A Giselle feast in New York

Meredith Brooks reviews four stellar casts in Giselle.

American Ballet Theatre has just finished its week of Giselle and I managed to see four different casts: Alina Cojocaru, guesting from the Royal Ballet, with David Hallberg (a late substitute for an injured Ethan Stiefel), Paloma Herrera and Roberto Bolle, Hee Seo and Hallberg again, then finally Diana Vishneva and Marcelo Gomes.
These were all exceptional dancers so it seems a bit churlish to pick holes in their performances, but there were some notable peaks and troughs.

The production, staged by Kevin McKenzie and dating from 1987, is very traditional, sort of medieval/Renaissance first act with an absolutely pure romantic Act II.

There are no liberties taken with the staging and very little with the choreography. The Act II corps of Wilis were excellent all four times, clearly drilled to within an inch of their lives – arms and arabesques all at identical angles. Very impressive. The corps work in the first act was never as clear or precise, but I guess we’re not really paying as much attention either.

So, Cojocaru and Hallberg were a bizarre coupling even on paper. She comes up to his armpit at a pinch so the proportions were all wrong. Added to that, she made some strange choices in musical phrasing, apparently striving for a more ethereal romantic style.

In Act 1, she sustained balances for too long – and she was really on balance – and mostly just looked late. I don’t understand why she didn’t save that for the second act, where she was much more on the beat.

Hallberg did a valiant job trying to go with her; his partnering was very sympathetic and they did seem to have a good rapport, apart from musically.

The mad scene, the big dramatic test, was pitch perfect and very convincing.

Act II was where Cojocaru shone – she was probably my pick of the casts for this second act – with her amazing balances and beautiful arms/back combining to perfection.

Her opening spinning hops in arabesque were wild and crazed but then she pulled it all into stillness. The one jarring note for me was her tendency to pull out a big a la seconde over her head – call me old fashioned, but that’s not Giselle.

Hallberg was exemplary throughout; his partnering always reliable and his line and placement long and gorgeous. His entrechat sixes (I counted 24) were crisp and with a line through those amazing, flexible, beautiful feet that was unmatched by Bolle or Gomes, both of who did perfectly respectable sixes.

The peasant pas de deux was danced by Sarah (“I really did all the dancing in Black Swan”) Lane and Daniil Simkin. Lane was pretty stiff (she was much better in the matinee a few days later) but Simkin is an absolute virtuoso (he did a great gypsy in Don Q the previous season) of the Angel Corella school.

Lots of audience gasping, as he culminated with a pristine, six turn pirouette, on balance, a la seconde, for a couple of beats. He repeated the trick on the matinee, so no fluke.

Stella Abrera (replacing Gillian Murphy) was not compelling as Myrtha. She is a lovely dancer, but quite contained, and too soft to be an imposing presence. Abrera also danced in the matinee later in the week and was much more confident. Either matinees take the pressure off or perhaps her confidence came from the chance to repeat the performance.

Two nights later, it was the turn of Herrera and Bolle. I preferred Herrera’s first act to Cojocaru’s, partly because her phrasing was clear and her portrayal fresh and light.

She doesn’t really have the arms or a genuine lyrical quality for Act II. Bolle’s partnering was solid and his variations fine enough, but it’s not his technique that establishes his presence. I have to confess that my primary motivation to see this show was Bolle – delicious eye candy. And that was pretty much the topic of conversation around the foyer before, interval and after.

This cast had the best Myrtha by a mile – Michele Wiles will never be a Giselle but she is a superb mean, cold, and authoritarian Queen of the Wilis.

She is very strong and centred and brings a powerful presence to the role. Veronika Part in the Vishneva show that followed has the right look for Myrtha, but she never seemed to quite own the role (I’ve seen her in past seasons) and this time she was not really on balance, struggling through the promenades.

The Wednesday matinee brought the debut of Korean-born Hee Seo, warmly partnered by Hallberg. She is long and lean so they were well matched and Hallberg was very attentive and supportive. I very much liked her first act, nicely portrayed and only a few technical glitches, barely worth mentioning.

Great hops en pointe, well travelled. Her inexperience was a bit more evident in the second act, as might be expected. She was a little too safe, cutting port de bras a bit short, not quite sustaining extensions long enough, maybe a bit too eager to move on. But a very creditable debut overall, certainly good enough to warrant a second chance. [According to my New York sources, her “star is born” moment was last season in Thais pas de deux and Romeo and Juliet. So she’s on the path.]

And then to Diana Vishneva and Marcelo Gomes. Vishneva was in full diva mode, completely commanding the stage and devastating everyone in her path. Her Giselle in Act I was indulged, wilful and self absorbed, rather than a deceived innocent.

She and Gomes had little rapport (which was surprising as they certainly had it in Lady of the Camellias last year, to be reprised this week) but the partnership sort of worked, as her attitude to Albrecht was less infatuated peasant than adored one, accepting her due.

There was a hair disaster in the lead into the mad scene – too loosened too early so that her hair was down before the hallucination descends. It was distracting and weakened the dramatic impact of the scene quite significantly. I thought Vishneva over emoted the mad scene but maybe she was overcompensating.

There is nothing quite like Russian training (and sensibility) for nailing the style and mood of Act II. Vishneva was riveting, with her beautiful, mobile spine, and arms on delay, moving through honey. Her footwork is not always flawless but she has such presence that it doesn’t matter.

Although in some ways I liked Cojocaru more, she didn’t fill the stage (and the whole Met) as did Vishneva. This is what prima ballerinas look like.

She gave 15 curtain calls. They were performances in themselves, alternating between “worship at my feet, peasants” and “I am not worthy”.

I particularly liked the third call when she dragged herself reluctantly onto the stage with the curtain and, clutching the curtain to her throat, collapsed humbly to her knee. Poor Gomes, diva-ed into insignificance.

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