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Emerging Arts Critics Programme

Giselle’s Restless Spirit

An Enthralling Gift from The National Ballet By Emily Trace
  • Svetlana Lunkina in Giselle / Photo by Aleksandar Antonijevic

Traditionally described as ‘the ballerina’s Hamlet’, this production of Giselle by The National Ballet of Canada soundly debunks the adage. While the character presents a comparably dizzying challenge, Principal Dancer Svetlana Lunkina’s protean complexity in the role subverted any comparisons. With choreography set by Sir Peter Wright and music revised by Joseph Horovitz, this production offers a unique, revealing staging of the classic story.

Selected at seventeen to be the youngest Giselle in the Bolshoi’s history, Lunkina returns to the role as a fully formed artist who somehow retains the ability to seem compellingly unformed. Her Giselle is not simply innocent; she’s clever, wily, playful in spite of her peasant caution. She turns a technical necessity like spotting during fouettés into a giddy reluctance to take her eyes off Albrecht, a nobleman in disguise who delays to dally with her. Ballet’s implausible beauty becomes plausible in her dexterous, reckless excitement, as if any teenager in love would move this way.

Albrecht is danced by Harrison James, recently promoted to principal for 2016/17 just three years after joining the company’s corps. His career, like Lunkina’s, skyrocketed with rare speed. Perhaps this accounts for the palpable connection the two leads share in their pas de deux; relatively few dancers can relate to being plucked so young to headline the classical ballets. The care they show for one another – in the notable steadiness of his holds and in her breathless emotional openness –suggest a deeply trusting partnership.

In service of his character, James’ seamless transitions read as prissy and rakish in Act I, so it’s uniquely gripping in Act II to watch this arrogance erode into exhausted remorse as he offers repentance to Giselle’s ghost and dances for his life before Myrtha, Queen of the Wilis, played by Principal Dancer Heather Ogden.

A jealous suitor, Principal Dancer Piotr Stanczyk’s Hilarion expresses vitriol with disgusted gesturing. In Act 1, Stanczyk’s savage performance of Hilarion exposing Giselle to ruin in front of their whole village suggests it’s not heartbreak alone that drives the ensuing mad scene. He animates the medieval setting in which compromised young women were treated with as much or more contempt than his character radiates.

Lunkina then affects an unsettling mimicry of her recent joy as if trying to trace her feet back to where she misstepped. Her frenzied movement betrays a mind struggling to understand why anyone would do this to her. When she peered into the audience at the ballet’s stillest moment, a chord of guilt thrummed as if we had all colluded in her disgrace. Lunkina brought to life a girl who becomes a stranger and enemy to herself.

The sets and costumes for Act II frame the character transformations of the three principals. Tony Award–winning designer Desmond Heeley created chilling, obscured depth in the unconsecrated forest where Giselle is buried. His designs, created in 1970, stand the test of time. The preternatural movement of the Wilis’ veils immediately signal that the men have left behind the protection of the human world in order to atone.

Empty of disdain, Stanczyk now descends into helpless panic as Hilarion is forced to dance himself to death. James’ Albrecht has been dragged through decades of growth in under a day, all affectations collapsed into defenceless sincerity. When he dances for the Queen of the Wilis, his technical skill now reads as fragile, mustered only to prove his remorse.

Ogden’s imperious, implacable Queen enters the stage with the chilling completeness of a perfect circle not found in nature. The glacial intensity of her focus and hieroglyphic développés declare that this is not a spirit whose heart or mind can be changed.

And Lunkina, who made balletic grace look believably natural in Act I, dives deep into the unearthly capacity of her art form. As if through water, her limbs float with the languid indecision of a reed drifting to the ocean floor. While James is decidedly a land mammal, you’d have to visit the aquarium to see anything ripple through reality the way Lunkina does as a Wili. Even though the two seem to dance in coterminous but incompatible realities, their shared regret and intimacy are unbearably tender.

Thanks to the ambitious complexity realized by the dancers, a cautionary feminism is at work in The National Ballet’s Giselle. Lunkina responds dynamically in each of the character’s interactions, mischievous one moment and humble the next. Her Giselle is luminously individual, yet treated as a trophy by both suitors whose desire and contempt are replaced by tortured contrition when they recognize her humanity too late. She is empowered rather than embittered by what gave her joy in life, using dance to protect the man she’s forgiven in death. As the curtain comes down, James’ tormented kiss to the bloom she leaves behind reverberates with Albrecht’s harrowing incompleteness, but Lunkina’s Giselle is serenely complete without him as she bourrées away to her final rest.

The National Ballet of Canada performs Giselle June 15 through 19, 2016 at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts in Toronto.

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