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The War of the Wilis

February 19, 2008

At opposite sides of the Bay over the weekend, two productions of Giselle highlighted two ballerinas who are, in effect, at opposite ends of their careers. Nina Ananiashvili, artistic director of the State Ballet of Georgia and in her 40s, danced the title role Saturday night during the troupe's Cal Performances engagement at UC Berkeley's Zellerbach Hall. Adolphe Adam's score was smartly played — a wayward hunting horn being the sole exception — by the Berkeley Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Robert Cole, Cal Performances' artistic director.

San Francisco Ballet's Giselle, Act II

Photo by Erik Tomasson

The next afternoon, at the War Memorial Opera House, Vanessa Zahorian, who joined the San Francisco Ballet in 1997 and became a principal in 2002, made her debut in the role. The company's orchestra was under the baton of guest conductor Gary Sheldon.

Today's question, class: Does age matter? But maybe we don't even need to answer that question. Perhaps we should ask whether experience matters. Certainly, in today's terms — 60 being the new 40, and all that — a dancer in her 40s is no big woof. Other great Giselles of that cohort have included Natalia Makarova, Marianna Tcherkassky, and of course Galina Ulanova and, even way beyond her 40s, Alicia Alonso. But from the distracting — and to these ears, condescending — bursts of applause every time Ananiashvili's leg rose into arabesque or she moved flawlessly on pointe, you would think she had just arisen from her rocking chair.
Giselle, From A to Z
Yes, there is an aging process, and of course Giselle is a murderously difficult role. Ananiashvili only danced it for one of her troupe's three performances (they also did a mixed bill, heavy on the works of native son Georgi Balanchivadze — George Balanchine). But to a frequent admirer of Ananiashvili's Giselle at American Ballet Theatre when she was in her 20s and 30s, she has retained the unique characteristics that make a ballet dancer a major artist.

She still floats into the air in the second act, as a spectral Wili, one of the poor young girls done dirty by their fiancés. Her passage of little steps in her solo remains blindingly fast yet crisply articulated. Her feet have retained that strong but flexible arch. Her jumps are a bit lower than they used to be, but their shape is impeccable. Her eyes, bigger now in her leaner face, are used to wonderful advantage as she sorrows for herself and for her duplicitous lover, Albrecht, and forgives him. Her Act 2 pas de deux with him felt somewhat slow, but she gives you so much Giselle to look at, so many facets in one dancer, that it's not a cause for regret.

Next question: Does youth matter? Again, perhaps we need to think of experience, not to mention versatility. In the debut of Vanessa Zahorian, we're seeing an artist who can do all kinds of choreography. She's totally different from her colleague Tina LeBlanc (another fabulous-over-40 Giselle), but in a sense possesses that same, dare one say, almost cheerful capability that masks a rock-solid technical command.

Zahorian is soulful and supple and sometimes a bit brash, with delightful results. That same famous cluster of tiny steps mentioned above become, at her feet, tiny swift jumps, otherworldly bounces befitting Giselle's Wili-ness. It verges on sacrilege (that whirring sound is choreographers Coralli, Petipa, and Perrot, in their graves), but boy, is it fun to watch. Zahorian is a consummate actor, as well, and that's important as we see her character’s traversal from impulsive girl to sorrowing woman.

Comparing the two productions of Giselle in their entirety would be a mistake. Helgi Tomasson’s Giselle, as has been written almost everywhere, is one of the best in the world, and likely one of the most expensive, too. The State Ballet of Georgia’s show is built to travel, and the company looks and feels young, with room to grow. The Georgia men, rarely onstage during Giselle, looked a little bumptious in the first act — not necessarily a bad thing — and the women moved precisely through the folk formations. (The choreography was staged by Alexei Fadeyechev and Tatiana Rastorgueva.)

In the crucial second act, the Wilis in their gauzy white gowns were a terrific corps de ballet, moving as one, with evidence of fine training in their carriage and footwork. Their toeshoes, though, sounded annoyingly loud. As Count Albrecht, Vasil Akhmeteli was a good actor, a considerate partner, and a pleasing solo dancer. The lighting was too dim in the first act, and the second-act set was annoyingly realistic, its church in the near distance creating more of a backyard than a netherworld. As the implacable Myrta, the avenging Queen of the Wilis, Nino Ochiauri was more stiff than imperious. Hilarion (Irakli Bakhtadze) was a pretty good bad guy.
Martin’s Marathon
At San Francisco Ballet, Ruben Martin was also making his role debut, as Albrecht. He’s a superb dancer and, especially in their first-act flirtation, seemed to have a great chemistry with Zahorian’s Giselle. In his beautifully elevated, second-act marathon, Martin substituted a blazing series of changements, change-foot jumps in one spot, for one diagonal — usually a series of air turns —and nobody seemed disappointed. To Albrecht falls the task of leaving the audience in tears, and Martin was right on the money, arising from Giselle’s grave, taking his leave, then running back to fall upon it once more.

In another role debut, David Arce was particularly effective in tracing Hilarion’s path from Giselle’s suitor to her vengeful spurned lover. As Myrtha (different companies, different spellings), Elana Altman seemed not quite as imperious as she might be.

Martin West, San Francisco Ballet’s music director, was in the audience Sunday afternoon. "Giselle is the hardest ballet for a conductor," he told me. "Every single tempo changes, all the time. The score is so transparent. The orchestra is quite thin and exposed." And apart from knowing how to sound that hunting horn at the crucial time, there’s the whole question of balance. "The brass can overpower the strings," he says. "Giselle was written for an orchestra at a time [1841] where the brass were not as powerful." As for the strings, "It’s not easy to get 12 people to play bang-on at a time."

Too, the score, with its strong themes, is deceptively simple. In actuality, though, it’s anything but repetitive. "It has to sound very precise, without making it sound mechanical," West says. "It is great, great music. There’s always something to discover."

Janice Berman, SFCV’s senior dance critic, has been a dance writer and reviewer since 1978, beginning at Newsday and New York Newsday. She has written on dance for The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Ballet Review, and Dance Magazine, where she was editor-in-chief.