Marianela Nuñez debuts with the Paris Opera Ballet in Giselle

Palais Garnier, Paris
May 25, 2024

There are shows, and then there are events. Saturday evening, marking Royal Ballet principal dancer Marianela Nuñez’ debut with the Paris Opera Ballet, was an event with a capital ‘E.’

For some time now, witnessing Nuñez in the great classical roles, chief among them Nikiya, Aurora, and Odette-Odile, is to observe a great ballerina re-imagine and redefine the possibilities of classical technique. But at the age of 42, she is also reshaping the imaginative boundaries of roles, discovering fresh personal insights in the canonical texts of the nineteenth century.

As a dancer, she has long possessed the ability to manipulate time and space to her every whim. Today, she appears capable of bending an entire artistic universe to her interpretive flights of fancy, even on an unfamiliar stage in an unfamiliar production, and in doing so make the production and its universe appear all the more richer for it.

Marianela Nuñez and Hugo Marchand in Giselle
Photo Julien Benhamou/OnP

Nuñez is not the wraith-like Giselle more typically found on the Parisan stage. She is more corporeal, more earthly. She is of the community, not apart from it and the generosity of her stage craft, the way she invites and draws response from everyone around her, enlarges the parameters of the story.

At one point in Act One, Giselle gestures to Albrecht to dance. Nuñez clasps her hands to her heart, looks at him in open-mouthed admiration and then, as if her joy is uncontainable, turns to the corps to invite them to share in her delight. She takes incredible care to establish both the dramatic stakes of Giselle’s relationship with Albrecht and Giselle’s relationship with everyone else.

Hugo Marchand and Marianela Nuñez in the Paris Opera Ballet’s Giselle
Photo Julien Benhamou/OnP

Even in the middle of the most vigorous dance sequences, she finds moments of communicative alchemy with the dancers of the corps de ballet. The Paris Opera corps, which is a marvel of style in this ballet, responds in kind with great artistic commitment (special kudos to Marine Ganio who delivered beautiful turns in the Peasant pas de deux and as one of the two lead Wilis). Together, Hugo Marchand and Nuñez manage to fill every moment in Act One with dramatic intent while giving the impression of thrilling spontaneity.

In Act Two, in the arms of Marchand, an ardent, impossibly gorgeous Albrecht, Nuñez looked like liquid gold. She deployed her powerful technique to establish her character’s spiritual visage while retaining Giselle’s human core. Her jumps are deathly quiet, her arms propelled by a powerful back, hauntingly, even sensuously, beautiful.

At the end of the Act Two pas de deux, and as a testament perhaps to Marchand’s partnering skills, Nuñez , transitioning out of a series of lifts that ends in arabesques, extends her arms further and further into the ether until, as if sensing his presence behind her, she arches her back in a supple arc that seems to respond instinctively to the shape of his embrace. She coils backward, tracing the contours of his arms as if unseeing but feeling his bodily presence. As she ascends, their gaze meets, and in that moment, something unspeakably beautiful passes between them.

Marianela Nuñez (left), Hugo Marchand and ensemble in Giselle
Photo Julien Benhamou/OnP

Elsewhere, she offers moments of eerie stillness that yield to instances of great abandonment, the sort of movement between extremes that her technical capacity enables her to achieve. Today more than ever, she seems willing to add hints of wildness, even occasionally straying beyond the classical form to better grapple with the untamed recesses of the soul. All the while her gaze shifts between pleading with Valentine Colasante’s imposing Myrtha and imploring Marchand’s increasingly desperate Albrecht to cling onto life.

Perhaps it is the profound humanity of her reading that explains why Nuñez inspires such public adoration. On Saturday, her entrance was greeted with deafening applause. At the end, the Parisian audience, which must be among the most discerning audiences in the ballet world, applauded on their feet, long after the theatre lights came up. I hope we get to see Nuñez and Marchand together again.