Sixteen Going On Immortality: Galina Ulanova in Giselle


In an interview with Barbara Newman in Striking A Balance, the British ballerina Antoinette Sibley recalled how in 1956, as a new member of the Royal Ballet corps, she went with the rest of the company to watch the visiting Boshoi Ballet at Covent Garden in a rehearsal of Romeo and Juliet:

[T]his little gray-haired person all covered in woolies came up onstage from the stalls, and started pointing to things.  We thought, Oh, she’s obviously the ballet mistress….and this little old woman with the gray hair went up to the balcony onstage and took off the woolies and was sixteen years old.  Just like that in front of us.  No makeup, no costume.  It was a miracle in front of our very eyes…

The “little gray-haired person” whom Sibley observed was the great Soviet-era ballerina Galina Ulanova, then the Bolshoi’s leading ballerina.  Ulanova was more than a dancer of stature.  She’s one of the 20th century’s iconic ballerinas, famed for her poignant acting as well as for her extraordinary emotional classicism.  No better indication of her status can be given than by noting that her Moscow apartment is today a museum in Russia.

GU2Seen today, Ulanova may not be our idea of what constitutes a ballet dancer.  Small, plain, rather frail looking, with a tendency to round-shoulderedness, Ulanova is nothing like the Balanchineized Amazons now populating our dance stages, effortlessly throwing up a leg à la seconde to bang their insteps against their ears.GU1But what Ulanova may have lacked in physical attributes she more than made up in the intangibles.  Call it, if you will, soul.  As Sibley’s quote indicates, Ulanova could enter her character’s essence, “combining,” as Julie Kavanagh notes, “the finesse and lyricism of her Kirov training with a Stanislavskian understanding of the internal meaning of her roles.”  Whether it was Juliet, or Odette, or Cinderella, or, most famously, Giselle, every gesture sprang from her character’s emotional life, the movement inseparable from being and feeling.  (“Her Giselle wasn’t like a lithograph,” said Sibley, “It was a real person who had suffered.”)  It was more than acting skill; it was Ulanova’s ability to mesh dance expression with the person she portrayed onstage—a perfect blending of dance technique and dramatic performance.  Her character was as much a part of her as her own skin.GU5Fortunately for us, Ulanova was filmed a number of times before she retired from the stage; so we can see, in front of our own eyes, what she was like.  In 1956 Paul Czinner filmed the Bolshoi at Convent Garden in a performance of Giselle, starring Ulanova and Alexei Fadayechev (one of those big, beefy danseurs in which the Bolshoi used to specialize), right at the time when the young Sibley saw the company.  Essaying the role most balletomanes think of as the touchstone of the Romantic ballet tradition, Ulanova, then in her mid-40s, dances a teenager rapturously in love.  There’s no better way to illustrate Ulanova’s capacity to become “sixteen years old” than by her entrance and first dance as seen in the video clip below (for those wanting to cut to the chase, scroll forward to about the 3-minute mark):

Tina Sutton writes how a ballerina in Giselle “must be able to convey the wide range of emotions of a love-struck young girl through dance, mime, and tiny gestures.”  Regarding that last point, I’ll point out two things Ulanova does in her entrance.  When she first enters and runs round the stage in search of Albrecht, performing a series of small, springy hops, she lifts each foot high, swiftly yet delicately, flicking the air as if her very insteps express a freedom from gravity.  Her dancing here isn’t a question of mere steps.  Watching her, you note the subtlety, the nuances she brings to the actual delineation of them, even to the smallest skip.

And then the one that stands out for me:  Her quick motion when, on not finding Albrecht, she shrugs just before she starts to dance.  Her arms and shoulders rise, carelessly, yet with such unthinking gaiety—she’s a happy, heedless child, with no idea how this momentous day of hers is going to end.  It’s in that brief shrug that Ulanova gets at something in the heart of a teenager—that tender, innocent sense that one’s life still holds infinite possibilities, and that existence will always be this way.  2021-06-07 (3)The great dance critic Edwin Denby once wrote that a ballerina doesn’t dance only her own part; she dances the whole ballet.  And in intimating here, with that sweet, small shrug, of youth’s blithe sense of immortality, Ulanova brings out something profound, both about Giselle herself and about the ballet named after her:  That fleet, melancholy deception we may all cherish, deep within, of a life without end, of joy always within our grasp…even beyond sixteen years old.  Ulanova’s genius was to invest even her smallest motion with the ballet Giselle‘s whole meaning.  In doing so, she lets us see not only the essence of Giselle, but what makes Giselle itself an immortal work of art.GU2This article was originally posted on my Grand Old Movies’ Tumblr site, and has been reprinted here in slightly modified form.