons Albrecht to marry Bathilde before she disappears, and the curtain falls on the heartbroken Albrecht returning to his betrothed.
On the opening night, our titular heroine was performed by Christine Shevchenko, principal ballerina of American Ballet Theatre, who was born in Odessa, and dancing Albrecht was Oleksii Tiutiunnyk, a principal dancer of the National Opera of Ukraine. As soon as she came on stage, Shevchenko just lit up the auditorium with her high-spirited performance as Giselle revels in her happiness as she dances and in the moments she spends with Albrecht. In the very difficult choreography, especially the Pas seul variation, she presented flawless technique with her hops en pointe and the difficult diagonal of pirouettes en dehors and en dedans. Her mad scene was truly a moment of heartbreak and sadness that one could feel, especially when she “plucked” the imaginary flower and when she fell down dead with the sorrowing Albrecht at her feet. In the second act, Shevchenko completely transitioned from a happy-go-lucky young woman to a tragic spirit who, when given the chance to seek vengeance beyond the grave, tenderly forgives her beloved. Tiutiunnyk proved to be another ray of sunshine: he acted the role of Albrecht beautifully, presenting a young nobleman who only wishes to be with the girl he loves, only for his world to fall to pieces when she dies. His dancing showed strength and elegance in the very difficult male choreography that has been watered down in favour of endless big jumps and turns, especially in the second act variation. Shevchenko and Tiutiunnyk had good chemistry as dance partners and a romantic couple. One could feel the joy and romance in the air during their date and dances in the first act and the sorrow in Giselle’s protection and forgiveness and Albrecht’s grief in the second act, which only made their loss all the more tragic and their final goodbye all the more touching.
Dancing the role of Myrtha was Elizaveta Gogidze, a first soloist with the National Opera of Ukraine, who commanded a strong presence as the leader of the killer wilis. The choreography for Myrtha is especially challenging because it requires great elevation, but Gogidze certainly did not show any signs of struggle. One thing I look for in Myrtha is for the ballerina playing her to remind us that she is one ghostly femme fatale that no one wants to mess with and Gogidze achieved this as she stood tall and proud with no remorse, only a desire for vengeance as she gave orders to her obedient wilis and as Hilarion and Albrecht begged her for mercy. In the role of Hilarion was Sergii Kliachin, a dancer from the National Academic Opera and Ballet Theatre of Ukraine, who proved to be an excellent actor. His Hilarion was not one to sympathise with, especially in the first act where he really put the character’s jealousy and refusal to leave Giselle alone on full display, making the audience perfectly aware which one was the bad suitor. He did very well in presenting the character in a softer, remorseful light in the second act, especially in the opening scene when he and his friends come across Giselle’s grave while drinking and he takes a moment to grieve before being terrified by the appearance of the wilis, who later condemn him to death.
Other performers who deserve a mention are Nikita Hodyna and Veronika Hordina, both dancers of the National Opera of Ukraine, who performed the Peasant Pas de deux, which is by far one of the most difficult passages in the whole production. Hordina was faced with the technical challenge of plenty of petit allegro and steely pointe work, which she delivered very well, but it is for the male dancer that the biggest challenges lie. The first male Peasant variation in the Sergeyev notation scores is one of the most, if not the most, difficult of variations for male dancers. Its greatest challenge is the sequence of brisé volé, ballonné battu, turn, cabriole, pas de bourée, double emboîté, tour left, tour right. For a dancer to do a tour in one direction and then the other is very hard, but despite clearly being out of his comfort zone, Hodyna handled the choreography very well and gave a performance of good technique and musicality that was very deserving of the applause that followed when he finished. The corps de ballet was also a joy to watch and were, themselves, technically demanding, which is a lesson to us all that the corps de ballet are artists in their own right, not backdrop dancers. The dances of the peasants were jolly and vibrant, and the dances of the wilis were the perfect match for the dark, ghostly atmosphere of the haunted forest.
The production contains many restorations from technically demanding choreography to missing pantomime, as well as forgotten dance numbers. One such number is a dance in the second act called Fugue of the Wilis in which Myrtha orders the wilis to attack Albrecht, who Giselle has urged to the protection of the cross on her grave, but the ghostly dancers are driven back by the cross’s holy powers. Ratmansky restored this number with new choreography and group patterns that perfectly match the late 19th, early 20th century style. The biggest difference from the Bolshoi production is that the scale has been toned down due to necessary abridgements in the staging, scenario, and score. Special stage effects from the Bolshoi staging, i.e., wilis flying on wires, Myrtha and Giselle rising out of their graves via trapdoors, and the lights representing the will-o-the-wisps are absent. There is a much smaller number of dancers, so the corps de ballet of peasants and wilis and the hunting party are not on the same grand scale. Nevertheless, Ratmansky makes it work and from a historical perspective, it made me think of the 1908-09 tours of Europe that was carried out by a small group of Imperial Ballet dancers led by Anna Pavlova, Nikolai Legat and Alexander Shiryaev. (These tours included abridged, smaller-scaled stagings of some of the classics, including Swan Lake and Paquita).
The sets and costumes were donated by the Birmingham Royal Ballet – those of the first act are by Hayden Griffin for Giselle and those of the second act are by Peter Farmer for Sir Frederick Ashton’s The Dream. They certainly add to the production’s charm, but one thing I would say is that, as a friend of mine pointed out, maybe the Duke of Courland and Bathilde should have worn costumes with different designs because the fact that they were wearing the same designs made them look more like a couple than father and daughter.
Overall, the night was a very inspirational event that was full of emotion. These dancers have been through so much in the last six months and to see them all coming together and sharing their artistry with us was extraordinary. They could not have turned to anyone better than Alexei Ratmansky for the staging of one of the classics because, despite the smaller scale, Ratmansky has once again worked his magic at restoring a much-loved ballet to its origins and showing the world what the classics and the art form itself should look like. The night ended with the company and Ratmansky coming together to sing the Ukrainian National Anthem, a reminder of the tragic events still occurring in Ukraine and the unity, strength, and resilience that the Ukrainian people have shown as a tyrannical dictator rages war through their country. In terms of the company’s standards, this is a ballet company of some very fine artists who have much to share with the world. I hope that we will continue to see more of the United Ukrainian Ballet in the future and that Ratmansky will stage more historical productions for them.
Review by Amy Growcott
Images by Mark Senior, Altin Kaftira and Danylo Butenko©
One comment on “United Ukrainian Ballet – Giselle”
Reblogged this on Gangleri's Grove and commented:
“Giselle” was the first ballet I ever watched, and though I never got to dance in it when I was still dancing, it was always my favorite ballet, and reading about this particular production just moved me to tears. I hope I get to see it in person at some point. I had the pleasure of watching Ratmansky’s “Sleeping Beauty” restoration a few years ago and it was stunning. I am a firm believer that ballets should remain as they were choreographed. They are a link to a lineage, a tradition, a past, a story, and the genius of every dancer to ever step into these roles. Also, and to my great delight, in this case of “Giselle,” the award for best middle finger given to Russia also goes to Ratmansky and this valiant group of dancers. Slava Ukraini! Slava Geroim.