Shortly after Russia invaded its neighbor, Ukraine, almost a year ago now, Ukrainians began streaming across the borders into Hungary and Poland, and from there into Western Europe. Most were traumatized; some had lost homes; all feared for their lives or their family’s lives. Among these multitudes were dancers and dance students who, like so many refugees, were unsure what would happen next, to them or their country.
At the time, the Dutch ballerina Igone de Jongh was on tour with two Ukrainian dancers, Stanislav Olshanskyi and Oleksei Tiutiunnyk, who suddenly found themselves stranded abroad. Unable to stand idly by as these dramatic events unfolded, De Jongh and her production company Senf Theater Partners hatched the idea of creating a destination for Ukrainian dancers in the city of The Hague, where an empty former conservatory building just happened to be available. Improbably, and against significant odds, the United Ukrainian Ballet was born. At first it consisted of just fifteen female dancers (some with children); since then it has grown to nearly seventy men and women. (The men who were not abroad already had to be given special permission to leave Ukraine as part of an effort to promote Ukrainian culture abroad.)
The company has now toured The Netherlands, Australia, and Singapore, and appeared in London last fall. This week, it came to the Kennedy Center, in Washington, DC, with a production of the nineteenth-century Romantic ballet “Giselle.” Not just any “Giselle,” but one staged by the choreographer Alexei Ratmansky, who is half-Ukrainian by birth, spent the first ten years of his life in Kyiv, and returned there to dance for the national company at the start of his career. (His parents and sister are still in Kyiv, as is his wife’s family.) He was assisted by his Ukrainian wife, Tatiana. Both are ardent students of ballet history and, in particular, of nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century notation systems used to record the steps and mise en scènes of some of the most familiar and beloved ballets in the repertory, including “Giselle.”
This “Giselle,” then, like the one Ratmansky staged for the Bolshoi Ballet in 2019, is based on archival sources: notations of Petipa’s staging of the ballet in St. Petersburg, written down in Stepanov Notation in 1899 and 1903; another notebook by the French ballet master Henri Justamant, dating from four decades earlier and based on a French production; musical scores with notes scribbled into the margins; period designs and descriptions.
All this matters little, but also a lot. What matters is that it produces a “Giselle” that feels freshly reconsidered rather than rote, in which each detail stands out, and in which the plot and characters feel newly relevant and alive. Often, classical ballet can feel like a form of ritual, with each step burnished to exquisite perfection. In contrast, this ballet feels like a story, in which the dancers don’t simply repeat the familiar steps—in fact, some of the steps are not the same at all, which is refreshing in itself—but come across as people. If one were to describe it in one world, it might be natural.
It’s not a quality one often associates with ballet, but it does apply to the kind of theatricality Ratmansky is known for, some of it learned during his years of dancing in Denmark, a school that prides itself on its naturalistic and unaffected stage manner. And it is a quality Ratmansky sees in the notations for “Giselle,” particularly Justamant’s, which stress the relationships between characters, and their interactions. Giselle and Albert, the young Count-in-disguise whom she loves, act like lovesick teenagers. He can’t stop looking at her, touching her, even kissing her hand feverishly in her mother’s presence. She is furious when he hides from her, but forgives him when he exclaims, in mime, “but here I am, in front of you!” When her mother warns her against dancing too much, lest she get overheated, she puts her hands on her mother’s shoulders and shakes her head: don’t be silly, nothing bad will happen! And when a group of nobles comes to town, she immediately makes friends with one of the noblewomen, Bathilde, who, unbeknownst to her, is actually engaged to the same man. The two women gossip and exchange niceties; Bathilde even invites her to dance at her wedding up at the castle.
Because of this, when the truth comes out, that Albert is a count and is promised to another, it is all the more devastating. Giselle isn’t a symbol of innocence betrayed—she’s a girl, humiliated and heartbroken in front of the whole town. In fact, we feel for both of them, Giselle and Bathilde. Poor Bathilde didn’t ask for any of this! And for Albert, too, because he is caught in an impossible situation, between his love and attraction to Giselle and his duty toward Bathilde, who is a perfectly nice girl, and everything she represents.
What is interesting is that this naturalness spills over into the second act, normally performed almost as a tragic love poem. The first act takes place in a village; the second in a forest haunted by ghostly sprites, Wilis, who dance in the moonlight and force unfortunate men who wander there to dance to their deaths. After she dies, Giselle too turns into a Wili, but her love for Albert lingers, imbuing her with human impulses. This is always part of Giselle, but here, the details of how she protects stand out against the stylized background of the nocturnal forest. She rushes out onto the stage, breaking through a wall of Wilis in order to shield him from them and lead him, frantically, to the grave. The moment in which she glides across the stage, supported at chest level by her partner, feels chillingly real. She insists that he stay at the cross, protected by its power, waving him back each time he attempts to approach. She blows kisses at him. He kisses her forehead, and she cries. And at the end of the ballet, as she fades into the morning mist and he places her on a mound of grass and flowers—not in her cold grave— she pleads with him to live, and to marry Bathilde. You see, she wants him to be happy.
All this is performed by the Ukrainian company in a manner that is both plain and full of grace, straightforward, honest, musical, and conversational. There is little that is hyper-spectacular, though the timing and coordination and speed and danceyness of the steps are deceptive. It’s actually hard to make things look simple. And a few sections, like the sped-up peasant pas de deux, chock-o-block with beaten steps and jumps that turn this way, and then that way, are highly demanding. At the Feb. 4 matinee Maria Shupilova and Vlad Bondar acquitted themselves well. Albert’s Act II solo, as well, is a killer, with cabrioles that come down on one leg, only for him to jump up and onto the other leg on the next note, followed by entrechats. The guest performer, Denis Nedak, born in Odessa and currently dancing with the Atlanta Ballet, pulled it off, but he did look a bit tired by the end of the ballet.
The Giselle at this performance was Iryna Zhalovska, trained in Kyiv and a first soloist at the National Ballet of Ukraine. She is one of the most touching Giselles I’ve seen, and also one of the most natural. You don’t marvel at her hops on pointe or ooh and ah at the elevation of her jumps, but her interpretation was human, light in spirit and touch, and, in the mad scene, devastatingly distraught. “You threw away my love!” she says to Albert in mime, looking squarely into his face. “How could you.” Then she begins to lose her mind, sees spirits flying, prays, and falls down dead. In the second act, when, in spirit form, she repeatedly eluded Albert, just once he managed to catch her by her wings (a detail I’d never noticed before). Her back reacted slightly, as if she could feel his hands on these diaphanous appendages, and it hurt.
The production has other unusual details, like a fugue which was cut early in the ballet’s life, for which the choreography has been lost. Ratmansky, unable to resist a historical challenge, created the choreography for it himself, a series of approaching and recoiling steps, toward and away from the grave. The fugue ends in a wheel formation that echoes the cross earlier in the act, which in turn echoes the cross drawn in the air by Giselle’s mother in the first act. In fact, there is quite a bit of Christian symbolism in the version. Both Giselle, Hilarion, and Albert pray at various points. And yet it’s not pious. At the start of Act II, a group of men, comic characters, gathers in the forest to drink. When their friend Hilarion tells them to get lost, because his beloved is buried there, they take off their hats out of respect for the dead. What would you do in that situation?
What stays with you isn’t a sense of newness or innovation, but a sense of rightness. It is a production that privileges feeling and meaning over spectacular balletic adagio, the exquisite slowness and ghostly ethereality Giselle is usually associated with. It brings the ballet closer to the world of “La Sylphide” and “Coppélia,” which shouldn’t be a surprise, since those are also Romantic ballets about normal people and, in the case of “La Sylphide,” the spirit world and nature. “Compared to their Russian colleagues, who are overwhelmed by rules of how to behave onstage, Ukrainian dancers are more free and a bit more down to earth, more alive,” Ratmansky told me last year, when I went to The Hague to report on the company. The performance I saw in Washington exemplified this quality perfectly.