José Ramón Urbay

Adam: Giselle [DVD Video]

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VAI's DVD of Adolphe Adam's Giselle is a special document, as it captures a moment in history that was of great significance to those who experienced it directly -- the whole nation of Cuba -- but passed unnoticed to the outside world. Alicia Alonso is a legend in dance and the greatest of all Cuban ballerinas, yet she sacrificed her career in the West when she became an ally to Fidel Castro's regime -- her ballet company was redubbed the Ballet Nacional de Cuba and became her nation's greatest cultural export, though limited to appearing in Soviet bloc satellites. When the Bolshoi's Vladimir Vasiliev came to Havana to dance in Alonso's production of Giselle, it was a sensation; Vasiliev 's appearance in Havana was greeted as symbolizing the 30 years of cooperation and accord between Castro's Cuba and Moscow. No one then was aware that a mere dozen years later the collapse of the Soviet Union would end that cooperation. It was such an extraordinary event that the ballet was broadcast on national television in Cuba.

Going back many years later to retrieve the video, Alonso was shocked to discover that more than half of the performance had been erased. This in itself is not so surprising, as the BBC in England has routinely erased entertainment programming, much to its detriment, although high culture videotapes are usually preserved. Videotape was at such a premium in Havana that not even a high culture broadcast such as Alonso's was spared. She sent out an appeal to those who might have taped it on home video, and yet others responded with short footage taken during rehearsals and the like. The additional footage, incorporated into the finished video, at times seems as though it is being used to relieve the tedium of the uninspired master shot from Cuban TV. In addition, some of the video from out in the field, as the producers put it in four languages during the overture, is "less than ideal" -- the opening of Act II is particularly dark, and dark for a long time.

Nevertheless, this performance of Giselle is a particularly special one; it has a real sense of occasion, and Alonso's choreography and costume -- based on the original Coralli and Perrot settings rather than the traditional version by Russian Marius Petipa -- brings something very different to Giselle than is the standard treatment. Alonso is trying to take Giselle out of its Russian context and bring it back to Carlotta Grisi and the Paris of 1841. Albrecht was one of Vasiliev's best roles and he is at the peak of his youthful strength and virility in it here -- Alonso, by contrast, was 60 (!) when she gave this performance, though it's hard to tell. Alonso has an interesting disability for a dancer that remains invisible from this DVD performance; she is legally blind owing to a detached retina she suffered in early adulthood. Her choreography has to be handled carefully so that the corps de ballet does not happen to collide with the prima ballerina, and here they do not. While the piecemeal assemblage of the footage, the occasional looseness of the corps, and the gradual scrappiness of the orchestra as the second act progresses does make this Giselle "less than ideal," it is still worthwhile. Not only as a historic document, but also as something that might fool you into thinking you are seeing some fugitive video from the nineteenth century if you don't have your wits about you.