Christine Shevchenko, Oleksii Tiutiunnyk, Photo by Mark Senior

The United Ukrainian Ballet performed Giselle

It was a remarkably poignant occasion: the opening night of Giselle with The United Ukrainian Ballet at the London Coliseum. The company comprises some 70 exiled Ukrainian dancers, not just from the capital Kyiv, but from Odesa, Kharkiv and elsewhere in that vast country.

The company was formed in The Hague in response to the Russian invasion, with the help of former ballerina Igone de Jongh’s production company, Senf Theatre Partners and she is the artistic leader.  Alexei Ratmansky’s version of Giselle was first mounted for the Bolshoi Ballet in 2019 and he and his wife, Tatiana, have read the old Stepanov notations in preparation for presenting an authentic version of the original choreography, as he has done with a number of other classics. Support from all quarters has flooded in with Birmingham Royal Ballet donating sets and costumes and English National Opera providing the orchestra.

This was not really about analysing the virtues or otherwise of the production but of feeling that great Ukrainian spirit and resilience, a strong sense of coming together. Ratmansky has included some of the things that we are familiar with from Mary Skeaping’s excellent 1971 production for London Festival Ballet including the wonderfully rousing fugue in the second act. Ratmansky has retained a great deal of mime which adds clarity but at times is overly pedantic. His vine gatherers in Act I are lively with a strong folk theme, the wilis of Act II are menacing and fluid. Myrtha, Queen of the Wilis, at this performance danced glacially by Elizaveta Gogidze, lead with authority. Moyna and Zulme, Vladyslava Kovalenko and Daria Manoilo, were attentive lead Wilis.

Christine Shevchenko and Oleksii Tiutiunnyk
United Ukrainian Ballet, London Coliseum, photo by Mark Senior

The title role was danced at this performance by Ukrainian born Christine Shevchenko who currently dances with American Ballet Theatre. She was replacing an indisposed Katja Khaniukova, first soloist with English National Ballet, who would undoubtedly have given a very different interpretation. Ratmansky has given his leading protagonists free rein to find their individual readings of the characters. Shevchenko’s Giselle was very carefree, ardently in love, confident – not the fragile, weak-hearted young woman we are used to seeing. Therefore her mad scene provided great contrast and was most affecting. Her second act was compassionate and lyrical. Count Albert (Albrecht) was Oleksii Tiutiunnyk, a very elegant dancer and partner with wonderful elevation. He was also a captivating actor. There was no doubting his love for Giselle and his overwhelming remorse both at the end of Act I and throughout Act II was palpable. And in this respect Bathilde (Ksenia Novikova), Albert’s fiancée, was portrayed in a much more sympathetic light, showing concern for Giselle. There were some moments during both acts when the audience laughed unexpectedly (flying wilis and such like) which suggests that we have grown used to more sophisticated special effects but its unfortunate that the atmosphere was momentarily dispelled.

The most notable differences were reflected in the tempi, conducted with vigour by Viktor Oliynyk, sometimes at such high speed that the dancers did well to keep up (and they did so in unison). At other times, requiring great control to sustain the slowing down of phrasing.

What will remain indelibly in my memory will be Benjamin Britten’s version of God Save The King prior to the curtain going up with members of the English National Opera singing on stage. And as if that wasn’t moving enough, at the end of the show, the cast of the performance with Ratmansky and de Jongh, sang the Ukrainian national anthem, wrapped in Ukrainian flags, to a rapturous reception.

Deborah Weiss

Photos by Mark Senior