Magazine article The New Yorker

Secrets; Dancing

Magazine article The New Yorker

Secrets; Dancing

Article excerpt

Diana Vishneva, a principal dancer at the Kirov Ballet and at American Ballet Theatre, once told Francis Mason, of Ballet Review, that in any ballet she always tried to find "a particular thing that allows me to know what I am doing with the role, not just to do it beautifully." She needed, she said, to find her own "secret." Sometimes when you hear such words, you tremble. Many theatrical absurdities--chaste Carmens, happy Hamlets--have been perpetrated by people on similar quests. But, in a performance of "Giselle" with Angel Corella at A.B.T. in mid-June, Vishneva, who is now thirty, did find her own secret to that ballet, and the result was a show that left people sitting dazed in their seats afterward.

"Giselle," created in 1841, has a simple, two-step plot: sin and atonement. Giselle, a peasant girl, is being wooed by a handsome country fellow who has turned up in her Rhineland village. In fact, he is merely disguised as a country fellow; he is really Albrecht, the Duke of Silesia--the fiance, furthermore, of a local noblewoman--and therefore in no position to make an honest woman of Giselle. When she finds that out, at the end of Act I, she loses her mind and dies on the spot. But, this being a Romantic ballet, she doesn't just go away. She becomes one of the wilis, the ghosts of girls who died before their wedding day, and who roam the forest in beautiful, vampiric gangs, looking for young men to murder. In Act II, Albrecht comes, in the night, to Giselle's grave and is met by the wilis, including his beloved. But Giselle is a newly fledged wili, and she has not yet forgotten about Christian forgiveness. As the wilis surround Albrecht, she dances and dances in his place, trying to deflect their interest. At last, church bells ring, signalling dawn. The wilis, who cannot kill in daylight, slink off. Giselle returns to her grave, and Albrecht, repentant, returns to his life.

This ballet has been performed thousands of times, and it is glazed by overhandling. The Europeans, with their love of revisionist productions, have given it various new twists. (The Swedish choreographer Mats Ek, in his 1982 production, set Act II in an insane asylum.) But the Russians and the Americans, for the most part, have stuck to the old story, going back and forth on only one matter--Albrecht's motivation. Is he a cad, a vile seducer? Or is he a young man in love, and defiant of class barriers? As for the heroine, the outlines of her role haven't varied that much. Giselle, as a rule, is a sweet, vivacious village maiden, in love for the first time.

It was about the nature of that love that Vishneva found her secret this season. I saw her do "Giselle" last year, also with Corella, and her interpretation was canonical. This year, however, she introduced a new element: erotic excitement. There was nothing lurid here--no come-hither looks. It was all done through phrasing, breathing, placement. Last year, when she performed Giselle's famous hops on point with ronds de jambe--little circlings of the working leg--she addressed them to Albrecht, as if to say, "Look how pretty I am. You should love me." This year, that working leg was clearly beckoning him: "Come to me, come up my leg." Again, this was subtly managed, but when she topped it off by circling the stage in a frenzy of pique turns I burst into tears. I was afraid for her. The fact that Corella was doing a "cad" Albrecht, and quite persuasively, gave one more reason to fear.

Act II was just as hair-raising. Everyone knows that in the second half of the ballet Giselle is dead, but she's up there running around, so how dead can she be? You forget. Vishneva, however, did not let you forget. Her face was powdered absolutely white, with black eyeshadow. This was not someone you would want to meet in an alley. Corella responded accordingly. Most Albrechts, when the wili Giselle first appears, receive this visitation in a mood of pious awe. Corella acted as though he had seen a ghost--which he had--and a ghost she remained, however beautiful, throughout. …

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