Varna International Ballet: Giselle and Swan Lake

Royal & Derngate, Northampton
February 16 & 18, 2023

When it comes to ballet, Varna, a seaside town on Bulgaria’s Black Sea coast, is probably best known for its prestigious annual ballet competition founded in 1964. But, like many former Eastern Bloc cities, it has an impressive opera house, home to opera and ballet ensembles. The latter is now touring the UK as Varna International Ballet, visiting many places the big-name companies don’t reach.

Unlike the Russian companies that used to follow an almost identical touring schedule, the Varna International Ballet has a roster drawn from across Europe, including Britain. And it was young British dancer Claire Gillard, who took the title roles in both Giselle and Swan Lake at Northampton’s Derngate.

Both productions are very traditional, with choreography adapted from the original by Sergey Bobrov, artistic director of the Krasnoyarsk Opera and Ballet Theatre in Russia, although Swan Lake comes with some interesting and unexpected tweaks.

Varna International Ballet in Giselle
Photo Varna International Ballet

Most of the dancing in the slightly abridged Giselle comes in the second act. Act I does set things up for what follows, and does set out the story with clarity but it is extremely mime-heavy with the choreography largely uninspiring.

Although none of the characters are fully fleshed out, Gillard still finds space to show a delightfully light and innocent Giselle. One senses that her love for Marco Di Salvo’s handsome, rather suave, Albrecht, is real. Quite whether he is playing her, or his love is real too is less clear, however. Gamekeeper Hans (better known as Hilarion), danced by Pierre Gaston in leather and green breeches, is very much a bit-part player. I’m not convinced you would know he had feelings for Giselle.

Act Two is so very different. The intensity is on a different level entirely with the dance everything you expect it to be. The tall Francesca Busquets is a cooly dominating presence as Myrtha with the corps de ballet proving an efficient ensemble of Wilis. Gillard is a beautifully fragile Giselle floating halfway between this world and that which follows. Gaston pulls out all the drama from Hans’ dramatic demise. Di Salvo makes everything look effortless as he gives a fine portrayal of a man beset by remorse and grief. He’s also a fine, considerate partner in the heart-wrenching pas de deux.

The sets are functional if a little unsteady. Remember those in ITV’s Crossroads? The outhouse in which Albrecht hides his sword makes them look sturdy. The backdrops work well with the rocky hillside graveyard of Act Two especially effective. The projections of Wilis rising from the graves and flying off before entering in person are terribly naive, though, looking like something from a young child’s picture book. Nice idea, execution lacking.

Gillard and Di Salvo also took the leads in Swan Lake two days later. It is an enjoyable production, again slightly slimmed down.

Varna International Ballet in Swan Lake
Photo Elliott Franks

It starts as bright and sunny as it’s possible to be, Prince Siegfried and his friends celebrating his birthday with a few drinks. Or, in the case of the Prince’s tutor Wolfgang, a few too many. Federico Farina gave a brilliant cameo as he got increasingly the worse for wear.

Mattia Baccon is a bouncy, ebullient Benno. His pas de trois with the Maids of Honour (Agnese Di Dio Masa and Denice Chirico) was most enjoyable, with a superb series of pirouettes à la seconde from him the highlight.

It’s a little complicated (all is explained in the programme note) but, in this production, Rothbart is Odette’s father, who neglected her and now haunts her and her swan friends as a raven. Foretelling events to come, he shows up at the party in a very clever ‘time stands still’ moment, his arrival presaged by a very effective projection of a raven swooping over the palace. There’s more excellent use of film later, first showing the lake rippling in the moonlight, then full of stormy waves as the ballet reaches its climax. The images of swimming swans are again naive and all rather too Disney, though.

The lack of a crossbow or any other reason for suddenly finding ourselves at the lakeside is a bit of a narrative disconnect. The Queen telling her son it’s time he got wed is also far from clear. But the white act is well done. The ensemble of eighteen swans look a treat as they glide and form pleasing patterns effortlessly.

Gillard is a fine Odette, full of grace and poise. She’s fragile, although one senses there is quite a bit of inner strength in there too. Di Salvo again showed what a refined dancer and excellent partner he is. One of the several overhead lifts brought a very approving, hushed but audible, ‘Wow’ from the eight-year-old sat behind me. Quite right too.

Varna International Ballet’s Swan Lake
(pictured: Anastasia Lebedyk and Marcello Pelizzoni)
Photo Elliott Franks

Back in the ballroom, the five princesses lined up for the Prince’s hand in marriage all danced beautifully in their national styles and costumes, providing a neat contrast to the utterly classical Odette. Unusually, Siegfried is absent while they perform, however. Pining for Odette, maybe.

Gillard’s Odile started quite cool and detached but you could soon see the glint in her eye as she started playing with her target. Several knowing looks and smiles suggesting she was rather enjoying the ‘game’ were directed at the audience as she slowly but surely snared her man. She wasn’t averse being mischievously tantalising, most notably in one ‘come and get me’ moment, she then teasing him by turning away at the last second.

Back at the lake, and reflecting the white versus black, Siegfried versus Rothbart, Odette versus Odile nature of the story, an unusual twist initially sees both black and white swans before the latter prevail. The end brings another surprise (spoiler alert!) when Rothbart and Siegfried perish but Odette survives, her feelings at the loss of her Prince writ large in a heartbreaking final solo.

Varna International Ballet also comes with a 26-musician orchestra. It did sound a little underfed here but in these difficult times, it’s hard to complain too much.

Varna International Ballet may not be in the same league as Britain’s major companies, and the staging may be a little thin, but they have some fine performers. Those of with access to the big players sometimes forget that most of the country is largely starved of live ballet. Varna and others are doing a sterling job of keeping ballet alive in the regional theatre. They are also providing valuable opportunities for dancers. And for all that, we should be thankful.

Varna International Ballet continues on tour to March 15, 2023. Visit raymondgubbay.co.uk for full details of dates, venues and ballets to be performed.