Long before the final curtain dropped, you could sense what was coming. It was in the tone of the applause that broke out periodically In appreciation of virtuosic solo performances, not unlike the applause of knowledgeable jazz audiences for solos in the middle of longer pieces.
Last evening, we were privileged to witness the stunning performance of Giselle by the United Ukrainian Ballet company in its United States premiere. The core story, set in medieval times, is simple enough. A peasant girl with a weak heart is fooled by a desirous nobleman passing himself off as an ordinary man. The man is already engaged to marry the daughter of the Prince. A woodsman, also smitten by Giselle, discovers the nobleman’s sword and reveals his identity to Giselle. The girl cannot believe the revelation at first but, as the truth sinks in, she descends into despair and dances herself to death as her heart gives out.
In Act Two, the nobleman finds Giselle’s grave in the woods. He too is in despair at the loss of his love. The Wilis then appear, all in white. They are apparitions of girls who have died when betrayed by their lovers on the eve of their weddings.Any man caught by them between midnight and dawn will be forced to dance until he dies. Giselle is now one of them, but she saves the nobleman, whom she still loves, by delaying his death until sunrise forces the Wilis to withdraw. She, of course, disappears with them.
Last night, Giselle’s (Iriyna Zhalovska) descent from joyous dancing maiden into overwhelming grief was portrayed with astonishing changes in her appearance and demeanor as she danced furiously in the growing realization that she had been betrayed. The stage presence of Kateryna Derechnya was stunning as the cold-hearted Myrtha, Queen of the Wilis. The corps de ballet created a perfect illusion of joyous country dancing in the village and later as the ethereal and intimidating Wilis.
As said at the beginning of this post, the momentum to inevitable conclusion grew as the ballet unfolded. When the curtain fell, there was a short period of silent anticipation. When it rose again, the audience went crazy, immediately on their feet, yelling, whistling, and applauding with enthusiasm appropriate to the remarkable performance we had seen.
First on stage were the two principals. They produced a now familiar blue and gold Ukrainian flag. Then as the entire cast and crew assembled on stage, there was mostly silent respect as they dancers and crew sang, hands on hearts, the Ukrainian national anthem. One of the flags they held had writing on it: Make Dance Not War. When they finished, more extravagant applause.
Tragically, the genocidal attack by Russia on Ukraine continues. The appearance of the United Ukrainian Ballet company in Washington is nothing short of a miracle. You can, for a short time, read about the company and its dancers, its history, and their extraordinary survival story here: https://bit.ly/3YlIhEP Don’t skip over the “Message from the Producers” that tells the story of the company’s escape from the Russian attack.
Other reviews are here: https://unitedukrainianballet.com/press/ Unfortunately, by the time you read this, there likely will be only one performance remaining at the Kennedy Center and it is, I am happy to note, Sold Out, as well it should be.
I have not found a list of future performances but surely there will be more. If you can, don’t miss it. It may break your heart as it did Giselle’s, but you will be better for it.