American Ballet Theatre
Metropolitan Opera House
New York, New York
May 19, 2012 matinee
By Michael Popkin
Copyright © 2012 by Michael Popkin
When Natalia Osipova and David Hallberg danced “Giselle” together , the sheer physical beauty of dance was married to poetic drama, taking us beyond the simple pleasure of watching to the stuff of mind and imagination.
Once again, they only had one chance. Hallberg and Osipova danced a single “Giselle” at ABT in 2009 that many considered among the best single performances of the ballet they had seen. One hoped to see more of them together when the 29 year old Hallberg leapt to become a principal dancer with the Bolshoi Ballet, Osipova’s home company. But a month later Osipova left the Bolshoi to join the lesser known Mikhailovsky Theater Ballet of St. Petersburg. It was up to ABT to stage their reunion, if only for a few performances this spring.
Already legendary for the magnitude of her dancing – and her individuality – Osipova swept like a whirlwind through the series of accelerating turns in the scene when her friends crown her Queen of the Vintage, displaying her elegant lines vividly in a costume she brought for this performance. Violet blue with some crimson underneath, it wasn’t what the other ballerinas wore this week. Giselle’s turns in her Act 1 variation anticipate her whirling entrance in the second act (when Myrta summons her to join the Wilis) and Osipova danced to emphasize the connection. In another moment of nonconformity, she didn’t try, or didn’t succeed, in getting more than one lock of her hair down for her mad scene. As her actual hair is quite short, there may not have been much to work with. Still, her disheveled and gamine look was unique, flattering and effective. Her mad scene was also very individual in the love and attachment she continued to display for Albrecht despite his betrayal.
Hallberg’s Albrecht matched Osipova’s Giselle in force. He started out as a callow youth, smitten and impulsively in love. In a detail of realistic mime, he silently moved his lips during his conversations with Giselle, seeming to whisper to her when close. With no previous thought of the consequences, when things went wrong he turned convincingly distraught, grief stricken and guilty. First only shocked and embarrassed when Hilarion confronted him with his sword and summoned the Prince’s hunt back to Giselle’s village, Hallberg reflexively offered his arm to Bathilde when she re-entered. But watching Giselle’s abrupt descent to madness and deadly grief, he dissolved emotionally.
Since returning home, it looks as if he’s learned to “do less” but do it bigger and more simply. All of his lines were finished. As he’s related to Dance Magazine, you could see him holding poses in the air, and during turns, a split second longer to make them plainer. His attitude turns to the rear in Act 2 took your breath away.
Partnering Osipova, he let her lead, intervening as little as possible and following movement she initiated. When he supported her, balancing her as gently as possible from the waist, it seemed as if you could feel them touch.
Osipova and Hallberg’s dramatic reading of the ballet turned at the end of the mad scene. Throwing herself into his arms and about to die, she communicated her undying love by the way she looked at him and took refuge in his embrace. Taking her hands for a moment as she leaned into him, Hallberg briefly mimed a shorthand version of his “I swear to be faithful” gesture (right arm extended, two fingers of the hand raised) from earlier, reassuring her as she collapsed. The scene pivoted the ballet’s moral plot by initiating the allegory of redemptive love and forgiveness, that would bloom in Act 2. When Osipova’s Giselle reprised the same “I swear” gesture standing over Albrecht in the ballet’s climactic final scene before returning to her grave (as he knelt with his face in his hands) the thematic circle was complete.
Despite their star chops, both dancers held back on tricks in Act 2, choosing to be subtle and accenting strongly only when called for. Looking like a living wraith, Osipova used her extension poetically, didn’t go too high in her developpés and leaned into her long reaches with extended arms like a breath of air. Yet she delivered extraordinary dance excitement for her first entrance, then in two diagonals of elevated jumps into flying exits from the stage; and finally a series of soubresauts that briefly stopped the show.
For the concluding scene of life-or-death dancing under Myrtha’s compulsion, Hallberg chose the Nureyev version of 32 or more straight up-and-down entrechats quatres done by most of ABT’s Albrecht’s these days (Angel Corella did brisés), executing these easily but still conveying how hard Albrecht was working to stay alive. He’s the equal of any classical dancer on the stage today.
The ensemble was strong in supporting roles. Everyone does their part in this standard production, and that’s precisely what enables guest stars to shuttle in and out. Patrick Ogle was convincing as Hilarion. Stella Abrera both held the stage and danced impressively as Myrta. Ormsby Wilkins conducted with sensitivity – the give and take between the orchestra and dancers is one of the things ABT does best – but all came dangerously close to being too slow in much of the second act. You can suck the life out of adagios by taking them at a crawl; and turn a variation into a stunt by stopping endlessly to let a dancer walk to take a preparation. It didn’t happen often with Osipova and Hallberg, but some other shows this week weren’t so lucky.
What ultimately happens to Giselle after the ballet ends is an unanswered question. Albrecht goes his way in grief, but you don’t usually wonder if Giselle has escaped being a Wili only for one night or for eternity. Osipova’s Giselle saved herself beyond a doubt. Undying love and Christian forgiveness incarnate in this role, you can’t imagine any fate for her except salvation.
Photo by Gene Schiavone, Courtesy of ABT: David Hallberg and Natilia Osipova in "Giselle"