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GISELLE (article first published : 2007-04-26)

Durban is extremely fortunate to have the St Petersburg Ballet Theatre in town for the next couple of weeks presenting not one, but two, time-honoured classical ballet favourites: Giselle and Swan Lake. When this company appeared in South Africa for the first time in 2006, they performed to sell-out seasons across the country attracting audiences in the region of 63,000. This 2007 tour will, no doubt, either equal or surpass that figure.

One of the shorter ballets, Giselle is set outside the cottage of a young peasant girl, Giselle. A dashing young nobleman (Albrecht) has disguised himself as a peasant in order to gain her favours. Giselle’s health is frail but she engages in a strenuous dance with the grape harvesters, causing her mother to remind her that she will die of exhaustion and fall under the spell of the Willis. These are spirits of betrothed girls who were fond of dancing and died when betrayed by their faithless lovers. The Wilis have sworn eternal revenge on such men and lure them into the forest, eventually forcing them to dance until exhausted before drowning them.

When Giselle discovers her lover’s true identity and the fact that he is betrothed to another, she goes mad and dies of a broken heart. Albrecht is captured by the Wilis and their Queen. Knowing that the Willis’s power comes to an end at dawn, Giselle encourages the Queen to make Albrecht dance through the night. As the sun casts its first rays, he is exhausted but alive and Giselle fades off into the mist with the rest of the Willis.

Tonight’s opening of Giselle was a long-awaited event by ballet aficionados and dance lovers alike. They were not disappointed. Irina Kolesknikova, who entranced us all last year, was just as sensitive, charming and gracious, bringing much dramatic intensity to the role of the hapless peasant girl. Providing an excellent partner for her, as before, was tall statuesque Dmitriy Akulinin as Albrecht.

Yulia Petrova was particularly impressive as the Queen of the Willis, from her first almost impossibly-slow bourrées en pointe advance downstage. She created a chilly commanding figure as she watches Albrecht dance himself to death. Sabina Yapparova and Andrey Yakhnuk also rate a strong mention for their Peasant Pas de Deux.

The St Petersburg Ballet has brought its complete sets and costumes and they are truly splendid. In Durban, the ballets are accompanied by the KwaZulu-Natal Philharmonic Orchestra under the direction of Vadim Nikitin and concertmaster Mikhail Chausovski, both of the St Petersburg Ballet Company.

However, although sound in balletic style and stunning from a visual sense, the production is not without its problems.

While contemporary dance challenges norms and works against rhythms, creating a counterpoint tapestry, I believe classical dance should retain its time-honoured format. As we strive to save ballet in South Africa and introduce new audiences to this beautiful dance style that is so highly demanding of its practitioners, we need to be sure that the storyline is clear. This is vital to its development and audiences’ appreciation of the emotion involved. I felt the mime in Giselle was not clear enough – often too casual, relaying obscure messages. According to the programme notes, the original production had 45 minutes of mime and 60 minutes of dancing, so mime formed an integral part of the work from the start.

At the time the ballet was created (1841), both choreographers and composer worked together, developing a story through dance and music. Whether or not it was a decision by Konstantin Sergeev who is responsible for the revised choreography and stage direction, I wasn’t happy with the fact that the dancers seemed to be “off” the music, ie not on the beat. Musical phrases were completed before the accompanying movement or the other way around – the result being that the music “said” something but the dancers weren’t “in sync” with this. Perhaps this is a new style, but it certainly doesn’t win any favours from me.

Compared to the size of the stages the St Petersburg Ballet Company is used to working on, the Playhouse is comparatively small and adjustments obviously had to be made. However, the extended gestures from the harvesters watching the dance should have been scaled down. Another problem was seeing dancers waiting in the wings – those ultra-white dresses of the Willis cause a major distraction if they hove into view through the trees before their time!

Having said all that, it’s a beautiful ballet and a joy to see the Opera Theatre full. May their Durban run be fully supported for both Giselle and Swan Lake. Don’t miss either of them!

The St Petersburg Ballet Company presents Giselle in the Playhouse Opera from April 25 to 29 followed by Swan Lake from May 1 to 5. Considering the stature of this production, tickets are reasonable priced from R160 to R375 (children R96 to R225). Book at Computicket on 011 340 8000 or 031 369 9540 or on www.computicket.com - Caroline Smart




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