Out of the tragedy of war, a new Giselle from the United Ukranian Ballet

London Coliseum
September 13, 2022

In a week where the news from the fronts at Ukraine has been somewhat uplifting, this performance was like icing on the cake and a reminder that, against the all odds, the arts can carry on; and the odds have been tremendous for these young dancers. Some have decided to return to families at war, others found themselves stranded after the February 24th invasion, and yet others struggled to get permission to leave when Ukraine needs all the fighting forces that it can get.

The mayor of Den Haag has hosted a company that has grown to 70 dancers, while Birmingham Royal Ballet lent set and costumes. How fortunate we are to be able to accommodate them in London. Many people have rallied round to make this possible, not least Alexei Ratmansky and his Ukrainian-born wife, Tatiana, who set all plans aside to assist this fledgling company.

But this Giselle is no hurriedly throw-together work. Ratmansky has really done his homework and unearthed new sources to support his interpretation, restoring much of the mime that underpins the drama and that is often cut, as well as referring to the Stepanov notation for earlier versions. Interestingly, it seems that there is no support for the original version including Giselle’s suicide (an intervention by Gautier by all accounts), so perhaps she is not buried in unconsecrated ground after all.

Christine Shevchenko and Oleksii Tiutiunnuk in Giselle
Photo Altin Kaftira

The dancers take every advantage of the research that supports their interpretations. Christine Shevchenko is a dramatic Giselle, every bit believable as a shy peasant but utterly ethereal in Act II. Her mad scene is a triumph. Many dancers hide behind much flinging around of loose hair and wild-eyed gestures but Shevchenko seems to turn to demented rubber, her body simultaneously rigid and flaccid as her mind unhinges. She has glorious crescent feet and powerful batterie and handled the adage and allegro with equal aplomb.

Oleksii Tiutiunnuk is no less impressive as Albrecht, here played as a reckless teenager, ignoring wiser counsel from Wilfred, his servant. He makes us almost believe that whilst he is with Giselle, he genuinely loves her and perhaps is escaping the pressures of an arranged marriage and a formal court. His tall grace is supported by impressive ballon and neat batterie. Even the Coliseum stage seems a bit cramped for his jumps. He is an attentive partner too, assisting Shevchenko in creating an illusion of weightlessness to perfection.

Olena Mykhailova is a strong Berthe who is given her due in the important mime where she reveals her superstitious fear of the Wilis. Initially dismissed by the young people, it is easy to understand why the tales return to the minds of those in the forest at night when trees turn into demons and wisps of mists into spirits.

The United Ukrainian Ballet in Giselle
Photo Altin Kaftira

Elizaveta Gogidze’s Myrtha is steely in demeanour and technique. Not a wobble in sight as she easily commands the stage and directs a competent corps who are given a rarely-heard fugue to dance.

Veronika Hordina and Nikita Hodyna struggled rather with the peasant pas de deux, however, Hodyna in particular lacking the stamina and jump required to execute such a testing set of pas.

Albrecht’s exhaustion at the end mirrors that of Giselle in her death throes as he clutches at his pounding heart.

The company were ably supported by English National Opera’s orchestra conducted at quite a pace by Viktor Oliynyk.

The evening concluded with a rousing rendition of the Ukrainian national anthem at the curtain call, complete with onstage flags. It was a reminder that, while we may feel the loss of the Queen, Ukraine mourns the death of thousands.

The United Ukrainian Ballet perform Giselle at the London Coliseum to September 17, 2022. Visit londoncoliseum.org for details and tickets.