Appearing for the first time in Washington as Count Albrecht in "Giselle," former Bolshoi dancer Alexander Godunov gave us Saturday night his most presentable portrayal to date as a new principal of American Ballet Theatre. If the performance still seemed insufficient in dramatic depth and technical refinement, it was nonetheless more creditable than what we have seen previously from Godunov, and it made it easier to understand how he could have won such public favor in Moscow.
He was, to begin with more at ease on stage, perhaps partly because of his own comfort with the role, and perhaps also by dint of being paired with a ballerina -- Natalia Makarova -- who like himself is a product of Russian tradition.
In any case, the two danced smoothly together for the most part, and lent basic credibility to the fateful romance of Giselle and her deceitful lover.
Makarova, who always strives to inject some fresh tinge into her justly famous interpretation, emphasized the trusting innocence of Giselle this time. The performance had other noteworthy aspects, including a spritely Peasant Pas de Deux from Rebecca Wright and Danilo Radojevic, the latter adding some brilliant aerial embellishments to his solos. Frank Smith's sympathetic Hilarion was, as ever, a distinct asset. Most importantly -- as the audience recognized with prolonged applause -- Cynthia Harvey as Myrta, Kristine Soleri and Lise Houlton as her companions, and the corps of ghostly Wilis made the opening of Act II the most regally danced and dramatically compelling portion of the ballet.
Godunov displayed a paradoxical combination of qualities. His imposing height and conspicous blond locks make him visually striking, but there's a curious lassitude about his presence. His acting had some nice, subtle touches, such as the quick guilty glance he threw Giselle before bending dutifully to kiss Bathilde's hand. But elsewhere his mime seemed so exaggerately melodramatic as to border caricature. His dancing, too, was a mixture -- enviable elevation and strength, offset by frequently gauche placement, heavy landings and gangly phrasing. This "Giselle" showed that he can hold his own in a sufficiently conventional context; how effectively he can be deployed within the rest of the ABT repertoire remains an open question.