Events in two countries cannot completely overshadow the power of United Ukrainian Ballet’s Giselle

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Oliver King, Paul Godfrey & SENF present Giselle, performed by the United Ukrainian Ballet: Dancers, English National Opera Orchestra / Viktor Oliynik (conductor). London Coliseum, London, 13.9.2022. (JO’D)

The Wilis in the United Ukrainian Ballet’s Giselle © Mark Senior

Choreography – Marius Petipa, after Jean Coralli and Jules Perrot
Staging and Additional choreography – Alexei Ratmansky
Music – Adolphe Adam, with additional music by Friedrich Burgmüller, Ludvig Minkus and Ricardo Drigo
Set and Costume designers – Hayden Griffin and Peter Farmer
Lighting designer – Andrew Ellis

Dancers included:
Giselle – Christine Shevchenko
Count Albrecht – Oleksii Tiutiunnyk
Hilarion – Sergei Kliachin
Myrtha – Elizaveta Gogidze
Berthe – Olena Mykhailova
Bathilde – Ksenia Novikova
Duke of Courland – Rinus Sprong
Wilfred – Viktor Lytvynenko
Artists of the United Ukrainian Ballet

Beginning with ‘God Save the King’ and ending with the national anthem of Ukraine, this performance of Giselle was firmly set in the contemporary context. The dancers of the Netherlands-based United Ukrainian Ballet are refugees from war. When they ran on for their second curtain call, guest dancer Christine Shevchenko (Giselle) and Oleksii Tiutiunnyk (Count Albrecht) carried the blue and yellow Ukrainian flag between them.

Giselle, its sets and costumes lent by Birmingham Royal Ballet, is the company’s first production. Choreographer Alexei Ratmansky imbues it with a sinuous athleticism, a sharing out of energy around the stage. He also makes additions to the mime. It is the first time I have seen Hilarion stop short of hitting Giselle.

In other aspects, though, this looks like an interestingly ‘old’ production. Ratmansky has researched the ‘complex history’ of the ballet and its music. As in the version by Mary Skeaping, which English National Ballet performed at the London Coliseum in 2017, the Wilis resemble the Sylphs. There is a Peasant pas de deux (Veronika Hordina and Nikita Hodyna), rather than the pas de six of the current version by The Royal Ballet. Most significantly of all, the ballet ends as it did in 1841: dawn breaks and Giselle signals to Albrecht that he must marry Bathilde, who appears in search of him in the forest.

Christine Shevchenko (Giselle) and Oleksii Tiutiunnyk (Count Albrecht) © Mark Senior

The orchestra of English National Opera, loaned to the United Ukrainian Ballet for this week, sounded muffled in the opening chords that can be so shrill and urgent. Christine Shevchenko, a ‘hard’ dancer perhaps, does not suit the role of Giselle so well in the early scenes. But the Peasant pas de deux somehow ‘freed’ the dance. After it, the performance took off. Giselle’s ‘mad scene’, Giselle’s death (definitely not suicide here): they were as powerful as you could want them to be. Especially the moment Shevchenko demonstrates, by lifting a hand into air, Giselle’s life force as it leaves her.

This power continues into the second act, which lighting designer Andrew Ellis paints in jewel-like shades of blue and green (even as if this were the forest of La Sylphide). There is no moon, as such. Moonlight comes through a Giselle-shaped gap in the clouds. There is chilling power, too, in Elizaveta Gogidze’s Myrtha, as still and upright as a blade on her first appearance. The bourée en couru, the promenade, the arabesque penchée: she performs them all unwaveringly.

Watching this second act, the Wilis exceptionally assured, too, in their shunt hops in arabesque, you could almost forget the contemporary context. You could think you were watching a performance of Giselle like any other. It is difficult to know to what extent it was appreciation of the dance, to what extent support of Ukraine, that brought the audience to its feet during the applause. The refugee dancers, in costume, and technicians, in black, stood all together on the stage, singing the Ukrainian national anthem with a hand on their heart.

© John O’Dwyer

Leave a Comment