A photo caption in yesterday's Style section incorrectly identified the role in which Bolshoi ballerina Nina Semizorova was pictured. It was from "Swan Lake." (Published 7/31/90)
What good is a "Giselle" without a Giselle, without, that is, a dramatically convincing heroine?
The answer is, not much, as we found out the hard way Friday night with the first of the Bolshoi Ballet's three scheduled lead casts at Wolf Trap. Despite more than a century of carefully cultivated tradition, despite the company's elaborate and refined schooling, despite the dancers' many strengths and sophisticated histrionics, and despite the stylistic homogeneity ensured by the Bolshoi's cloistered situation, the end result on this occasion was a ballet hollow at the core.
"Giselle" has come down to us, from its beginnings in the Paris of 1841, as the epitome of balletic romanticism, an illustration of its creators' faith in the redemptive power of human love. But if we do not feel empathetically, through Giselle's portrayer, her guileless naivete, the totality of her emotional surrender to Albrecht, the trauma that unhinges her mind when his duplicity stands revealed, and the saintly fervor that brings her to Albrecht's defense in her posthumous incarnation as a Wili, then all we have witnessed is a filling in of blanks, the inert reenactment of a quaintly preposterous ghost story.
Nina Semizorova, who was Friday's Giselle, is a slim, small dancer in her early thirties, obviously a seasoned performer, possessed of a strong, if not impregnable, technique, a delicately harmonious line and a particularly sharp attack in allegro movements. Her Giselle seemed more hard-boiled than vulnerable; indeed, in her early scenes with Albrecht, she looked to be almost as scheming and skilled a flirt as "Coppelia's" Swanilda, toying as much with him as he with her. Gratified though she may have been by his attentions, nowhere did she give signs of any head-over-heels infatuation. In her mad scene, she appeared more tipsy than deranged. And in the second act, she was no more believable as a ghost than she had been as a love-struck maiden; her feigned ethereality kept being interrupted by unghostly bursts of sinewy vigor. Though her dancing, moreover, had its felicities as pure dancing, it had no visible relation to the music except one of distortion through grossly exaggerated rubatos.
If Mark Peretokin, as Albrecht, didn't quite manage to salvage the ballet as a whole, he came valiantly close. Tall, slender and flaxen-haired, this relative newcomer to leading roles has a vague facial resemblance to Mikhail Baryshnikov, if you squint a bit. He lacks the latter's electrifying presence, depth and intensity, but his polished classical bearing, fine elevation, ample technique and seemingly instinctive aristocratic manner stood him in excellent stead. He played Albrecht in the time-honored tradition of the charming cad. After Hilarion -- called "Hans" by the Bolshoi for some reason -- blew Albrecht's cover, disclosing him to be a philandering nobleman, Peretokin turned a deaf ear to Giselle's pleas for explanation. It wasn't until she lost her wits and died that the depth of his passion for her dawned upon him, at which point he went almost more insane than the heroine, in rage against himself and the hapless Hilarion.
The current Bolshoi "Giselle," as revised and staged by Artistic Director Yuri Grigorovich, would labor against basic handicaps even with the most inspired Giselle. Grigorovich, in line with his overall emphasis on dance as opposed to mimetic elements in the classics, has stripped the ballet down to an almost schematic framework that feels stingy on the dramatic side. Simon Virsaladze's decor, with its self-consciously smeary outlines presumably intended to suggest brushwork, has the look of shoddy, greeting-card sentimentality. All the lush curvaceousness of the Bolshoi's characteristic dancing style couldn't dispel the feeling of charmless calculation that attaches to the production.
The contributions from supporting roles was hence mostly in vain. Yuri Vetrov made Hans (Hilarion) a rather dour, unlikable, not to say unlovable, character, which is among the valid approaches to the part. As Myrtha, Maria Bylova was more fey than implacable, and thereby less of a foil to Giselle than one might ideally wish, though her dancing was generally commendable. The chief attraction of the Peasant Pas de Deux in this performance was the moth-like lightness of Natalia Arkhipova; Mikhail Sharkov was her boyishly bounding partner. In the ensemble dances of both acts, the corps de ballet was uneven; pliancy was its strongest suit, steadiness of balance its weakest.
In sum, this "Giselle" seemed all too lamentably a reflection of the stagnation that has enveloped the Bolshoi over the past decade and more. Bereft of the rejuvenating force that comes only with the help of creative innovation in repertory, the company has sunk into a rote Xeroxing of its past. Unable to revitalize a work like "Giselle," the Bolshoi comes closer and closer to converting it into a mummified caricature of classicism.