A tale of two Giselles: The Royal Ballet in Japan

Tokyo Bunka Kaikan
June 22, 2016 (Marianela Nuñez, Vadim Muntagirov)
June 24, 2016 (Natalia Osipova, Matthew Golding)

Joy Wang X. Y.

Ballet loves its fables, its spirits. Yes, they are conveniently escapist and easy to understand, but fables are also the bastions of something we rarely cherish enough – liminality, ambiguity, the ability to wrestle with complex problems in beautifully restrained ways. Giselle with its moral promises of atonement and forgiveness, of salvation achieved through means animated by human emotion (even if filtered through a spirit-world) grasps elegantly that central diadem.  That grace is strength, that hurt and violence does not have to feed more destruction is a gracious hope. Yet in today’s troubled times, it is a necessary one. It takes a great ballerina to make sense of Giselle’s multiplicitous (dare I say duplicitous) layers, to honour its history – these are stern ghosts – but also to give it enduring life.

Nine years ago I saw Natalia Osipova explode onstage as Kitri in Don Quixote. I didn’t particularly want to watch her Giselle then and circumstances conspired such that I never had the opportunity to watch her again in the ensuing years. But times change, dancers change and it was an enormous pleasure and privilege to be re-acquainted with two exceptional ballerinas.

Natalia Osipova as GisellePhoto ROH, Tristram Kenton
Natalia Osipova as Giselle
Photo ROH, Tristram Kenton

Osipova burnished an image as forcefully three-dimensional as enigmatically evanescent. Her Act 1 Giselle was a febrile mixture of excited abandon and nervous shyness. The higher Giselle’s lofty jump touches the heavens the closer it brings her to hell. Osipova dances much of Act 2 as a stream of consciousness – impulsive, expansive even heroic. When at last she drapes over Albrecht like a weeping willow, torso distorted in writhing pain, arms snapped like dry branches into disjointed angular positions as if groping for the wholeness of love’s grace, it is an image that recalls the slightly hunched over, pigeon toe position that she momentarily retreats into in Act 1. Its inherent duality is a poetic metaphor for Giselle’s continuity and the poignant cost of rebellion.

But in the moments where Matthew Golding’s shapes must complete hers, their lack of mutual compatibility both aesthetically (her liquid quality to his stiffness) and artistically becomes jarringly obvious. It is hard to understand what is it about Golding’s hulkish Albrecht that fascinates her. He struts around but it is also hard to see what he wants with her. Whatever it is, it didn’t feel much like love – or for that matter, anything else of substance.

On the other hand, Vadim Muntagirov makes for a handsome Albrecht, a man whose heart races before his head. It isn’t a terribly complex interpretation but it doesn’t have to be; the innate dignity of his bearing, the aristocratic elegance of his upper body juxtaposed with the thrilling piquancy of his lower body is enough. When Muntagirov faces his reckoning, that outer elegance is sublimated into a spiritual elegance; a revealed nobility. It helps too that his dancing is the mirror image of Marianela Nuñez’s Giselle – effortless, sensitive and oh-so-very beautiful.

Marianela Nuñez as Giselle and Vadim Muntagirov as Count Albrecht in Act 1 of GisellePhoto ROH, Tristram Kenton
Marianela Nuñez as Giselle and Vadim Muntagirov as Count Albrecht in Act 1 of Giselle
Photo ROH, Tristram Kenton

In Act 1, Nuñez and Muntagirov’s partnership had a conversational feel. In Act 2 their shapes complemented each other ideally. Curiously there also seems to be an innocence about Muntagirov’s Albrecht. He isn’t particularly cruel, just thoughtless. In a way this shifts the moral locus of Act 2. The ballet becomes not only about loss or love but also about growth, about coming of age. When he sinks to his knee at the ballet’s conclusion you imagine he will rise, someone more thoughtful, more mature. The point is both that he will rise again, which highlights Giselle’s life-giving powers, and that he will rise changed, which affirms the potential for redemption that it is within us; a powerful thing. Unlike Osipova, neither appear to be dancers that enjoy disrupting the coordinates of classical dance, but rather prefer to illustrate its possibilities from within. Both ways work fine enough.

If Giselle is a pure essay in dance then I could watch Nuñez and Muntagirov from dusk till dawn, but there is one conundrum that I had to work my way around. Nuñez, whose Act 1 Giselle has refreshing wit, seems far too bright, too intelligent, to succumb to the foibles of human frailty. Perhaps madness really is only another form of heightened clarity. Perhaps she succumbs not so much to a weak heart than to a broken one (it is quite clear that she stabs herself; the Kantian question is whether she chooses to stab herself). Perhaps this Giselle simply experiences life a little too intensely which would explain why Bennet Gartside’s graft but deeply human Hilaron would fling such a terrible truth on her in so public and spectacular a way. With Osipova more emotionally fragile, more volatile, the manner of Hilarion’s revelation seems almost reckless.

Marianela Nuñez and Vadim Muntagirov in Act 2 of GisellePhoto ROH,Ttristram Kenton
Marianela Nuñez and Vadim Muntagirov in Act 2 of Giselle
Photo ROH, Tristram Kenton

When that is out of the way, Nuñez makes the most compelling case that classical form perfected and then transcended is equal to any Proustian task. In Act 2 she creates the ultimate illusion of time suspended and silence materialised. Dance-like language has its own system of prefixes, affixes and tenses with which to convey complex temporal shifts. It has its limitations too. Silence is its own mistress, and the way in which silence holds the tension between, to paraphrase Victor Hugo (writing on music), what cannot be said and yet cannot remain unexpressed, gives it a material dimension. The ability to express this vacuum, which in spoken or written language we might achieve through the way words and sentences come together to create ellipses, pauses and gaps that express the inexpressible, is the space that great dancers occupy. When Nuñez hovers in the air or lingers in an arabesque just long enough for you to marvel at her control, control that parallels Giselle’s inner strength, you will find in there too a residual echo, a tension in-between images, an after-image. When at the end of the adagio she stops, perched on pointe, time itself seems to stop and the quicksilver bourrées that follow leave a trail of unspoken, tender pain in their wake. It is a simple, small moment; nothing yet everything.

It is difficult to explain but there is one other image that stays with me. Twice in Act 2, Giselle bursts down the diagonal into grand jeté. The sequence, which comes on the heel of multiple criss-crossing entrelacés, is easy to misjudge. When the music lashes its thunderclap roar and the big moment comes, one is often disappointed, denied catharsis. Osipova, whose jumping ability is remarkable, made each of them spectacularly expressive, but at the end, the sequence just tapered off, the demands it made on our imagination exhausting itself prematurely. With Nuñez however the urgency of the run, the timing of its pitter-patter, the sudden escalation in momentum, judged it would almost seem to the precise length of the jump, surprised and intrigued. This ability to vary propulsion and speed, the chemistry of the steps, made each preceding moment read like a separate stanza in a poem of haunting beauty. Perhaps in this sense she creates not so much an idea of Giselle but a sense of Giselle, a visceral prism through which we might experience the otherworldly as real.

All the character roles on Wednesday were taken with distinction; every artist appeared to share a secret rapport and a private history that together converged to form a coherent story. And although neither Osipova nor Nuñez had the benefit of a Myrta to match (Itziar Mendizabal was wayward technically; Claire Calvert far more classically lucid, lacked aura) there were many delights elsewhere. On Wednesday, the pas de six was well danced, with Francesca Hayward both its most petite and its most vibrant member. On Friday, Akane Takada (pas de six leading couple) and Yasmine Naghdi (Zulma) were exquisite.