Bolshoi Ballet’s uncommonly intimate ‘Giselle,’ at the Kennedy Center


Svetlana Zakharova as Giselle and David Hallberg as Albrecht in the Bolshoi Ballet's “Giselle.” (Elena Fetisova)
Sarah Kaufman
Dance critic May 21

Giselle” is a ballet about secrets and lies. The two lovers at its core know nothing about each other. Count Albrecht is full of deceptions, including the fact that he’s engaged to someone else. The peasant girl of the title suffers from a weak heart and knows that dancing could kill her. Neither confesses these truths to the other.

Yet we are supposed to believe in their bond. I rarely do, but Tuesday night, in an uncommonly intimate performance, Svetlana Zakharova and David Hallberg of the Bolshoi Ballet made one of the better arguments for it. They did this through a perfectly matched style, a way of dancing in complete sympathy with each other.

Sarah Kaufman received the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Criticism and has been The Washington Post's dance critic since 1996. But after logging serious sit-time in opera houses, church basements, fairground tents and lawn chairs, what moves her most is seeing grace happen where she least expects it. View Archive

Both tall, willowy dancers, they moved as one body. The lines of their legs were in agreement; their arms moved at the same angles — even their wrists rotated at the same speed. They responded to the music identically. Watching their uncanny physical harmony, you could believe that destiny had a hand in this ballet.

The Bolshoi is known for its emotional, athletic and theatrical style, but this “Giselle,” created by Yuri Grigorovich, the longtime director during the Soviet era, was a mix of drama and quiet feeling. Wind seemed to whip through the trees that arced over the Kennedy Center Opera House stage, with slashes of fiery color suggesting autumnal branches in motion. The forested backdrop also gave the stage a more closed-in, private feel, as opposed to the open-air vista that most productions favor.

With Pavel Klinichev conducting the Opera House Orchestra, Adolphe Adam’s score sounded warmer and richer than usual. The racing strings evoked Giselle’s heart palpitations, and the questions and reassurances in the music when the two lovers danced brought to mind a wordless operetta.

At times, though, the ballet felt flat. The first act’s peasant doings were a rather dull affair; the corps never fully came to life. Its triumph was in the precision and grandeur of the moonlit second act, when the more stimulating supernatural forces take over. Daria Khokhlova and Igor Tsvirko danced a clean but unremarkable Peasant Pas de Deux. The lower ranks gave the appearance of going through the motions, their minds, perhaps, on the juicier roles awaiting them in Moscow. Sergei Filin, the Bolshoi’s visionary artistic director, has acquired a raft of new ballets for his home audience. “Giselle” is a touring standby, and looked it. Thank goodness for the chemistry between Hallberg and Zakharova.

Zakharova’s Giselle was no innocent. She was an assured, womanly creature, letting her legs fly brazenly skyward. She looked the picture of health; no Giselle in recent memory has hopped so robustly across the Opera House stage on her pointes. With her airy flexibility, extravagantly arched feet and buoyant jump, she complicated the picture here, in a way that was deeply interesting. Was her character truly frail or not? Either way, wasn’t she deceiving Albrecht, denying him the truth about her, just as he was deceiving her?

Hallberg, the American star making his debut on these shores as a member of the Bolshoi, has become an even grander technician and a subtler actor. He unleashed what must be the greatest leap in the business, legs shooting apart as if to pin him in space. His concern during Zakharova’s brief moment of choreographed wooziness was especially touching — he dropped to one knee and looked more stricken than she did.

In Act II, we seemed to have gone from harvest to Christmas. Giselle’s grave was strung, oddly, with colored lights, and at one point the whole forest started twinkling like a Chinese restaurant. If Act I, ending with Giselle’s sudden death, was a view of feminine weakness, the second act ran on female strength. There were no cracks in the ranks of Wilis, the ghosts of dead virgins who are forever resentful of the men they’ll never have. When they knelt in clouds of white tulle, their skirts billowing around them as they swayed to and fro, eight rows of eyes followed eight rows of hands, identically shaped, identically placed. Hands that could crush your soul like a walnut.

Maria Allash’s Myrtha, the Wilis’s queen, was so light, effortless and deathly sure, she seemed suspended on the icy breeze from a crypt.

Curiously, this firmness of order was lost in the curtain calls. After the first act, a miscue caught the dancers and stage crew in a mad dash for the wings. After the last act, the ushers initiated a hesitant dance of confusion that held us all in giggling suspense: Who would get the flowers? Did the bouquets go to this ballerina, or that one, or . . . wait, what about the guy in white tights?

When Hallberg unexpectedly ended up with an armful of roses, he laid them grandly at Zakharova’s feet. She lifted him up with a laugh; they exchanged wisecracks and a kiss. Oh, what did they say? Has Hallberg learned to joke in Russian? No matter; we were all drawn into their fun. It was a delightful bonus, a continuation of their pas de deux that had begun two hours before.

No, even before that: This partnership was rooted in fate.

The Bolshoi Ballet performs “Giselle,” with cast changes, through May 25 at the Kennedy Center Opera House. Tickets $34-$165. Call 202-467-4600 or visit www.kennedy-center.org.

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