Jessica Xuan is truly supernatural in Dutch National Ballet’s Giselle

Muziektheater, Amsterdam
February 29 & March 1, 2020

Maggie Foyer

In 2009, Rachel Beaujean and Ricardo Bustamente presented their new production of Giselle. Keeping the choreography in traditional mode, they stripped away any vestige of fussiness and sentimentality and headed straight to the heart of the matter: the Romantic ideal of love beyond the grave. Toer van Schayk, is responsible for the designs and partnered their aspirations by trimming the foliage to present simple cottages in the shade of portentous mountains. His peasant costumes are sufficiently work-a-day to pass muster with a measure of frivolity thrown in for the harvest festivities. The dance and drama are thrust to the fore as each detail in the characterisations and each twist of the tale finds its rightful place in the tragedy.

Jessica Xuan and Semyon Velichko in GisellePhoto Altin Kaftira
Jessica Xuan and Semyon Velichko in Giselle
Photo Altin Kaftira

Jessica Xuan made a memorable debut in the role. Her natural grace echoes the delicacy of old lithographs, and shorn of affectation, she appeared as fresh as if she had improvised the dance in the moment. Her Giselle, so eager to dance, was radiant with first love. I am sure mine were not the only tears in the dark auditorium at the end of Act One.

Semyon Velichko, as Albrecht, was full of bonhomie and bravura. A count who always got what he desired, he is utterly thoughtless in his pursuit of yet another pretty toy and quite taken by surprise when he discovers he has true feelings. He ends the act in total disarray and emotionally in turmoil. In Act Two he is a different man, his puffed up pride deflated and finally ready to experience true love.

Semyon Velichko in Giselle. Photo Altin Kaftira
Semyon Velichko in Giselle
Photo Altin Kaftira

Giselle welcomes him to her strange new world. Her forgiveness is absolute as she stands up to authority not as an act of defiance but only out of love. Technically the pair were beautifully matched. Her strong elevation, quicksilver ronds de jambe and a beautiful arabesque were complemented by arms that floated on the air. Velichko has the classical line and noble bearing for Albrecht and his superb partnering helped Xuan to become a truly supernatural creature. Both Xuan and Velichko were promoted to principal rank on the strength of this performance, a well-deserved accolade.

The Sunday matinee cast featured Anna Öl and Young Gyu Choi in the leads. Öl has the fragility of a porcelain shepherdess and transfers effortlessly into the spirit world. Her exquisite line finished to perfection served her well, added to an effortless jump and thrilling balance. Gyu Choi, as Albrecht, brought a level of emotion to the role that shifted the balance from a thoughtless cad to a young man so totally enamoured that all else was a forgotten. His Act One solo, focused only on Giselle, was danced with a heart full of joy and love. I don’t think I’ve ever seen an Albrecht so devastated as his world falls apart.

Anna Öl and Young Gyu Choi in GisellePhoto Marc Haegeman
Anna Öl and Young Gyu Choi in Giselle
Photo Marc Haegeman

Beaujean and Bustamente have made many dramatically astute changes. Albrecht gets an impressive solo in Act One which is followed directly by Giselle’s solo strengthening the emotional bond. The Peasant Pas, here a quartet (and well danced) including a few more short solos, is danced for the party of nobles. The village became a real place which included children and the elderly, and the harvest festival builds to a strong climax with peasants, friends and wine pressers joining the throng.

Hilarion, Timothy van Poucke on Saturday and Sem Sjouke on Sunday, were totally convincing as they dealt with the many props and stage business to disclose Albrecht’s deceit. Hilarion also has a stronger dance role in Act Two which makes his death more plausible. I also liked Wilfred’s more urgent attempts to dissuade Albrecht from his folly.

The Queen of the Wilis, Salome Leverashvili and Floor Eimers, both gave steady, authoritative performances but I missed the ferocious killer instinct that builds the drama. However, the softness of the white tulle and the long veils did much to instil a ghostly atmosphere.

The clarity in the storytelling brought a heightened sense of tragedy to both performances throwing the love theme into high relief. This is a sterling production that will serve the company for many years to come.