It's been years since a Russian superstar soared across a Howard County stage — memory takes me back to Mikhail Baryshnikov when he danced in the 2003 Columbia Festival of the Arts at Wilde Lake High School.
Saturday evening, June 14, two international ballet stars, Veronika Part and Vitali Krauchenka, will guest in the Ballet L'Etoile production of "Giselle" at the Jim Rouse Theater. This one-time-only performance is rare, as most topnotch dancers bypass us for the grand stages at the Kennedy Center or Wolf Trap in the summer.
Strange, indeed, as Columbia began with ballet!
In 1967 Russian dance master George Balanchine oversaw the construction of the Merriweather Post Pavilion stage for his New York City Ballet. Folks flocked to the "The New City" to see extraordinary dance, works like "Jewels" and "Dances at a Gathering." The following decade brought Rudolf Nureyev to Columbia for a televised special with Julie Andrews, and dozens of professional troupes danced during the early years of the Columbia Festival of the Arts.
But as large-scale dance has dwindled, and there's no classical dance slated in the 2014 Festival of the Arts, kudos to Svetlana Kravtsova and Vadim Pijicov who have re-staged the full-length "Giselle," the 1841 romantic ballet that touches all ages. Their L'Etoile, the Russian Academy of Maryland, gives "Giselle" new life with authentic Russian ballet technique and at least three dancers from the former Soviet Union.
"Giselle" has been dubbed "The Hamlet of Dance," not merely for its enduring qualities but perhaps because it provides the ballerina with a double challenge to dance and to act. The ballet relates the story of a simple peasant girl who goes mad and dies for the love of an aristocrat who deceives her. In the after-life, she becomes a "Wili," a spirit in a gauzy white tutu who dances men to death.
"I have many Russian friends in the ballet world and when I thought about putting on the 'Giselle' production, I specifically imagined Veronika Part," Svetlana Kravtsova said at a recent rehearsal at her Ellicott City Studio. "I have seen Veronika in 'Swan Lake' and thought her to be a very lyrical, beautiful ballerina. …I have decided that the role of Giselle would be very fitting for her."
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American Ballet Theater principal, Veronika Part, is a classical dancer with a beautiful line and gorgeous feet who brings her strong dramatic touch to the ballet. Guest artist and former ABT soloist, Vitali Krauchenka, shows off his bravura as the cad who betrays Giselle. Marlen Alimanov from the New Jersey Ballet performs the part of Hilarion (who is in love with Giselle, but her heart belongs to Albrecht (Krauchenka). Anna Davis from the Kirov Academy of Ballet will also perform a solo variation in the ballet. Local leads include Genevieve Ferris, a graduating senior at Mt. Hebron High School and soon-to-be freshman at Butler University in Indiana. The 18-year-old ballerina dances the coveted role of Myrtha, the icy queen of the brides-to-be who haunt their lovers.
"Do not turn your body," Kratsova told a large group of students at her Ellicott City studio. "Your arms must be rounded in 'Giselle,' " she demonstrates to the16 teenage ballerinas gathered around the director. They were rehearsing the second act of the ballet where the "Wilis" join together in a closed circle to punish the men who caused such heartache on Giselle and others.
"The entrance must be slow," she tells them. "That's what gives 'Giselle' its ghostly beauty. She shows the dancers how to exude just the right amount of pathos without succumbing to comedy or overstated mime. For a brief moment, the awed ballerinas listened to their director's words. The hush lasted only a few seconds, however, as the sound of scurrying toe shoes quickly resumed.
Soon other dancers reposition themselves in a cluster. Up, down, back, forth, over, under and through each other's arms, they repeat the patterns. Teenage ballerinas Ally Berdan, Rachel Elkis, Ashley Xu, Grace Zhang, Camryn Damask, and Andrea Fox stand out in the fierce circle of "Wilis" commanding the men to die — they gobble up space quicker than you can say the Russian word for Wow!
Watching one tall, lithe and extremely poised dancer, one couldn't help wonder how long a ballerina can pose on pointe with one leg held high above her as she prepared to execute a particularly daring move. Another ballerina takes off in a grand jete, leaving us breathless as she seemingly sits in the air. Then landing as softly and quietly as a pin dropping from the hands of a skilled seamstress. Once again she repeats the movement as Kravtsova suggests some subtle changes, and while continuing to hop on the tips of her toes, she moves ever so smoothly across the floor without losing her balance.
Svetlana Kravtsova's gift is her abounding love for her dancers — she never seems to sweat or lose her patience. "She helps us grow … get better and better," said 15-year-old Kayleigh Lawson. Others chime in with praise for her "guidance" and "artistic talent." Perhaps Maureen Grauel, a junior at Century High School in Carroll County, sums it up best: "She (Kravtsova) is not afraid to push us to do our best."
L'Etoile, the Russian Ballet Academy of Maryland, performs the full-length "Giselle" at the Jim Rouse Theater in the Wilde Lake High School Saturday, June 14, at 6 p.m. Tickets are $40 (adult), $20 (students), available at the door or online http://www.russballet.org.