An elegant exterior is essential for ballet to work

When St. Petersburg’s Mariinsky ballet visited the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., earlier this month, I looked forward to seeing how, in Giselle, it would maintain its artistic mandate not to be “just folks.” Ballet began as entertainment performed by and for European aristocracies. After moving into professionalism, it retained the stylized physical comportment that became additionally appropriate to characters portrayed in fairy-tale narratives.

During the 1980s, I watched coach Elena Tchernichova at American Ballet Theatre break down for the company’s dancers what it was necessary to do and what it was important not to do to project this particular mode of exceptionalism. So it amazes me that American dancers continue, frequently, to not quite get it. Perhaps this type of affect clashes with the fantasy of egalitarianism that we continue to cherish even amidst our ever-increasing economic disparities. Confronted with these roles, I’m sorry to say that Americans often come across as strained and artificial. Or nobility often seems confused with snark; many dancers don’t seem to understand that the elegant exterior must connote a superiority that is cerebral and spiritual as well.

That’s true even with Giselle’s anti-hero, Albrecht. In Washington, I watched the Mariinsky’s Andrian Fadeyev dance the betrothed Count who betrays a village girl but then repents following her heartbroken death. Fadeyev showed you Albrecht’s aristocratic underpinnings even when disguised as a rustic in Act One. You were always aware that he was a man of parts, not to be trifled with. Even as he dallied with Giselle’s affections, he entertained serious apprehensions about where it could all lead, thus effectively setting the stage for his atonement in Act Two.

Vishneva and Fadeyev in Giselle. / Photo by Natasha Razina

Entirely different in the same role was Vladimir Shklyarov. In Act One, he was a spoiled, willful adolescent who wanted the keys to Giselle’s cottage and a new car as well. Yet, while Shklyarov embodied a typology more native to the American popular zeitgeist, he stayed within the formalized balletic consciousness. In Act Two, where Albrecht is once again his own noble self, Shklyarov’s gravitas was convincing.

Vasili Scherbakov’s assumption of the pantomime role of Albrecht’s equerry was a matter of luxury casting such as we rarely get on the American ballet stage. Scherbakov—who has himself danced an original and most definitely noble Albrecht—created a cameo portrayal of a retainer both faultlessly trained in the ways of courtly propitiation as well as accustomed to wielding power on his liege’s behalf.

Giselle herself is one of those poetic and sensitive peasants that the Romantic era loved to immortalize. So we must always feel that she too exists in a zone of spiritual loftiness, both in her village community during the first act, as well as in the second act, where she returns as one of the un-dead Wilis to rescue her betrayer from annihilation.

Nobility requires self-possession, and it’s hard to project that in ballet if you’re physically unstable. Therefore a pleasant surprise of the run was Alina Somova’s Giselle. No longer wrenching her body into extreme contortions that undermine her equilibrium, instead she used her very long and flexible limbs to create a personal as well as idiomatic incarnation of the ballet’s Romantic style, fashioned after biomorphic impressions of wind and blossom. In her mid-twenties, Somova’s Giselle was further anchored by decade-older Evgeny Ivanchenko’s Albrecht, demonstrating again how crucial mature dancers are to a ballet company.

In the second act, Diana Vishneva’s Giselle spun off another element of Romantic consciousness: a taste for the bizarre, the febrile, the enraptured. As the graveyard wraith into which death has transfigured Giselle, she suggested Rimbaud’s disordering of all the senses. Partnered by Fadeyev, the extraordinary physical control she manifested allowed feverish abandon to flourish at its most potent, most untrammeled.

Also present Giselle-wise were Viktoria Tereshkina (partnered by Shklyarov), a newcomer to the role, and Uliana Lopatkina (partnered by Daniil Korsuntsev), who dances it infrequently. Neither is entirely suited to Giselle; both were unstinting in their application of energy and artistry. And then there was Alexandra Iosifidi and Ekaterina Kondaurova, each dominating in another key altogether as Myrtha, queen of the Stygian netherworld to which Giselle is consigned in Act Two.

And so I left Washington believing in balletic nobility for what it is: not cardboard pretension, but a quality vital, individually interpreted—and indispensable.