Tokyo Ballet revisits 'Giselle' anew

by Kris Kosaka

Special To The Japan Times

Ballet legend Vladimir Malakhov’s first connection with Japan was more than 20 years ago, when he danced in the World Ballet Festival in Osaka opposite Alessandra Ferri in a piece from Marius Petipa’s 1850 revival of “Giselle.”

Now, as the Tokyo Ballet’s artistic adviser since August 2014, 47-year-old Malakhov is overseeing its current production of that classic work, this time featuring two of the world’s top dancers — Svetlana Zakharova from the Bolshoi Ballet, as the ill-fated peasant girl Giselle, and Roberto Bolle from the American Ballet Theatre as her romantic nemesis, Prince Albrecht. These roles will be taken on March 14 by the company’s solo artist Rie Watanabe and principal Dan Tsukamoto, respectively.

Noting this is the 18th “Giselle” he’s been involved in, in a recent interview with The Japan Times, the Ukraine-born maestro recalled how, besides that 1994 festival, “My first big role was as Albrecht when I debuted at the MET (Metropolitan Opera House in New York).”

With so much personal and professional history invested in the work, Malakhov has much to teach the company.

“The key point and the most difficult part of ‘Giselle’ is, according to Malakhov, the beginning of the second act — so that’s where we began rehearsals,” said Tsukamoto.

“There are so many issues to deal with, and Malakhov particularly notes the dramatic staging — like how to walk, or how to hold your head. So the first rehearsal, where he said, ‘Let’s do it lightly’ — was really a challenge.”

That famous Act II of “Giselle” opens in a shady grove and features the “Dance of the Wilis” — supernatural women who dance men to their deaths.

The ballet details the tragic love of Giselle, a beautiful village girl who falls for a disguised Prince Albrecht who is already engaged and regards her merely as a passing fancy.

As Tsukamoto sees it: “The audience will enjoy Tokyo Ballet’s famous corps de ballet, especially as the Wilis in Act II. The company has been working hard to build a contrast between the bustling village scene in Act I and the unearthly atmosphere of Act II.”

Determined to seek revenge on mortals, in this tragedy the Wilis pursue both Hilarion, a villager in love with Giselle, and Albrecht, who — overcome with remorse over his duplicitous actions — visits her grave.

Watanabe, who will be dancing Giselle for the first time, added: “Until now I’ve always thought her character was rather fleeting and weak. But since I’ve begun to dance the part and have watched many clips of previous performances, I’ve discovered many new aspects I hadn’t noticed before and my impression of her has changed.”

As a dancer, too, Watanabe is attracted to Giselle’s passion, saying, “She loved Albrecht deeply until she died, then her love for him was even deeper after she died, as shown in Act II. I want to stress this in my performance.”

Malakhov agreed, saying, “The biggest job of the leading dancers is to create an original story and to portray it to the audience.”

“Giselle” runs March 12-15 at U-Port Hall in Gotanda, Tokyo. For details, visit