Sofia National Ballet dances Giselle
Dancers from Bulgaria’s leading ballet company, Sofia National Ballet, are making their Milton Keynes debut this week.
Sofia National Ballet was formed in 1928 and is immersed in the Russian classical tradition. Established as an acclaimed cultural institution in Bulgaria, it prides itself on its interpretations of the world’s favourite ballets.
Milton Keynes Theatre is the last stop on the Company’s first ever visit to the UK, presenting three timeless narrative works: Giselle, Don Quixote and Swan Lake. Last night saw the cast of dancers — accompanied by the Orchestra of Sofia National Ballet — perform Giselle. The poignant story was penned by Théophile Gautier and Vernoy de St Georges in the 19th Century, during the Romantic Era. This period saw the rise of the ballerina (previously, men had dominated the art) and is characterised by ballets which tell stories of men falling in love with waif-like spirits.
Pointe shoes were developed during the era so that Carlotta Grisi (the dancer for whom the role of Giselle was created) could achieve extreme lightness and delicacy. Standing on her toes in padded shoes, which would eventually evolve into the stiffened pointe shoes we recognise today, helped create the illusion of weightlessness.
The first performance of Giselle — choreographed by Jean Coralli and Jules Perrot to music composed by Adolphe Adam — was given at the Opéra in Paris in June, 1841. Marius Petipa’s revival in the 1880s for the Imperial Russian Ballet added some flashy choreography and is where the arrangement for modern productions generally derives from. The two-act ballet requires the dancer portraying the title role to change from a carefree country girl to a broken-hearted spirit in the time it takes for the interval to pass.
Pretty peasant girl Giselle lives with her mother in a thatched cottage and is the happiest girl in the village because she is intensely in love with two things: dancing and newcomer to the community, Loys. The passion Giselle feels for dancing runs through the entire ballet and is the catalyst for all the important events so the principal dancer must capture this elation.
In Sofia National Ballet’s production, Vesa Tonova brings an expressive sparkle to the stage as Giselle. Her performance subtly conveys the underlying heart condition that precedes Giselle’s untimely death. Some versions do not allude to ill-health but Sofia National Ballet’s choreography repeatedly draws attention to Giselle’s shortness of breath and dizziness and the concern this elicits from those around her. With strong technique and beautiful feet, Tonova delivers as the peasant girl — the solo variation hops en pointe were effortless. Yet, despite her otherwise enjoyable first Act performance, I yearned for slightly more conviction in the emotional “journey” of the character. Even just more joyfulness to illustrate her unreserved love of dancing would have improved the connection I felt to the character.
Giselle’s devotion to Loys frustrates gamekeeper Hans because he is besotted with Giselle. However, it transpires that Loys is not the simple villager Giselle believes him to be. He is in fact Count Albrecht in disguise. Albrecht is betrothed to an elegant countess but hides his identity, charming Giselle into believing his love for her is sincere. When she discovers the truth, Giselle’s mind suddenly snaps. She dances wildly across the stage, heartbroken and mad with grief, before collapsing and dying.
This ballet poses both technical and interpretive challenges for the ballerina. It is necessary in the first Act alone to depict a happy, innocent village girl; convey the heartbreak of betrayal and act out the dramatic mad scene. Sofia National Ballet’s version of the mad scene sees Giselle seizing Albrecht’s sword and killing herself. Although Tonova gave a dramatic performance, it felt unclear as to whether she had in fact plunged the sword into her chest or simply died of a broken heart before being able to do so.
The first Act is the premise to the fantasy ballet of Act Two. It was a little slow to get going and parts of the folk dancing left the male dancers looking slightly under par. Nonetheless, there was good storytelling and some dance highlights.
It is quite a feat to convince an audience that the dancers onstage are otherworldly spirits, gliding across the stage as though barely touching it. Fortunately, the Company — under the direction of General Director Professor Plamen Kartaloff and Artistic Director Sara-Nora Krysteva — effectively brought the realm of the Wilis to life in the moonlit glade where Giselle’s earth-bound body has been laid to rest.
The Wilis are the vengeful spirits of jilted girls who have died before their wedding day. They share a love of dancing and rise from their graves every night hoping to find a partner to dance with them until sunrise. Softly rounded arms; long, bell-shaped skirts and an ethereal quality of movement typify Romantic era ballets and the second Act ticked all these boxes and more.
Tonova as Giselle really came into her own, demonstrating assured pointe work, envy-inducing extension and astute stage presence, while the corps de ballet also seemed to up their game. Katerina Petrova as Myrtha, Queen of the Wilis, was a pleasure to watch. Technique, artistry and strength combined to convey the leader of the supernatural sisterhood.
The Act sees a grief-stricken Hans visit Giselle’s grave where he is surrounded by the ethereal Wilis and forced to join their frenzied dance until, exhausted, he plunges to his death in an icy graveside lake. Meanwhile, Albrecht, also mourning at the graveside, sees the veiled Giselle and reaches out to her for forgiveness, risking the wrath of the Wilis. Determined to prevent another death, Giselle places herself between Albrecht and Myrtha.
Undeterred, the powerful and controlling Myrtha orders Giselle to dance. As a loyal handmaiden, Giselle has no choice but to comply and, driven by remorse and grief, Albrecht dances with her – the perfect contender for death by dancing. Emil Yordanov as Albrecht certainly leaps for his life in this Act. Every cabriole (a big jump which sees one leg kick quickly to the side, front or back, before being joined by the other midair) soars.
Tonova and Yordanov dance together as Giselle and Albrecht in a spell-binding pas de deux. Giselle’s love for Albrecht keeps him alive. As dawn breaks, Giselle touches Albrecht for the last time before returning to her grave. She has saved him and – as her love has transcended death – is laid to rest in her grave, her spirit free from the Wilis. When the curtain falls, Albrecht is alive and has made peace with the delightful village girl he fell for – but he will never see her again and is left with only his grief and his memories.
Sofia National Ballet definitely accomplished telling this story of forgiveness beyond the grave and showcasing its best dancers, in a production complete with stunning costumes, simple but attractive sets and a full-scale orchestra.
Georgina Butler is a journalist, a dance writer and a dance teacher who specialises in teaching classical ballet. She previews and reviews productions, writes features and interviews people from the world of dance.