Things got off to a less than auspicious start last Tuesday at the Arlington Theatre, where the curtain rose on the State Ballet of Georgia’s (SBG) production of Giselle to reveal a cartoonish, Technicolor forest setting. Willowy girls in aprons sat on a bench and mimed conversation, and a male dancer in tights and tunic darted to and fro before “knocking” on a cottage’s cardboard door, his hand keeping time with the music. Here were all the stylized trappings of classical ballet: the pantomime, the pretty dresses, the empty gestures. Then the cottage door swung on its hinges, and out danced Giselle in the enchanting form of Nina Ananiashvili. From that point on, things were never quite the same.
A quick recap on the tale: Giselle, a young, simple maiden, falls in love with Duke Albrecht when he visits her village disguised as a peasant. He is engaged to marry a princess; when Giselle learns of his betrayal, she dies of a broken heart. Though female spirits called Wilis torment the grieving Albrecht, the ghost of Giselle forgives him and saves him from their torture, but the lovers remain forever parted.
At 43, Ananiashvili is artistic director of SBG as well as a principal dancer for a number of companies; to look at her, you’d think she was 20 at most. Never has the phrase “light up the stage” seemed more apt a description for a performer’s effect on her surroundings. She is at once sweetly childlike and capable of the kind of layered, nuanced expressions only a mature artist can achieve. There is more articulation in her fingers than in most dancers’ entire bodies. And then there is her face-thick-browed, doe-eyed, and with a slight overbite, she is not so much classically beautiful as she is captivating.
As Giselle, Ananiashvili captured all the fullness and tenderness of youthful ardor, as well as the desperation and grief-driven madness of her predicament. Of course, the prima ballerina has world-class technique: developpes roll from her hips like ribbons unfurling; every fondue is luscious; her port de bras is mesmerizing. But far more significant to her performance is the sincerity of feeling with which she dances. As a love-struck girl, she was radiant, her passion rather than her muscles seeming to lift her from the ground. As a ghost, she was tragic, delicate, and unearthly. The final pas de deux between Albrecht and Giselle was absolutely transporting.
Beside her, the more than 40-strong corps de ballet seemed rigid despite their immense skill. Notable performances included Nino Ochiauri as the stern yet lovely Queen of the Wilis and Irakli Bakhtadze as Hilarion, the gamekeeper. Yet no other dancer came close to matching Ananiashvili’s magic. It is, as her own husband recently said, as if she is from another world entirely.