Wonderful as it is to have the Bolshoi visiting London in a real dance venue again after a long absence, it’s also frustrating that this is perfectly timed to clash with the Royal’s first appearance in London for six months. It’s an expensive and busy time for keen ballet fans. Maddest of all is that both companies originally chose to present the same work in the same week. The Royal opened their season at Sadler’s Wells on Tuesday with Giselle: the Bolshoi had originally planned, I think, (in the first ads I saw, way back in winter) to open with Giselle as well, but changed this to Bayadere. On the 8th July, Giselle was on the bill at both houses.
I saw the Royal’s opening night on the 6th , and the Bolshoi’s first night of Giselle on the 8th. It offered a fascinating chance of comparing the productions and styles of the two companies. (In fact, due to casting, if offered a French perspective as well). And if any ballet can stand up to this sort of repeated scrutiny it is Giselle. Which is fortunate, since it appears that here in the UK it is the year of Giselle - after these productions we have Mats Ek’s version at Edinburgh, and a new production from BRB in the autumn.
The Royal always choose to present Giselle on its own, though other companies here like ENB often include another short work on the bill. The Bolshoi originally planned to offer (at the promoter’s request) Pas de Quatre and Spectre de la Rose on the same programme : this was later changed "for technical reasons" to Paganini instead: rather less enticing, I’m afraid. The Coliseum was fairly full in the stalls, but with quite a number of empty seats in the dress circle: prices are fairly eyewatering.
I had assumed that the Bolshoi would be a ‘bigger’ production than the Royal’s, and not just in terms of cast numbers, and that it would most likely be more traditional. I was surprised in several ways. For instance, there are 24 wilis in the RB’s Act 2: I thought the Bolshoi might have more, but they used only 18 (but they were gorgeous - more below). This production is a new version, by current AD Vasiliev - in an extensive programme note he explains his reasons for his revisions to this version, which mainly concern Act 1, and strengthening the role of Hilarion.
This doesn’t mention a number of changes which seemed rather odd: in Albrecht’s first confrontation with Hilarion, Albrecht no longer reaches to draw his sword, which is the gesture which should give away the secret of his identity. And the mime where Giselle’s mother warns her that she will become a wili if she doesn’t behave (given in some loving detail in the RB’s production) is missing. Vasiliev has also reordered the sequence of some of the solos in Act 1, and now, oddly, it is Hilarion who crowns Giselle queen of the harvest - and proposes to her. Hilarion does get a little more of the dancing in Act 1, but not striking more than in the RB’s production.
The naturalism of the Royal’s presentation is underlined by the Bolshoi’s very different approach. At the RB, a clear sense of community is established: all the corps in the first act interact with one another, talk to each other, laugh and flirt. This is a real village. This isn’t the Bolshoi approach: their village is a stage set for the serious business of dancing. And it did seem a serious business - the corps never looked as if they were enjoying what they were doing, but were sternly businesslike.
Sadler’s Wells was sold out - the Guillem effect again. Her only appearances with the Royal at Sadlers in this run are her three Giselles. Given that she has recently produced a new version for the Finnish ballet, many people were interested to see what she would do now with the role, reputedly one of her favourites. This is the first time I’ve seen Sylvie’s Giselle, so I can’t compare it to her earlier interpretations: but it did not seem to me to be a radical reworking of the idea of Giselle. She stayed within the spirit of Sir Peter Wright’s production. There were some changes at the close of Act 1 - I don’t recall Albrecht’s kissing of her body at the close in previous RB productions - but this might perhaps be a tradition from Paris, given that her partner was Laurent Hilaire (Cope is ill).
I don’t think I had ever seen a Giselle who was so happy as Guillem, so lighthearted and without a care in the world. There was no shade of frailty or foreboding about her. She was bubbling over with happiness, and her dancing (especially in the Act 1 solos) seemed so natural - as if the steps were just the logical result of her happiness at being in love. Yes of course the technique is formidable, but it is made to serve the character. There were a few of those typical Sylvie extensions, but they didn’t seem so intrusive as they sometimes can be. The youthful optimism made the betrayal all the more heartrending. The mad scene was very restrained but extraordinarily powerful. Guillem is a mature artist and knows how to extract maximum effect with great economy of means.
Hilaire is a very elegant and charming dancer, and a good partner, though I thought that when dancing together they lacked that almost unearthly synchonicity that Sylvie and Jonathan have. Every movement is very beautifully finished and presented: polished does not seem a strong enough word. In terms of characterisation, he was perhaps rather understated, and a little too noble for my taste in Act : Albrecht is betraying his betrothed, and we should feel it. But his dancing was superb in Act 2. He was extremely popular with the audience.
Hilaire’s Albrecht didn’t have far to travel to the remorse of Act 2; Guillem’s shiningly happy young girl had much further to go into the spiritual domain. I wasn’t quite as engaged in general by Guillem in Act 2, though her dancing remained at a extraordinarily high standard, and especially at her first entrance, she seemed barely connected to the earth at all. The loveliest moments for me where when she fleetingly recalled her Act 1 self : miming again the plucking of the flower petals to Zenaida Yanowsky’s unmoved Myrtha.
The Bolshoi’s Giselle was the 18 year old Svetlana Lunkina, and she is delightful. Very sweet and delicate, naturally rather shy (her bashfulness at being caught stroking Bathide’s dress looked utterly authentic), she was a very young and vulnerable Giselle, already perhaps not quite of this earth. Very strong and secure in her technique: the same Guillem style extensions were displayed here. The delicate little hops on pointe were delicious. Her mad scene was rather overpitched for my taste, but in Act 2 she was marvellous. Albrecht was Filine: a strong and noble presence, I wished he had rather more to do in Act 1. Not quite so polished as Hilaire, but a beautifully mannered performance. He and Lunkina look very good together in Act 2, and his lifts do make her seem quite weightless.
In the first act, the RB’s production includes a pas de six. This featured Campbell McKenzie (a recent joiner from Scottish Ballet) and Nicola Roberts (back after maternity leave I think). McKenzie danced very strongly and seems a promising acquisition, though his thighs are distractingly large. Roberts was very precise and charming, particularly in her delicate Ashton solo. Vasiliev has a dance for four couples at approximately this point (the differences in ordering of the scenes makes comparisons difficult). This is described in his programme note as "arranged in the classical tradition to blend with the choreography of the ballet". It appeared to me rather more modern in tone than the rest of the act - lots of opportunities for the women to show off their extensions. But it was a terrific display, particularly from the men - big virile jumps, and everything executed in perfect unison.
The Bolshoi looked more at home in Act 2: Anna Antonicheva as Myrtha has a cold grandeur and authority that was appropriate. The RB’s Myrtha was Yanowsky: her confident entrance was lovely, but the authority wasn’t quite sustained. The Bolshoi wilis are all clearly selected to be the same height and body type. They are only veiled for a very few moments at the beginning: the RB wilis retain theirs for a little longer, which reinforces their mystique more. The Bolshoi move with a otherworldly unanimity and the audience could not restrain themselves from applause at one point. The real glory here is the corps - the solos from Moyna and Zulme seemed more fragmentary in the Bolshoi version than in the Royal, and didn’t leave a particularly strong impression, which seemed odd given the strengths of some of the soloists in Act 1.
We’re fortunate to have two Giselles of such quality to compare in such a short period : great performances from both Guillem and Lunkina. The productions have quite different approaches, and different strengths, but the fascination of Giselle as a work remains undimmed.