As evenings at the ballet go, it had a complex agenda. It was an event fueled by the philanthropic largesse of Orange County arts patron Elizabeth Segerstrom whose sensitive stroke was to give an American audience the opportunity to enter the July 4 weekend with concern for the freedom and independence of others. The performance of “Giselle,” sponsored by Mrs. Segerstrom, featured the United Ukrainian Ballet, a burgeoning troupe of classical ballet dancers living and working in exile having left behind a homeland in turmoil after invasion by Russia.
The linkage of ticket-sale proceeds to benefit BlueCheck Ukraine, an organization co-created by actor, director and producer Liev Schreiber to provide humanitarian aid to victims of the Russian invasion, reminded us to give while we get. And what we got was one of classical ballet’s ‘motherlode’ works, “Giselle,” dating to 1841 and dedicated to the vulnerability of the female soul and the galvanizing power of love. Amidst all of the instability that artistic exile implies, the dancers manage to wow in a new “Giselle” choreographed by Russian-born Alexei Ratmansky demonstrating ultimate support for his Ukrainian fellows.
Théophile Gautier’s adaptation of the original tale by poet and novelist Henrich Heine is a warhorse ballet for a reason. It’s got legs. It’s the tale of an innocent young peasant girl who falls for Albrecht, unbeknownst that the handsome swain is of royal pedigree and affianced to another young lady of the upper class. Learning this, her heart breaks and the perceived betrayal shatters her mind. She famously goes mad and perishes, leaving us in a suspended state when the curtain falls for intermission.
On the ballet’s opening night of four performances, we had a valiant and sturdy Giselle danced by Elizaveta Gogidze, whose impassioned presence deepened over the course of the performance. Gogidze, a brown-eyed beauty, was wooed and smitten by a mop-topped long-legged Albrecht danced by Alexis Tutunnique. A little all over the map in his placements, he could reign it in for more power. The first act, in which the two youngsters have their initial romantic encounter, was boilerplate. The charming peasant pas de deux had whimsy as danced by Daria Manoilo and Maksym Bilokryntski. Giselle’s mama seemed unusually overbearing and the murmuring, tambourine-smacking peasants milling around the backdrop cried out for cleaner staging.
But it was in the second, or “white” act, that “Giselle” transported. Giselle has transformed into a ghostly girl, a wili, under the control of Myrtha, her Queen — she, who along with Odile, “Swan Lake”‘s Black Swan, is ballet’s toughest broad. Myrtha was exceedingly well danced and acted by a steely Vladyslava Kovalenko. The Wilis, bedecked in ankle-length chiffon skirts with little wings glued to their backs, are a circa-1841 woman’s consciousness-raising group in pointe shoes and white veils. Here the Ukrainian female dancers brought a pungent mix of the ethereal with true grit, making mincemeat of the random man to cross their path. They embody the ballet’s transcendental path to healing the broken female spirit by giving over to a larger group — a group from which Giselle breaks rank, and, driven by love and love alone, acts in protection of Albrecht. Watching these proceedings roll out one felt like the frog slowly boiled in water. Its emotional force took you over.
The evening was enhanced by brief curtain words by Igone de Jongh, artistic director of the United Ukrainian Ballet, and choreographer Alexei Ratmansky welcoming the audience. The latter introduced “Airlift,” a group ballet by Emma Evelein that incorporated Ukrainian soldier Oleksandr Teren, who lost his legs in the fog of war, but danced fully engaged in the choreography surrounded by loving ballet dancers.
Since the production was ostensibly cobbled on the road, the production values were not of the highest order. The set was standard-issue Bavarian peasant, costumes somewhat faded in a not terribly vibrant palette of country browns and beige. This “Giselle” made magic the old-fashioned way — by the passionate acting and dancing of its principals, and, oh, that symphony orchestra in the pit. Under the blistering baton of Gavriel Heine, The Pacific Symphony squoze every dance-able drop out of the Adolph Adam score. How the live symphony pushed those dancers to move!
A moment of bonding as the Ukranian national anthem soared in the hall, certain audience members brought their own flags. And, always so special, a buffet dinner for dancers at evening’s end. Seen here, Elizaveta Gogidze and Alexis Tutunnique with an ebullient Elizabeth Segerstrom.
Dance critic Debra Levine celebrates fifteen years of fine-arts blogging on arts●meme in 2023.
Photos of Elizabeth Segerstrom, principal dancers Alexis Tutunnique and Elizaveta Gogidze, and United Ukrainian Ballet Ratmansky’s Giselle at Segerstrom Center For The Arts on June 29, 2023 in Costa Mesa, California by Tiffany Rose/Getty Images and Karolina Kuras for Segerstrom Center for the Arts