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Twenty minutes into rehearsal for “Giselle,” Boston Ballet principal dancer Derek Dunn and soloist Chisako Oga are already drenched in sweat after repeating the beginning of their adagio five times. They know the steps, they nail the lifts. “It’s already beautiful, I’m nitpicking for details,” ballet master Larissa Ponomarenko tells them between each repetition. As she demonstrates, they catch their breath maintaining their energy and posture, ready to jump back into the scene at any moment.
Ponomarenko watches closely as Dunn, who dances the part of Albrecht, repeats his pirouettes. “It’s correct but it’s missing a certain energy,” she pauses, he keeps turning. “OK, relax your spot. You want to be precise, but try letting go by tilting your head very slightly.” His spins transform and now seem effortless. “There, yes! Beautiful. Feel how the perfection of that tiny detail in the body language totally changes the game?”
Ponomarenko is no stranger to “Giselle.” She first danced the title role for her graduation performance in St. Petersburg, and Boston Ballet artistic director Mikko Nissinen says that her portrayal of the tragic heroine for the company in 1994 made her a legend. Now he’s entrusted her with staging the Romantic classic for the 56th season opener.
“A lot has changed since the last time we last did ‘Giselle’ 10 years ago,” says Nissinen. “I had some excellent artists, but my bench was not as deep. Now the bench is loaded with talent, so there’s no difference in quality among the individual artists.”
“Giselle” tells the story of a peasant girl who dies of a broken heart after she learns that her deceitful lover is engaged to another woman. She transcends into the spirit world where she meets the Wilis, similarly scorned ghost women who make any man they encounter dance to his death. It was first choreographed by Jean Coralli and Jules Perrot and performed in Paris in 1841 and went on to become an enduring favorite. Today’s stagings are primarily based on Marius Petipa’s revival at the turn of the 20th century in St. Petersburg. Nissinen says that while the piece has been updated stylistically and adapted to meet today’s technical standards, it is closest to Petipa’s production.
As artistic director, Nissinen has cultivated a repertoire of classical, neo-classical, and contemporary ballets, and he’s celebrated for establishing the Boston Ballet’s long-term partnership with visionary choreographer William Forsythe. The company has gone through many changes in Nissinen's 17-year tenure as artistic director. One of the outcomes of those changes, he says, is that they've been able to attract younger audience members, many of whom are new to ballet. That’s in part why he’s decided to bookend the season with two of the most ubiquitous Romantic classics, “Giselle” and “Swan Lake.”
“It’s very important that a ballet company has incredibly good versions of all the key classical ballets so that the audience can see the journey, how the academic technical ballet changes to neoclassical ballet,” says Nissinen. “It just gives everybody a much fuller experience and they appreciate everything more.”
The role of Giselle is a coveted one, and many ballerinas have made it their own in such a way that their performances become linked to their identities and elevate their careers. “It demands so much in terms of acting,” says Nissinen. Narrative ballets created in the Romantic period relied heavily on ballet pantomime to convey their stories. The style was developed in the mid-1800s in Paris and combines dance and mime, borrowing from a form of masked theater popular in 16th-century Europe.
Ponomarenko is a master of ballet pantomime, shifting easily between roles as she demonstrates for her dancers. Giselle is part of her artistic footprint, and she uses her expertise to draw complexity and nuance out of her dancers in rehearsal.
“Try again, Chisako. But this time open the hands first, convey that information to the audience and let that movement propel the rest,” the tiny adjustment changed her from a dancer practicing in a rehearsal studio to a peasant girl in love and caught between two worlds.
Ballet pantomime has been been passed down through generations of dancers. Ponomarenko says that giving the dancers the physical language to infuse their movements with information is like giving an actor good lines. She says it allows the dancers to move organically and with elegance. Attention to detail and repetition gives them the calm presence to make the roles their own and audiences can sense the difference, she says.
“An untrained eye might not identify what is missing, but it will definitely feel that something is missing,” says Ponomarenko. “Maybe they get a certain energy from one dancer and not from another, even if they don’t know technically why that is.”
Ponomarenko wants to bring that star quality out in all of the dancers she works with, instilling in them knowledge she’s spent her career acquiring. While Giselle has been performed for nearly two centuries, each production begs a new generation of artists to make its mark on these roles. Ponomarenko says it’s her job as a coach to get her dancers to the pinnacle of their talent, the rest is up to them and the audience.
The Boston Ballet's production of “Giselle” runs from Sept. 19 through Sept. 29 at the Citizens Bank Opera House.
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