Some events exist – and should be judged – by slightly different rules, and the Tuesday night premiere of United Ukraine Ballet’s Giselle was one of them.
This newly assembled company is made up of several dozen Ukrainian dancers in exile, with all proceeds going to the DEC Ukraine Appeal and the United Ukrainian Ballet Foundation. Additionally, their staging of the 1841 French Romantic-Gothic classic, the greatest existing 19th-century ballet created outside Russia, is overseen by the brilliant Russian-Ukrainian choreographer and former Bolshoi director Alexei Ratmansky. Consulting the annotations from c.1860 preceding the extensive reworkings of the piece in St. Petersburg by Marius Petipa and Arthur Saint-Léon, he restored various scenes that most of Giselles are missing (without, however, eliminating the contributions of those two masters) . True, some of these will be familiar to anyone who has seen the English National Ballet production, but not all.
The exciting tone of the evening was set from the start with a genuine interpretation – by some members of the English National Opera and the ENO Orchestra – of Benjamin Britten’s version of God Save the King. It also ended with the Ukrainian equivalent (more on that later). As for the production itself, it looks outstanding, thanks to the sets and costumes designed by Hayden Griffin and Peter Farmer, and generously loaned by the Birmingham Royal Ballet.
And no one could accuse the Ukrainians for not diving in wholeheartedly. As a late replacement for the sadly indisposed ENB guest star Katja Khaniukova, Christine Shevchenko turned out to be a wide-eyed, light-footed Giselle, a little bland side but heartwarming in love with the noble Albrecht (who brazenly hides both her status than the fact of already being engaged to another). She also spawned a decent chemistry with Oleksii Tiutiunnyk, whose Albrecht in this case was more of a gleefully unaware Made in Chelsea type than a real rotten one. In the role of Hilarion – the gamekeeper who, in love with Giselle, publicly unmasks Albrecht and makes Giselle lose his head and dies – Sergei Kliachin was pleasantly melodramatic; and a special mention goes to Veronika Hordina for her crunchy peasant pas de deux, the night’s standout performance.
Meanwhile, the remarkably large body danced their hearts out, even if it didn’t garner the ideal, earthy vigor of Act I village celebrations, or let Act II completely contrasting, set after Giselle’s death in a mysterious clearing of the moonlit forest, completely lift off the ground. All for a dutiful, professional and commendable collective performance, without, in itself, stimulating the imagination as this ballet can do.
However, you have found yourself considering what these dancers have to go through and how touching this story of love, loss and redemption must be for them. And the cast’s closing performance of the Ukrainian national anthem – complete with Ratmansky himself on the stage draped (like many cast members) with a Ukrainian flag and lots of sobbing in the audience – hit the emotional solar plexus. Tickets for this ride are not cheap and many remain unsold. But judging by Tuesday’s ecstatic response, I doubt there were many in the audience who didn’t think their money was flawlessly spent.
Until September 17th. Tickets: londoncolosseum.org