Romance and magic on stage with Cork City Ballet

Jo Kerrigan drops in to the rehearsals of Cork City Ballet’s version of Giselle, a major new production led by stars of the Moscow Ballet
Romance and magic on stage with Cork City Ballet

EXCITEMENT is running high in the rehearsal room, and every member of the corps de ballet is on full alert. It isn’t every day that you get to warm up at the barre with stars of the Russian ballet, and they are making the most of the opportunity. See how he stretches and bends? Did you notice that unusual combination of battements she did? Every dancer, no matter how famous, how recognised, has to go through relentless daily practice, and it is this touch of common experience that gives newer performers that special thrill.

Artistic director Alan Foley is watching too, checking every step, every movement, like a hawk and occasionally pouncing, while, on the floor, dance master Yury Demakov — who himself trained with the Bolshoi — guides the action with genial good humour. It’s a sharp/soft combination that works very well.

For its winter season at Cork Opera House, Cork City Ballet is presenting the much-loved full-length ballet Giselle — a poignant and tragic love story about a peasant girl who dies of a broken heart, yet comes back from the dead to save her faithless lover. The show opens next Thursday, November 10, and will run for four performances.

The title role of Giselle — the most celebrated ballet of the romantic era which has remained firmly at the centre of the classical repertory since its premiere in Paris in 1841 — will be danced by Russian prima ballerina Ekaterina Bortyakova, partnered by Akzhol Mussakhanov as the Prince. Both are stars of the Moscow State Ballet but, in keeping with a tradition that Cork has held proudly for many years, they have flown here specially to join the soloists and corps de ballet of CCB.

Alan Foley of Cork City Ballet.
Alan Foley of Cork City Ballet.

Directed by Alan Foley, this production of Giselle will be reproduced for Cork City Ballet by Yury Demakov who trained at the Bolshoi Ballet School in Moscow.

It promises to enthral audiences with the symphonic beauty of the original choreography of Jean Coralli and Jules Perrot, combined with stunning costumes made at the Mariinsky Theatre in St Petersburg.

These glittering garments, so carefully designed to allow for maximum movement and effort while still appearing elegant and fitted, are now being lovingly hung on racks in the dressing rooms. In their brief breaks, dancers tiptoe in to look in awe and perhaps delicately finger muslin or embroidered velvet.

“Oh the costumes are a big part of it,” agrees Alan Foley. “Bringing over top dancers from the Russian school, and the costumes that their designers know so well how to make, keeps that link alive with the home of ballet, where the old traditions are still preserved, and will continue to be preserved, no matter how much Russia itself changes.”

Foley should know — he himself attended summer schools there in younger days and has never forgotten how much he learned.

It’s the third time Cork City Ballet has mounted a full-length production of Giselle, but every one, says Foley, is different.

“So much depends on your leading star and the personality she brings to the role.”

Giselle is a shy and loving peasant girl who believes utterly in the passionate promises of her mysterious young lover, Hilarion. When faced with the shattering news that the glamorous countess who visits her simple village is in fact engaged to Hilarion — who is himself none other than the Prince — her mind breaks down, and the mad dance of despair she explodes into, one of the most famous and challenging in ballet, is too much for her already weak heart.

The finale of Act I is one of the great tragic moments of classical ballet, Adam’s dramatic music bringing the curtain down on a scene of death and horrified realisation.

Act II has a threateningly ghostly team of menacing dancers, led by a ruthless queen, determined to drive the penitent Hilarion to his own death; but Giselle’s gentle ghost comes to his rescue, and enables him to survive, though alas without her.

That’s a fairly demanding plot for any danseuse, requiring both considerable technique and emotional expression.

Indeed the original Giselle in 1841 contained no less than 54 minutes of mime to 60 minutes of dance, suggesting that accomplished dancers also had to be skilled actors. They still do.

“It’s so much a ballet of atmosphere, of a simple peasant world which by day is sunny and bright, but by night is ghostly and threatening,” explains Foley.

“It’s ideal for this time of year, when audiences will emerge into the dark November night and remember those menacing flitting forms in the forest onstage.”

Giselle is by way of a lead-in to 2017, which is a very big year for Cork City Ballet as it was 25 years ago that Foley founded the company.

“I can’t believe it’s been a quarter of a century! Would I have done it if I’d known all the challenges and demands that lay ahead? Ah heck yes, I would. I’d do it all again!”

And for quite a while he has been planning a still more challenging year-long programme of events to mark that anniversary, to be announced onstage on November 11, the second night of Giselle. We did, however, manage to steal a look at the programme on his desk and it certainly does promise some wonderful occasions. (See panel, left).

But the break is over, and rehearsal is once more under way. “No, no, look towards her, not away. Fall back a little. Watch your arms. Yes, that’s better. And one and two and three and four…”

  • Giselle, Cork Opera House, Nov 10-12 at 8pm; matinee on November 12 at 2.30pm.

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