Story ballets trade in spectacle, although the story can often get lost under lavish decor, emotional fireworks and overwrought dancing. The Mariinsky Ballet got all the proportions right in "Giselle": the subdued setting, the subtle shifts in feeling, the weightlessness . . . and the firm grip on your heart.
The emotional power of "Giselle" on Tuesday at the Kennedy Center Opera House rested squarely on the slender shoulders of Diana Vishneva, who is not a showy ballerina and not a very grand one. So much the better, for this makes her incapable of a false move. Vishneva is unusually devoted to the expressive powers of dancing, and through her clear and unaffected performance, the story of trampled innocence and unearned forgiveness was as profoundly moving as I've ever seen it.
The production continues through Sunday afternoon, when Vishneva is scheduled to dance again. The Mariinsky's other Giselles may or may not possess her unusual power. But aside from ballerina efforts, the overall modesty of this "Giselle," in terms of the decor and the ensemble work, is a magnificent asset.
Unspectacular sets put the visual emphasis on the dancing. Even the wobbliness of the cottages, which shook when their doors were slammed, is charming. The corps de ballet stays out of the way in the first act's village scene and arrays itself into rows of mist in the second, which takes place in a forest haunted by Willis, the vengeful ghosts of women denied their weddings. Myrtha, queen of the Willis, was danced Tuesday by Ekaterina Kondaurova, a tall woman with a majestic jump who floated as she crossed the stage on her pointes. The human cares of the first act were swept away with those supernatural toes. This was truly a ghostly realm.
Before that, though, there was the spell cast by Vishneva. As we've seen in her past performances here of Aurora in "The Sleeping Beauty" and Nikiya in "La Bayadere," Vishneva renders her characters with acute vitality. Here, she started small. Vishneva held back in the first act, dancing perhaps at half-power. Giselle is a girl of fragile health, after all; when she learns her fiance, Albrecht, has betrayed her, the shock kills her.
The frailness of Vishneva's Giselle is always apparent in a way that truly makes you fear for her. The shortness of breath, the pangs of pain, her hesitation before gathering force for another bit of dancing, as if she's waiting out a racing pulse; the symptoms unspool naturally, as they would in someone with a seriously flawed system who pushes herself beyond her limit.
But, adding a layer that is unique to her, Vishneva connects the dots even further, to foreshadow the blow that emotional turmoil will have on her. Not only does exertion affect her physical health, but confrontation does, too. When Hans, the suitor Giselle has spurned, exposes Albrecht as a liar, Vishneva isn't just incredulous and angry. She becomes woozy, weak and, somehow, pale. Or maybe we just imagine she's grown pale because all the outward signs are there, the slight but clear indications of physical stress. And this is where Vishneva's portrayal separated itself from other Giselles who grimace and falter on the right musical count but who don't live her disorder, don't reveal how close it is to the surface.
More than that, Vishneva shows us this through dance values - the pace of her movements, the weight she puts into a step, the way time seems to slow because she moves just behind the music. Is it acting? Not really. It's clear and precise dancing. The belief she has in dancing as a vehicle to put her whole story across is impressive, and singular. Vishneva doesn't go in for brow-wrinkling melodrama, not even in her "mad" scene, which led us breath by breath into her loss of reason, loss of sight and loss of will.
Andrian Fadeyev, Vishneva's loyal and well-matched partner over the years, also built his role by degrees, although he underplayed it nearly too well in the first act. One was hardly aware of him at times. There was more fire in him when it came to seeking forgiveness at Giselle's grave, however, and launching himself nearly to the rafters as the Willis tried to punish his duplicity.
By the tender end, Myrtha and every last Willi seemed wrung out by this story of love gone wrong, and then beautifully, sadly right. Giselle's ghost, reawakened from cold rigidity to a remembrance of love, becomes the strong one as Albrecht grows weak. Vishneva, uncovering yet more layers in this age-old ballet, makes clear that the balance of power in the first act is reversed. And as the morning bells sounded and dawn broke, signifying that Albrecht was safe, she alone turned her face to the rising light. "Giselle" has never had a finer finish.