Ballet Stars

Alessandra Ferri and Mikhail Baryshnikov are two dancers whose physicality and artistic prowess truly pushed ballet to a new level. Their careers have spanned decades and continents, making them icons of the ballet world. In the late 1980s both dancers were working at American Ballet Theatre, Ferri as a principal dancer and Baryshnikov as artistic director and performer, when they co-starred in the 1987 film Dancers, a drama centered around a ballet company that included a staged production of Giselle. This clip from the film shows Ferri and Baryshnikov as Giselle and Albrecht in the last moments of the ballet, highlighting their dramatic chops with up-close camera angles.

Alessandra Ferri and Mikhail Baryshnikov - Last dance of Giselle and Albrecht www.youtube.com

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Ballet Stars
English National Ballet in Akram Khan's "Giselle." Laurent Liotardo, Courtesy ENB.

This week (Feb 28-Mar. 2), English National Ballet brings Akram Khan's widely acclaimed Giselle to Chicago's Harris Theater, the company's first U.S. appearance in 30 years. Commissioned by ENB artistic director Tamara Rojo, Khan, whose work combines contemporary dance and Indian kathak, takes a revisionist approach to the classic story, replacing peasants and aristocrats with migrant factory workers and wealthy landlords. The ballet's look and sound have also been reinterpreted, with music by Vincenzo Lamagna (adapted from Adolphe Adam's original score), sets and costumes by Academy Award-winner Tim Yip and lighting design by Tony-award winner Mark Henderson.

Pointe spoke with Rojo to learn more about why she wanted to modernize one of ballet's best-loved classics—and why the risk was worth it.

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Ballet Stars
Powers with William Newton in Edwaard Liang's Giselle. Photo by Jennifer Zmuda, Courtesy BalletMet.

While its minimalist costuming and sets gave Edwaard Liang's new Giselle for BalletMet a nontraditional look last February, there was nothing spartan about Grace-Anne Powers' performance in the title role. Powers' radiant smile, warmth and happy disposition made Giselle's betrayal by Albrecht (danced by William Newton), and her subsequent death of a broken heart, a real tearjerker. She had you believing that an entire village could, indeed, love her.

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Ballet Stars
Ballet Nacional de Cuba's corps de ballet performs Giselle's famous arabesque chugs. Photo by Carlos Quezada, Courtesy The Kennedy Center.

During the Ballet Nacional de Cuba's tour to Washington, DC's Kennedy Center earlier this year, the company brought longtime artistic director Alicia Alonso's Giselle. And while the production was admittedly well-worn and the style of dancing old-fashioned, the dancers rose to the occasion, led sensitively by longtime BNC star Viengsay Valdés in the title role.

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Ballet Stars
Galina Ulanova and Nikolai Fadeyechev in "Giselle." Screenshot via YouTube.

The final moments of Giselle's second act are some of the most hauntingly beautiful in all of ballet: from the pas de deux between Giselle's betrayed spirit and the man she still loves, to the wilis' cold rejection, to Albrecht's heart-wrenching desperation as the curtain closes. The Bolshoi Ballet's late prima ballerina assoluta, Galina Ulanova, is among the most legendary interpreters of the ballet's titular role, admired around the world for her ability to utterly transform into character. Alongside her frequent partner Nikolai Fadeyechev, also a former leading dancer with the Bolshoi, their performance is an offering of sensitivity that stirs us even decades later.

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Trending
Katherine Williams as Myrtha. Photo by Quinn Wharton for Pointe.

With a large exhale, Katherine Williams steps into a series of arabesque chugs, as if the force of her breath is propelling her forward. "Big step out, big," coaxes ballet mistress Irina Kolpakova, watching from the front of a small studio at American Ballet Theatre in May. It's a big step indeed for Williams—after 10 years in the corps de ballet, the 29-year-old is preparing for her debut as Myrtha in ABT's production of Giselle, her very first principal role. One month after the premiere, Williams was promoted to soloist.

"Myrtha is the hardest thing I've ever done," Williams admits. "By the end you feel like you're going to throw up. I was using my breath as much as I could to help me get through it."

While Williams is tall and a natural jumper, she was surprised when artistic director Kevin McKenzie cast her in such a fierce and powerful role. "Generally they give me the happy peasant girl, something softer," she says. "I think it was a leap of faith for Kevin to allow me to embrace a totally different side of myself."

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Ballet Stars
Martine van Hamel as Myrtha in "Giselle," via YouTube

The story of Giselle has emotional power in the way it blurs the lines between good and evil. Myrtha, Queen of the Wilis, is often considered the villainess, but her character is far more complex than the bad guys in most ballets. A wounded spirit determined to protect her companions the only way she knows how, Myrtha is ethereal, yet ruthless. Every ballerina must meet the challenge of the role in her own way. Martine van Hamel, a former American Ballet Theatre principal, brings the opposing forces of Myrtha's nature into harmonious balance in this 1977 clip.


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Ballet Stars
Carla Fracci in "Giselle," via YouTube.

In the late 1950s and 60s, Italian ballerina Carla Fracci won the world over with her definitive interpretations of romantic ballets like La Sylphide, La Sonnambula, and, of course, Giselle. At just 22 years old, she left her home stage at La Scala in Milan to begin guesting internationally, eventually forming a famous partnership with the dashing danseur Erik Bruhn at American Ballet Theatre. The two appear together in this film of ABT's Giselle, in which Fracci's Act I variation is as near to perfection as any Giselle before or after.

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Ballet Stars
Sadaise Arencibía as Giselle. Photo by Quinn Wharton.

Grettel Morejón and Sadaise Arencibía, principal ballerinas with the National Ballet of Cuba, danced the title role of Giselle in the company's performances on June 6 and 8 at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center in upstate New York. SPAC was the final stop on a U.S. tour that took the company to Tampa, Chicago and Washington, D.C. Morejón's was an intimate, caring, and protective Giselle, placing complete confidence in Albrecht before he becomes her deepest disappointment; Arencibía's was a spectral capture, as present as the Lilac Fairy in Sleeping Beauty, but also the vigilantly mad witness to her own downfall. To say that both interpretations are as distinctive as they are mesmerizing might sound like a false equivalency. Yet, Morejón and Arencibía demonstrate that two vastly different articulations can wax both genuine and stunning, with the same steps to the very same music.

I knocked on their shared dressing room door at SPAC last week, and the welcome from each was as warm as their enthusiastic and forthcoming responses to my questions.

Has the role of Giselle changed over the years since Alicia Alonso created it for the Cuban National Ballet? If so, how?

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Ballet Stars
ABT in "Swan Lake." Petipa often collaborated with Lev Ivanov, who choreographed this ballet's white acts. Photo by John Grigaitis, Courtesy ABT.

Two hundred is the new 30. Or at least it seems so for Marius Petipa, whose ballets are as active as ever as we celebrate his 200th birthday this year.

Nearly all major ballet companies dance Petipa's iconic ballets, which reflect his prolific creative output. And they are heavy hitters: Swan Lake, La Bayadère, Le Corsaire, Don Quixote, The Nutcracker, Paquita, The Pharaoh's Daughter, Raymonda and The Sleeping Beauty, to name just a few of the 50-plus ballets he choreographed. He also revived and reworked earlier productions of Coppélia, La Fille mal gardée and Giselle. During American Ballet Theatre's 2018 spring season, five out of its eight weeks will be attributable to Petipa, including the debut of artist in residence Alexei Ratmansky's newly reconstructed Harlequinade.

Gabe Stone Shayer and Misty Copeland in "The Sleeping Beauty." Photo by Doug Gifford, Courtesy ABT.

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News
PNB in Justin Peck's "Year of the Rabbit." Photo by Angela Sterling, Courtesy PNB.

Wonder what's going on in ballet this week? We've pulled together some highlights.


Ballet Nacional de Cuba Continues U.S. Tour at the Kennedy Center

A few weeks ago we shared that the historic Ballet Nacional de Cuba is back in the U.S. after 40 years. The company has already made stops in Chicago and Tampa, and heads to The Kennedy Center May 29-June 2 as part of the Artes de Cuba festival with performances of Giselle and Don Quixote. The tour will conclude at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center June 6-8. Whether or not the company is heading to a city near you, you can catch a glimpse of Don Q in the below trailer.

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Viral Videos
Bucharest National Ballet's 2013 trailer for "La Sylphide,' via YouTube

Few things are more powerful for promoting ballet performances than captivating trailers—especially in today's visually-focused, digitally-connected world.

We've rounded up some eye-catching ads from seasons past and present that not only make us wish we could have seen the show, but also stand alone as short films.

Bucharest National Opera's La Sylphide

Magnifying the scarf which—spoiler alert—brings about the ballet's tragic conclusion, this 2013 Bucharest National Opera's trailer turns that fateful fabric into a beautiful, deadly web. Its windswept movements form a dance of its own.

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