The Earliest Russian Giselles


     Giselle was born in Paris nearly 155 years ago. Her creators were French: the composer Adolphe Adam, the poet Theophile Gautier, the librettist Vernoy de Saint-Georges and the choreographers Jules Perrot and Jean Coralli. The lead roles in the ballet were performed by the young dancers from the Paris Opera: Carlotta Grisi and Lucien Petipa ( Marius Petipa's brother). Now, however, the world considers Giselle to be Russian, and looks at Russian artists as prototypes for the interpretation of this work.
     The 1841 premiere at the Paris Opera met with enormous success. The same year saw the triumphant procession of Giselle across European and North American stages. The famous critic Yuri Slonimsky has pointed out that it was the first time in history that a ballet had such a «wonderful dissemination». In 1842 the ballet reached the footlights of St. Petersburg's Bolshoi Theatre, staged by Antoine Titus. This event was of enormous importance for the fate of the masterpiece. Indeed, the Russian theatres maintained the ballet so that, after several decades, this pearl among the world's classics could be brought back to France, its native country.
     How did its homeland managed to forget Giselle? In the second half of the 19th century, ballet underwent a state of decline in Western Europe. There were few companies left which could maintain this ballet in their repertory. Most lacked appropriate interpreters for the leading roles, or a well-organized corps de ballet. Only Russia maintained a completely professional school, which produced the mastery required for the interpretation of the classics, along with a cultivated, homogenous style.
     The Russian public welcomed the ballet with interest. This version was set by Jules Perrot, after he came to Russia in the 1850's. The audience also warmly greeted touring stars Fanny Elssler and Carlotta Grisi, who appeared in the leading roles. However, the Russian public reserved its most ardent enthusiasm for the Russian ballerinas who descended from the country's literary and artistic traditions. These dancers imbued the French peasant girl Giselle with a (Russian) soul, and tried to reflect her profound love, capable of overcoming death. Many years later English critic Arnold Haskell wrote that in Giselle Russia had seen a universal human drama, and had immortalized it. Russian dancers greatly contributed to this.
     It is difficult to discover what the earliest performers brought to the role. There is little descriptive material and few reviews. Nevertheless, when taking together, this information is valuable in tracing the development of the character.
     The premiere of Giselle in St. Petersburg occurred on December 18, 1842, with Yelena Andreyanova dancing the leading role. Raphael Zotov, one of her contemporaries, wrote this in his book Theatrical Album: «The role of Giselle was superbly danced. The pantomime scenes of the First Act and the entire Second Act proved to all that Madame Andreyanova is our leading ballerina...»
     Within a year Moscow also saw Giselle. The first performance of the ballet there took place on November 25, 1843, again with the participation of Yelena Andreyanova. However, on April 30, 1845, Yekaterina Sankovskaya - beloved of the Moscow public and called «the soul of Moscow's ballet» - appeared in the work. The reviewer Vladimir Rodislavsky wrote about her interpretation of the central role, constantly employing the word «superb» to describe her dancing during the First Act, her acting during the scene preceding her death («The Mad Scene»), and during all of the Second Act.
     One other contemporary Giselle from St. Petersburg is memorable: Nadezhda Bogdanova. Her debut on February 2, 1856 was reviewed by Zotov, writing about her in Severnaya Pchela (The Northern Bee): «During the First Act she was lovely in her expressions of her naive love. However, she was weaker during the moments of her fatal blow. It is evident that her dramatic gifts are only developing... her «Mad Scene», on the other hand, was successful... The entire Second was a real triumph for Madame Bogdanova...»
     Six years later, on November 8, 1862, the inhabitants of St. Petersburg saw the young Marfa Muravyova in the ballet. The next year she performed the role with the Paris Opera, Which revived the ballet especially for her appearance.
     Using press reviews from that time period, Muravyova's biographers are able to describe her successes in France:
     «Marfa Muravyeva learned the role of Giselle under the direction of Jules Perrot, so well remembered in St. Petersburg... The Mad Scene in the First Act was a total triumph and each evening concluded with exultant calls... Madame Muravyeva can dance as well as she can act. She fascinates us with her grace, her lightness and the strength of her point work. She amazes us with her gestures and the achieves the height of perfection in her mime. She moves us. Her madness and death cause us deep anguish.... She was no less successful in the Scene with Willis, during the Second Act».
     It is incredibly difficult to reconstruct completely the images of the first Russian Giselles. The photographs taken in the photographers' studios render them all alike - frozen facial expressions, mechanical poses, and costumes similar to one another regardless of the role. Nonetheless, Muravyeva's photograph is memorable. The ballerina tries to recreate one of the moments of the Mad Scene, displaying great naturalness even though it was necessary to pose in front of the camera for long minutes. It is also remarkable that the ballerina who, at times, was accused of inexpressive acting, is photographed in the scene where it necessary above all to show dramatic talent.
     Also interesting is Muravyova's Giselle costume, with a colored bodice and an apron. This is very similar to the costumes worn by contemporary dancers. On her head she is wearing a crown made of grape leaves. Because of changes in the current Russian choreography, this detail has now been eliminated.
     At the beginning of the 20th century, another heroine decided the fate of Giselle - Anna Pavlova. «I pronounced myself Giselle», she told the Petersburg Gazette in an interview. «Of course they were not totally convinced. However, I asked (the Directorate) to present the ballet in the Spring, and promised to work all of Lent...Now, La Bayadere and Giselle are my pices de resistance...»
     One of Pavlova's contemporaries, having seen her in the role of Giselle, wrote this in Birzheviye Vedomosti (The Stockbroker's Courier):
     «...Each time, when I see the magical mime, style and dancing in her interpretation of tragic Giselle, I can not contain myself from saying a few words. Because, with each performance, this artist perfects the role more and more; and dominates the auditorium with greater and greater power. Yesterday, for instance, there was not a single spectator who was not overcome with the acting and dancing of Pavlova. It was not Pavlova on the stage, it was Giselle - touching and naiv in her love... In the scenes in the Kingdom of the Willis, we did not have a ballerina before us, but a swift-winged spectre, airy and dreamy. She seemed like a mirage that comes alive at night and disappears with the first rays of the rising sun. What is the secret of her fantastic, extraordinary talent? In fact, it is harmony... Harmony, in the amalgamation of the separate moments into a complete whole, from which an artistic image is created. We do not need to speak about external appearances, or an excessive tragic style or about technical perfection in the dancing of the role. The ballerina grasps with rare refinement the particular style of epoch. Here, indeed, one must come back and talk about talent...»
     Evidently, Pavlova was not shy in front of camera. She always seems in character in her photographs. Her poses and movements always have a particular emotional coloring. Through such photos one can imagine how Pavlova looked in the Mad Scene from the First Act and in the Second Act. However, there was something quite particular about Pavlova. As one of the Willis, she had a smile on her lips, symbolizing her joy at the realization that she had been released from the world. There is a realization of her spiritual growth, and a remarkable illusion of flight, even in the stationary poses.
     Another significant name is Tamara Karsavina, who notably performed the role of Giselle when the ballet was presented at the Paris Opera after 42 years by the Diagilev Ballet Company. In 1910, the French paper Comoedia Illustre reported, «At one time Giselle was well-known French ballet. It was counted among those that gave pleasure to our parents, and which now the Russians are returning to us in the purest form, of which only they are capable».
     In 1918, the reviewer from Nashe Vremia (Our Time) described her performance like this:
     «...Karsavina is a great actress, and she proved this in Giselle's Mad Scene. Karsavina conquered us with her simplicity, her sincerity, and with the truthfulness of her suffering, in which there was not the slightest touch of underlying strain...During the dance of the Willis, Karsavina is a symbol of a silent cry of despair. Her face is severely expressive, uncannily peaceful and inspired... It will stay with us forever...»
     In reality, Giselle was returned to her native France only in 1924, when the ballet was restaged by Serge Lifar at the Paris Opera. The central role was once again taken by a Russian ballerina - Olga Spessivtseva.
     There are few photographs of Spessivtseva as Giselle. Most striking are those which reveal her withdrawn and remote expression during the Second Act. She seems reserved, as if distancing herself from her surroundings. The palms of her hands are turned inwards, as if protecting her soul. Her face reminds us of the first Sylphide, Taglioni, rather than that of the first Giselle by Grisi. This image corresponds with what her contemporaries saw on stage. Critic Yuri Slonimsky described her unforgettable interpretation in this way:
     «From her first appearance, Spessivtseva prepared the spectators for a catastrophe. She was in love, and this caused her punishment. She struggled for her love, and this doomed her with ruin. Spessivtseva's eyes, totally opened at the beginning of the First Act, are closed at the end. A lonely, broken, surprised begin roamed the stage... During the Second Act Spessivtseva danced with half-closed eyes, not daring to look at what was going on around her. The beauty of her heroine increased along with Giselle's struggle for happiness. Only, this was for someone else's happiness, not her own».
     Later, during the Soviet period, other great dancers appeared, bringing their individual gifts and talents to the character of Giselle and also Russianizing her. Following the early Russian Giselles came Yelena Lyukom (first of the Soviet era), the extraordinarily expressive Galina Ulanova, and the romantic Marina Semyonova.
     Among famous St. Petersburg dancers that performed the role, Natalia Dudinskaya, Tatyana Vecheslova, Alla Shelest, Gabriella Komleva, and Irina Kolpakova are most remembered. Among Moscovite Giselles: Raissa Struchkoba, Marina Kondratieva, Nina Timofeyeva, Ekaterina Maximova, Ludmila Semenyaka and Natalia Bessmertnova will not be forgotten. All of these dancers helped to keep the image of Giselle young and fresh forever enchanting and moving the public.
by Natalia Godzina
This article first appeared in «Sovietsky Balet», issue No.2, 1982

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