Russian troupe to present romantic ballet ‘Giselle’ at Proctors

Alisa Sveshnikova talks about her lead role in the romantic ballet "Giselle," which comes to Proctor

Alisa Sveshnikova has a broken heart.

Every night of the week in “Giselle,” the ballerina either mourns the loss of her daughter or the infidelity of her fiancé. Either way, Sveshnikova’s characters are an unfortunate lot.

Yet, she wouldn’t have it any other way, since dancing in this mystical melodrama is a career highlight for any ballerina — especially the Russian variety, who are devoted to the classics.

“It’s [the] original version from Russia, 1842,” said Sveshnikova, who is a principal with the St. Petersburg Ballet Theatre, which will perform “Giselle” on Saturday at Proctors. “It’s very classical, traditional production. We feel a responsibility to this very historic, great tradition.”

Beyond history, says Sveshnikova, the appeal of “Giselle” rides on the tragic and fantastic tale. Often called “the Hamlet of ballet,” the action centers on a sweet, lively peasant girl with a weak heart. She falls in love with a noble, Albrecht, who promises to marry her. But he can’t, as he has already promised to marry a lady of his own social standing. When Giselle discovers the betrayal, she goes mad and dances until she dies.

Love endures

The story doesn’t end with her death, as her love endures beyond the grave. In the second act, Albrecht visits Giselle’s headstone, where he is swarmed by an army of Wilis. Those ghostly figures, brides who die before their wedding, aim to destroy the object of their affections. But Giselle heroically defies the pack to rescue Albrecht from their wrath.

St. Petersburg Ballet Theatre

WHAT: “Giselle”

WHERE: Proctors, 432 State St., Schenectady

WHEN: 8 p.m. Saturday

HOW MUCH: $40 to $30

MORE INFO: 346-6204 or

“Everybody would like to see something beautiful,” said the ballerina. “It’s very romantic, very beautiful. It gives you a romantic feeling.”

Though Sveshnikova often plays starring roles, she alternates between the two character parts in “Giselle” — Giselle’s mother, Berthe, or Albrecht’s patrician girlfriend, Bathilde. Pantomime is key to carrying the parts. Discarded as old-fashioned in contemporary ballet, pantomime is essential in the staging these old warhorses. Sveshnikova respects the tradition and insists it should be handed down.

“It’s a special art,” she said. “It takes a lot to communicate the story. The gestures are very special. It’s a discipline that a lot of choreographers are taking away. They prefer more dancing. At the present time, that’s not good for dancing. They should have the technique of pantomime.”

She argues it’s necessary to convey the personalities of the elder Berthe or the glamorous Bathilde. As Giselle’s mom, she totters and wags her finger at Giselle. “She is near Giselle every time. She tries to help her and has regrets with her,” said the ballerina, who as Berthe, spends the entire first act on stage.

At Giselle’s death, Berthe is overcome, collapsing at the loss. The opposite is true of Bathilde.

“Bathilde is a lady, not a peasant. She feels proud and doesn’t have any feelings for Giselle,” said Sveshnikova. “She’s out hunting; she wants to see the forest. She feels nothing for Giselle. She gives Giselle a little gift, but it means nothing to Bathilde.”

As Bathilde, the ballerina holds her head high and puffs out her chest. She also imparts fury at Albrecht’s duplicity.

Sveshnikova points out how vital both characters are. Berthe foreshadows Giselle’s death by warning her of her faint heart as she dances to amuse Albrecht. And Bathilde completes the love triangle.

By Russian standards, Sveshnikova says, this St. Peterburg Ballet Theatre production is modest. “We only have 50 dancers, and music is on some discs.”

Critical response

The Charlotte Observer called the company’s performance striking for its mythology-influenced storytelling. Other critics have found the production lacking, calling its caliber regional and not up to the highest Russian artistry, standards set by the Kirov or Bolshoi ballets.

Sveshnikova disagrees. She points out that while the St. Petersburg company does have the resources of the top two, she and the other dancers, along with the top Russian ballet stars of today and yesterday, from Anna Pavlova to Mikhail Baryshnikov, have been trained at the same school, the Vaganova Academy. Calling it a great school, the St. Petersburg academy hands down the cultural customs that shape Russia’s fabled dancers.

“We have special training,” she said. “We take the best of French and Italian traditions and mix it with Russian folk dancing. It’s very interesting, a special mix. I think there is something special in the Russian soul, too.”

Certainly, the Russians seem tinged with a touch of melancholy that serves romantic tragedies like “Giselle” so well. Sveshnikova expects the Proctors audience to be moved. At the same time, she hopes they will enjoy “Giselle.”

“It’s my first time in the U.S. I hope our ‘Giselle’ will have a success so we can come back.”

Categories: Life and Arts

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