Two stories share the stage when the 50-member Russian National Ballet performs Thursday at the Valentine Theatre. Front and center is the gloomy romance fable Giselle. Played out behind the scenes is a real-life account of the flowering of artistic freedom in a time of social oppression.
Giselle is one of the earliest and most darkly brooding of the great Romantic Era story ballets. It presents a tale of love and deception, disaster and forgiveness.
The Russian National Ballet, which was founded in 1989 as the Soviet National Ballet, stands as a model of the creative independence that took root during the Perestroika movement of Mikhail Gorbachev's suddenly fertile Soviet Union.
The company draws dancers from across Eastern Europe. Since 1994 it has been led by the energetic 61-year-old artistic director Sergei Radchenko, who for 25 years served as one of the Bolshoi Ballet's great character dancers.
Since 1989, Radchenko has also directed the Moscow Festival Ballet, which he founded that year. Charged since 1994 with double duty, Radchenko has balanced like a circus performer standing atop two mighty steeds, each with its own particular character. Radchenko has led the Festival dancers toward the creation of new works, the National Ballet toward maintaining the classical repertoire.
Radchenko and Giselle are an ideal combination. His own dance career embodied the most classical aspects of Russia's stately ballet tradition; Giselle is one of the least modified and most engaging of the great story ballets.
Although premiered in Paris in 1841 with music by the prolific Frenchman Adolphe Adam, Giselle has become a classic of the Russian dance tradition. That is because after its premiere, the work was quickly forgotten in Western Europe. It was the Russians - one generation to the next - who preserved both the choreography and the music, which was never published during the 19th century.
The story, with its melancholy veil of doomed love and disembodied spirits, represents a door into Romantic ballet's dark side. Such was the impact of those first performances that even today the choreography by Jules Perrot and Jean Coralli, with minor refinements by the much younger Marius Petipa (who, although French, spent most of his career in St. Petersburg), remains virtually intact.
The plot oozes with misty Romantic Era symbolism that pairs universal images - life and death, day and night, virtue and corruption - one against the other. The simple folk are good, the aristocracy is not to be trusted. Untamed nature, like an untended garden, is fecund with menace.
Set in Austria, the story of Giselle is Cinderella's inside out. Albrecht, the Duke of Silesia, disguises himself as a peasant and woos the lithe village girl Giselle. Little matter that he is already engaged to a local royal.
Giselle, as emotionally frail as the soft consonants of her name, cracks when she discovers the hard truth. Her mental breakdown - revealed through a bracing solo dance that serves as one of the most famous in ballet literature - concludes when she stabs herself with Albrecht's sword in front of the stunned village. Giselle dies in Albrecht's arms.
While act one moves from cultures at odds into the characters' private hells, act two travels from darkened wilderness into the light of spiritual redemption and high social principles.
The setting is a woods containing the cemetery in which Giselle has been buried. But this is no ordinary grave site. Instead, it is the land of the Wilis, that is, of the spirits of vengeful engaged women who died before their weddings. Every night the Wilis rise from the cold earth in order to seek young men whom they lead to their deaths.
As luck would have it, this is Giselle's night for Wili initiation. But as events get under way, the penitent Albrecht kneels at her grave. He would seem the perfect deserving victim, but instead, Giselle - though she sees the world of the living only dimly, as through a darkened glass - forgives. She protects Albrecht until the dawn, when the Wilis must retreat. In her actions, Giselle has saved not only her lover, but herself as well.
Sergei Radchenko graduated from the Moscow School of Dance in 1964, after which he nearly immediately joined the Bolshoi Ballet, a post he kept until forming the Moscow Festival Ballet. As a dancer, he is most famous for his interpretation of Spanish dance, particularly the bullfighter in the Bizet/Shchedrin Carmen Suite.
The Russian National Ballet performs "Giselle" at 7:30 Thursday at the Valentine Theatre. Tickets range from $25 to $49. Information: 419-242-2787.
Contact Steven Cornelius at: email@example.com or 419-724-6152.