It is a rare gift to walk away from a performance with a warm coat of fuzzies draped round you like a layer of fairy dust signaling you’ve just witnessed something special. The last time this critic felt that was after Kristen Chenoweth captured her heart in the Broadway musical Wicked. Witnessing Nina Ananiashvili in Friday night’s performance of Giselle at the Gaillard was just like that, and if you do not buy a ticket to watch her fall in love, die of a broken heart, and then dance her way from despair, to forgiveness to love once again, you are making a mistake. A huge mistake.
It is easy to fear ballet, especially the two-hour-plus long ballets of renowned international companies like the National Ballet Company of Georgia. But if you're lucky, one good experience can turn this trepidation into wonderment. Let this Spoleto underdog, overshadowed by Oyster, be the ballet that changes everything for you. Not because of the unusual romance of a story where the title character dies by the end of Act I (don’t worry, she comes back as an angel), and not because the ballet company has street cred (and they do). Go see for yourselves the effervescent and intoxicating performance of a ballet legend, before she quits the business — Ananiashvili is 47 years old after all, though she plays young Giselle with ease.
And she is a legend in her own right. Trained at the Bolshoi and having danced with the American Ballet Theater, the New York City Ballet, the Royal Ballet, and more, she just recently added Artistic Director of her native Tbilisi-based National Ballet of Georgia to her resume. That Charleston can welcome a dancer of her quality and fame should not be taken for granted.
So what makes Anashiavili so amazing? Her ballet technique is supreme, and with legs for days she executes the simplest bourées from center stage to the wings as if literally floating off like the angel (a.k.a. Wili) that she has becomes in Act II. But technique is not what separates this dancer from the legions of other ballerinas that have come before and after her; it is her infectious smile that beams from onstage as soon as she enters in the lively and cheerful Act I, and it is her palpable grief and madness by the first act’s close. I have never seen a ballerina who can dance and act as easily as Nina. It is the total package that every dancer strives for. She immerses herself in her character to experience what Giselle feels (the secret of any serious actor).
Act I is set in the wooded clearing outside Giselle’s house, the castle faint in the background. Prince Albrecht has come to seek her out disguised as a peasant, much to the dismay of Hans, Giselle’s current pursuer. Giselle and Albrecht meet and dance lively, though Giselle knows she shouldn’t upset her weak heart. The joy that Ananiashvili radiates is contagious. You cannot stop smiling while watching her. She’s the girl next door you can’t dislike, with that magnetic je ne sois quoi that draws you in — all without speaking. Albrecht, played by Vasil Akhmeteli, is a strong dancer, though his true capabilities aren’t showcased until Act II when he dances with Giselle to the point of exhaustion.
Hans, the stubborn, rejected former lover, decides if he cannot have Giselle, no one can. He reveals Albrecht’s secret (he’s a prince and he’s engaged!) and drives Giselle into madness. Ananiashvili’s sweet hair bun slowly comes undone as she morphs into a convincing picture of insanity. She flies about the stage with crazy eyes, threatening those around her, waving Albrecht’s sword around as though she may turn it on herself, before finally collapsing in her mother’s arms, her already-weak heart succumbing at last. She is dead.
Act II opens with a beautifully eerie set in a five-dimensional forest, Giselle’s fresh grave (a cross headstone) to one side. The female ballet corps of Wilis does much better in the second half without the burden of faking facial expressions and emotion. They wear ethereal long, white tutus, typical of the Romantic era, and the somber expressions of scorned dead lovers. One almost forgets they have been onstage like statues for the entire duration of Act II (roughly one hour), when they finally dance again at the very end, by which time their muscles have most certainly grown cold. This alone is commendable!
In this half, both Albrecht’s and Hans’ true Russian ballet roots are evident in sky-high cabrioles and leaps and quadruple turns that stick. But it is the pas de deux between Giselle and Albrecht that is most mesmerizing and gorgeous. Albrecht lifts Giselle above his head, holding her in an upside down split like she weighs nothing (not a far stretch). Every single movement is done with a subtle natural grace. The head follows the arabesque arms, then looks back and comes full circle to gaze at the audience at the exact right moment, extending the lines of the body. These are the tiny nuances that take years to perfect. By the time she says her final farewell to Prince Albrecht before dawn breaks, the audience is in tears (or was that just me?). You don’t want her to go, you don’t want this love story to end. You have felt her despair, grief, and elation.
There were a few unsteady entrance cues in both acts, and several times I caught a dancer watching in the wings or waiting for an entrance in plain sight. They could stand to be reminded what most dance and theater directors will pound into students’ memory: “If you can see them, they can see you!” But the treat of the live Spoleto Festival USA Orchestra and the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to watch Nina Aniashvili in this role more than make up for it.