I begin this review with the statutory mission of the foundation of the United Ukrainian Ballet:
- supporting the displaced dancers in their livelihood
- upholding ballet and dance as an important part of Ukrainian culture
- keeping the current conflict top-of-mind with worldwide audiences
“The United Ukrainian Ballet Foundation stresses the cultural importance of Ukrainian dance and ballet, and holds it in high regard. Ukrainian culture won't be wiped out by Russian (cultural) aggression, nor will the war disappear to the back of people's minds” (Britte Weijers of UUB).
Giselle with Alina Cojocaru, Alexandr Trusch, Vladyslava Kovalenko and the United Ukrainian Ballet
[NB The accompanying photos are from a press call during a dress rehearsal where makeup and some costumes and footwear are not as seen during the performance.]
Giselle is 181 years old and still the ultimate romantic ballet. It's the role that dancers want to perform; it's the full-length work that fills theatres. One wonders why it's still so powerful. Aesthetically it gives the audience what they think they want when coming to the ballet: tulle, dry ice, mysticism… When they leave, I'd propose it's the emotional resonance that stays with them. And it's all realised through a simple story about love, trust, family, community, deception, violence, death, loss, and finally redemption.
For all those reasons it feels like the right work for the newly formed United Ukrainian Ballet to bring to London to perform.
The company is directed by Igone de Jongh – a Dutch ballerina turned household name. Based in The Hague at the former Royal Conservatory, the troupe of 60 have found a new artistic home after their own country was invaded by Russia back in February of this year. We've all seen the news, and how Russia has relentlessly bombarded the country. The world continues to wrestle with the socio-political and economic fallout of the invasion. For the people of Ukraine, things will never be the same again. Theatres weren't only closed; they were being bombed. Individuals had to make decisions in relation to both their lives and careers. A diaspora followed and here we are: Ukrainian culture finding a Dutch haven in order for opportunities to flourish.
The project has attracted the right kind of people. Long-time Dutch resident Jiří Kylián is working with the dancers, and this production of Giselle has been staged by Alexei Ratmansky. Ratmansky was born in St Petersburg to a Russian mother and Ukrainian father, raised in Kyiv, and is a citizen of Ukraine. He's a big name with clout and has made his feelings on the Russian invasion of his country expressly understood. He's repeatedly called out artists who have not made their stance clear, therefore aligning themselves with Russia through their silence, in his opinion.
Ratmansky has become highly regarded for his productions of existing 19th-century ballets. He spends years researching the original choreography in order to bring it back to life. Some may ask why? Isn't that regressive? I believe he's posing important questions in relation to value. Where have the values of ballet gone in the 21st century? Instagram would suggest straight to hell. Hyperextensions and pneumatic drill style turns are de rigueur. Nuance, subtlety, and artistry get far fewer ‘likes' than the obvious and brain-dead crowd-pleasing content. So go Alexei – keep posing those much-needed philosophical questions.
This season of Giselle at the London Coliseum features four dancers in the title role. The Ukrainian dancers Katja Khaniukova (English National Ballet first soloist), Christine Shevchenko (American Ballet Theatre principal) and Elizaveta Gogidze (National Opera of Ukraine first soloist). Also performing is Alina Cojocaru, who was born in Romania, but trained and employed at the National Opera of Ukraine in Kyiv before embarking on her global career. Her Albrecht was Alexandr Trusch, the Ukrainian principal dancer of Hamburg Ballet; I saw their first performance on 14 September.
It was definitely a ballet of two halves. The second was infinitely better. The first act opened and immediately felt very two-dimensional. The Coliseum is a difficult space to fill, and the pop-up feel of the set didn't help. The costumes and sets have been generously lent by Birmingham Royal Ballet, but they read as very dated – almost Camelot in style with vivid colours and OTT styling. I personally prefer a Giselle with earthier tones throughout.
In general, the dancing of the corps de ballet lacked quality. Quality of footwork, and the presence of epaulement. I don't want to get into the blame game, but this was disappointing. And it begs the question: was it the dancers or the choreography? Footwork them, epaulement Ratmansky? Whatever, the whole act read quite fake. I think it was caused by a very performative approach, especially concerning the mime. Mime isn't easy – even more so when a dancer is on stage alone – but it needs to feel more genuine, and conversational. For the most part, the mime at last night's performance seemed more like semaphore, and there was lots of it, often feeling over busy and convoluted.
And on to Cojocaru… yes, there were many good things in Act 1. Her Giselle is of real interest which is no surprise. Immediately we're introduced to the combative aspects of her personality. The shy young girl and the inquisitive woman. And both facets are present throughout the act. Her characterisation is never dormant whether through conversation with her mother, her friends, or the visiting nobility – her Giselle is alive and cathartic.
Cojocaru's dancing has a beautiful balance of thought and abandon. Nothing is throwaway, but nothing is staid either. That you can't teach: it's innate and builds with experience. She danced and inhabited the stage with ease, (maybe less so during her solo), and then there was the mad scene. Ratmansky made production choices at the beginning to not overly focus on her heart condition, so when it came to the mad scene it really felt like an unravelling. And she did it slowly. As the situation started to unfold between the courtiers and Albrecht you could see her on the sidelines taking it all in. A little stumble as she walked, dizziness, the eyes starting to glaze slightly. And then she progressed until a death that hit like a moving truck. Quick and instant. Her not being able to cope with the reality of the situation.
Trusch as her Albrecht was charming, which isn't easy considering the character's agenda. He brought a bounding puppy-style energy to the role, and it mostly worked. Sometimes there was perhaps a little too much misguided energy in characterisation, but generally it made sense and supported Giselle's evident infatuation. His dancing was where all the quality resided and was exquisitely executed throughout. He has a beautiful use of plié, free yet well-shaped port de bras, and showed a character that never lost its commitment.
I was a little dubious at the start of act two, but my fears were settled quite quickly, primarily by Vladyslava Kovalenko, a Myrtha with authority. Her entrance consisted of a smooth yet agitato bourrée into the forest. When she hit centre, her veil flew off and she continued her journey directly forwards. It was sophisticated yet menacing. The ideal combo.
Ratmansky's Wilis had a much more human feel than some other productions. These were women scorned – not ghouls. Their first group entrance onto the stage was also intriguing. It had the expected line patterning, but each step forward ended in a natural first position. This simple choice made a very strong statement about the humanity of the corps de ballet, which in turn made the narrative all the more believable.
The second act was full of choreographic choices and all the better for them. The overall impact was the presence of dancing, which makes one consider: what was I watching before elsewhere? And the answer is steps; steps executed to how ballet's current value system expects them to be done: physical, extreme, and often narratively detached. Ratmansky's approach changed the emphasis of almost everything we've become accustomed to. We weren't asked to evaluate a développé above the head, but rather we were offered atmospheric contretemps to consider instead.
Myrtha's choreography didn't have the usual grand allegro focus. This Myrtha is about dynamic, covering space, and speed. These elements allowed Kovalenko to develop a character of frustration, impatience and heartlessness. She also did brilliant things with her eyes with aggressive side-eye, exasperated rolls. So much happening in such a condensed way.
It was also wonderful to see the Fugue included. It gives such a different mood sandwiched between Hilarion's demise and the central pas de deux. Ratmansky's Fugue was one of both threat and frustration, culminating in Myrtha physically pulling Giselle away from her grave where she's protecting Albrecht to explain herself. More brilliant storytelling.
Ratmansky used the infamous Giselle solo adage that followed as a narrative tool rather than a clickbait moment. After her promenade, Albrecht tries to come towards her, but Giselle uses her port de bras to keep him away, all the time in subservience to Myrtha. It was a revelation. The dancing continued. This version of the pas de deux had more speed, and subsequently more sense of connectedness – they didn't seem to stop. However, it didn't feel rushed, but it did feel quite different to the usual promenade in penché at a glacial pace. The way it finished was heartbreaking with Giselle kneeling with her face in her hands. And this wasn't performative – this was a woman who'd died through disappointment and was having to live it all again.
If anyone was a match for Kovalenko's Myrtha it was Trusch's Albrecht. He did a beautiful solo, full of interpretation, evident in his mournful grand pose attitude derrière with downturned eyes. When he fell to the floor in exhaustion and all the women on stage lunged forward, there was a collective gasp. And then the timing of daybreak's first bell chime and Cojocaru's eyes lifting to see the first rays of sunlight was an unforgettable moment.
The English National Opera Orchestra under the baton of Viktor Oliynyk sounded very spirited. He brought life to the score, even if some of the speeds seemed to trouble some of the cast. There was also a very evident moment of disconnect between conductor, orchestra, and phrasing at a key moment in Act 2 which was a shame. Oliynyk's use of rallentando was very original, particularly when Giselle was predicting her fate by picking petals.
The performance felt important for all the obvious reasons, and additionally poignant for all the questions Ratmansky brought to our existing understanding and expectation of Giselle, especially in the second act. Cojocaru needs to be seen. Her comprehension of arabesque is worth the price of a ticket alone. From unbridled projection to a sense of suspension that almost seems to reverse, you just don't know where she's going to take you. And that's dancing to me.
Art and Politics
Art and politics are complex and interwoven. Take the six degrees of separation concept for example, or perhaps just three in this case: Cojocaru, her husband Johan Kobborg, and two performances of Kobborg's Les Lutins in Turin last week. If you're interested in the identity of the dancer who performed the piece, it's available somewhere on Google. But she's certainly on Ratmansky's list of ‘questionables'.
It's little wonder that some people are trying to stay off radar. The Russian soprano Anna Netrebko has had a complex return to the stage after a similarly complex exit. Her previous relations to Putin's Kremlin are too obvious to deny for some, and her slow and vague response to the invasion didn't help matters. On her return performance at the Vienna State Opera on 5 September her first entrance was greeted with boos but by the end she was bathed in applause. So the struggle between art and politics continues. Borders geographically, boundaries morally – where do they start and finish for some?
United Ukrainian Ballet – Questions and Answers
Looking forward, I was interested to know how things are working in the Hague, and what the future holds for the UUB. They were happy to answer some questions:
I'm interested to know what the plans are for after the Giselle tour. Will the company break, or continue working on its next venture? If so, what will it be?
The Company will go on tour in Australia and Singapore in October/November, and we're working on continuing to perform Giselle in December/January in the Netherlands. In January 2023 we'll perform a Triple Bill consisting of works by Jiri Kilián (Falling Angels), Paul Lightfoot and Sol León, and a choreography (tbc) by Igone de Jongh (in consultation with Alexei Ratmansky).
We are also working on developing a studio programme for young Ukrainian artists (dancers/choreographers) so they also have the opportunities to develop their skills now that most cultural life in the Ukraine has stopped.
Your website states that “all those involved have worked unpaid in recent months to be able to show the unique production Giselle to the public”. Can you confirm who is meant by all?
The producers, Dutch and UK management, creatives and other employees have, (according to their personal circumstances) either volunteered or been reimbursed to ensure their expenses were covered.
Regarding the dancers, how are they being supported outside of the studio and by who? In relation to housing and wages to cover food costs etc.
The Centre has a monthly allowance to cover basic needs – the so-called ‘Bed, Bath, Bread' – organised by the Municipality of The Hague and The Salvation Army. The foundation provides funds to top up these basic provisions as well as its role in rehearsal and performance organisation.
The website also states that “all profits from ticket sales will be given to the DEC Ukraine Humanitarian Appeal and the United Ukrainian Ballet Foundation” – can you disclose percentages in relation to this statement?
The profits from the ticket sales will be shared evenly between the two organisations, 50/50.
And how will the money given to the UUBF be spent?
The money will be invested in the dancers' allowances, and the requirements of the Centre in order to allow for training, and the rehearsing/production of (new) performances. Should the dancers be able to return to their home country and affiliated institutions to execute their professions, the Foundation shall disburse any funds it holds to projects that aim to rebuild the cultural life in Ukraine.
The project really is something – a sanctuary for those involved, both personally and professionally. Kudos to de Jongh. It must be quite an honour to support these artists navigating the inevitable fallout of war. Onwards. Verder. Далі.
This review acknowledges the tragic death of the dancer and teacher Oleksandr Shapoval serving in the Ukrainian army. Killed by enemy mortar shelling near Maiorske in Donetsk Oblast on September 12th. Another loss.
Matthew Paluch was awarded a place at The Royal Ballet School in 1990 where he graduated in 1997. His first four years as a professional dancer were spent working with London City Ballet, Scottish Ballet, K-Ballet and English National Ballet, becoming a full-time member of ENB until leaving in 2006.
Matthew graduated from the Royal Academy of Dance, Professional Dancers' Teaching Diploma in 2007, and was formerly on faculty at The Royal Ballet School. He completed his Masters in Ballet Studies at Roehampton University in 2011, has been a freelance writer since 2010 and currently works in the Law Sector.