Natalia Osipova and Ivan Vasiliev are superb in the Mikhailovsky Ballet’s otherwise problematic production of Giselle, ou Les Wilis. Osipova is all bright-eyed wonder and innocence in her entrance, though her sideway glances hint at a deeper neurosis. Vasiliev, as the Count, matches her in the acting stakes: his face morphing from dumbstruck, like that of a teenager caught two-timing, to an expression of genuine horror as he witnesses her death.
Osipova’s dancing is the highlight of the opening act – the jumps en pointe and dizzying chaînés in her Act I variation show the ease with which she moves from slow control to glitzy lightness. In the “madness” scene, she repeatedly trips over herself as she re-enacts earlier sequences but in demi-pointe, literally losing the spring in her step. In the two lovers’ pas de deux, their ballottés are in perfect line, not too high or too low.
But Giselle really comes into its own in the second act, and this one is no exception. When Osipova is conjured up from her grave as a wili, her series of almost inhumanly fast promenades are incredible to watch. There’s a gorgeous time-standing-still quality about her – her arabesques take in every note of the mournful music and, in the pas de deux, she looks like she has all the time in the world as she falls from Vasiliev’s hold.
Act II is also where Vasiliev gets to shine. His solo is amazingly clean in its soaring jumps, yet there is still enough time in his landing to convey the Count’s despair. And his beats – of which there were many – are simply impeccable.
But in spite of the two leads’ best efforts, this is at times an odd production, not least in some of the hammy acting on display, particularly in Act I (I’m looking at you, Vladimir Tsal and Anna Novosyolova), and in the harness system that (perhaps unintentionally) comically whips the veils off the wilis.
The corps and pas de deux peasant dance feel too long in the context of a relatively short story ballet, and were performed with all the steps but none of the feeling required to make it a convincing group piece.
The wilis also lacked the essential ethereal quality to make them, well, Giselley. The combination of too sharp head movements and too strong arms, and the surprisingly loud arabesque voyagées across the stage, chipped away at the magic of the second act. The Queen of the Wilis, Ekaterina Borchenko, appears to be rushing through her steps.
That said, for all the issues I had with the production, none of it detracts from the incredible partnership between Osipova and Vasiliev, their exquisite lyricism showing just why they’re in charge. Judging by the multiple curtain calls (even one after the lights went up) and the standing ovation, it’s clear most people in the audience felt similarly.