Before a single dancer appears on stage opening night at The National Ballet of Canada’s production of Giselle, a medley of magic and madness already fills the air. Maybe it’s Desmond Heeley’s stunning set or Gil Wechster’s soft lighting design. Perhaps it’s the music – conducted tonight by David Briskin, composed by Adolphe Adam with revisions by Joseph Horovitz – or maybe it’s simply the fusion of the audience’s anticipation with the artists’ alacrity, but even an inexperienced ballet-goer knows they are about to witness magic.
In the ballet, a peasant girl, Giselle (Svetlana Lunkina), discovers that her betrothed, a seemingly normal villager, is actually the nobleman Albrecht (Harrison James). The revelation of Albrecht’s engagement to another woman, Bathilde (Stephanie Hutchison), causes Giselle, an already peculiar girl with a feeble heart, to go mad and commit suicide with Albrecht’s own sword. In Act 2, Giselle’s ghost joins the ranks of the Wilis, malicious spirits of other betrayed brides-to-be, intent on destroying any man who crosses their nocturnal path. So, when a grieving Albrecht visits Giselle’s grave, the Queen of the Wilis Myrtha (Heather Ogden) commands these spirits to dance Albrecht to his death. Giselle intercedes and dances with him, keeping him alive until the arrival of dawn forces the Wilis to vanish. Giselle forgives Albrecht but must return to her grave and the curtain falls on a heartbroken Albrecht, alone but alive.
Giselle premiered in 1841 and remains, with an intriguing history, one of the oldest ballets still performed today. The author of the libretto, Théophile Gautier, intended the role of Giselle for Carlotta Grisi, an Italian ballerina he declared a queen of the ballet. A mixture of innocent grace and fiery passion, Grisi’s personal style endures, shaping how ballerinas dance the iconic role today. Giselle requires everything: impeccable technique, emotional depth and originality. A good ballerina will master these qualities with certain ease. A great one will blur the lines between them, hypnotizing her audience with the very humanness of Giselle in all her complexity.
Svetlana Lunkina is a great one. From the moment she frolics from her quaint house, buoyantly searching for her beloved Albrecht, Lunkina charms the audience. Beneath this gaiety, she retains Giselle’s strangeness. When she touches the silky hem of Bathilde’s gown to her cheek, Lunkina perfects the gesture’s mixture of naivety and peculiarity. Lunkina brandishes this eccentricity throughout Act I, eventually executing the mad scene with just enough originality to suggest innovation without obscuring its familiarity.
And her technique is impeccable. At one point in Act II Lunkina completes a développé – a (usually high) unfolding of the leg – with such delectable control it’s as though the very air is supporting her willowy limbs. Or more precisely, it’s as if Myrtha, performed with chilling precision by Ogden, truly is dictating each of Giselle’s movements.
Harrison James weaves petulance, callowness and genuine sorrow into his performance of Albrecht, finessing into his own a role danced by many before him. Even the partnership between James and Lunkina unfolds with novelty. As leads, they embrace the ballet’s more naïve moments with such genuine mirth the audience can’t help but giggle with them. But their partnership builds from this naivety to tenderness: as Giselle marks out the steps for Albrecht so he can join the villagers’ dance, a flare of intimacy brands a very public moment. By carving their closeness into the right passages in Act I, Lunkina and James are not troubled with convincing the audience in Act II of their adoration. Instead, the relationship flourishes – sweetly and softly, but deeply.
The National profoundly conveys the tale of Giselle and Albrecht; however, the relationship between Hilarion (Piotr Stanczyk) and Giselle fails to ignite. Hilarion, a villager also in love with Giselle, is the catalyst who reveals Albrecht’s deceit to Giselle. Stanczyk dances the little choreography he is given with precision, but the character, so driven by jealousy and despair, is emotionally absent. When Myrtha forces Albrecht to dance nearly to death, James becomes the physical manifestation of exhaustion – his portrayal is so convincing, you feel it in your own body. But when the Wilis dance Hilarion to his fatigue, the effect is clear but fails to elicit an empathic response. Even Hilarion’s death is surprisingly absent of poignancy. On paper this character is no less intriguing than Albrecht’s. Yet it translates onto the stage only a few times: once as Hilarion reveals Albrecht’s true identity to Giselle. As she stands in front of him, unable or unwilling to understand the depth of Albrecht’s deceit, Stanczyk taps his head twice, obviously and humorously miming “What? Are you stupid?” A single gesture reveals the potential for a compelling character, a potential missed throughout by either a faulty portrayal or a lack of choreographic opportunity.
As a whole, the production is both poignant and memorable, especially Lunkina’s rendition of the title character. If the original Giselle, Carlotta Grisi, was a Queen, then Lunkina, surrounded by a breathtaking corps and numerous assiduous dancers, has inherited her throne.
The National Ballet of Canada performs Giselle June 15 through 19, 2016 at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts in Toronto.