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It is hard to believe that someone like Alexandra Ansanelli, one of the Royal Ballet’s youngest principal ballerinas, is retiring, given all her accomplishments and the fact that she has always been so vocal about her passion for dancing. At only 28, her impressive CV includes principal dancing jobs in two of the world’s foremost ballet companies and a list of personal achievements which range from overcoming major obstacles and injuries, to adapting to different styles and winning over demanding dance audiences with her particular gifts.

The Ballet Bag is sad that Alexandra is leaving. Over the last two seasons she had become a staple at Covent Garden, someone clearly distinctive, elegant and with particular subtleties in her dance. We also admired her courage of facing up to skepticism and how she adapted her training and brought her unique gifts to the Royal Ballet. We pay homage to her with a brief account of her career and a collection of some of Alexandra’s interesting quotes over the years.

Alexandra Ansanelli. Source: Oberons Grove. Copyright belongs to its respective owners

Alexandra Ansanelli. Source: Oberon's Grove. Copyright belongs to its respective owners

Alexandra’s Story:

Alexandra was born in 1980 to parents of Italian and English descent. She is the youngest of three sisters and surprisingly, she arrived to ballet quite late in her life, having devoted her athletic body and energies to football at first. Her life changed when she attended an arts summer camp is Massachusetts and got told she should audition for the School of American Ballet (SAB).

Aged 11, with no previous ballet background, Alexandra impressed the jury and was admitted at SAB. Commuting three days a week to New York from Long Island to attend class with older girls proved testing for Alexandra and she felt she was lagging behind. The following year, her parents had her move Secondary schools and rented an apartment in New York. During this time, Alexandra was already performing children’s roles with New York City Ballet (NYCB) and winning scholarships for very distinguished summer programmes.

Even though she had never performed at annual performances, Peter Martins saw Alexandra in the studio and hired her as a NYCB apprentice. She then appeared in The Nutcracker and got rewarded with a contract and and a principal role (Dewdrop fairy) on her 16th birthday. She bolted across the ranks, soloist at 17 and principal at just 23, but this quick progression was not without its share of obstacles: she was off for almost two years with a misdiagnosed foot injury which left her unable to walk and close to the point of giving up dance. Her resilience and passion kept her looking for the right answer and finally after receiving the correct assistance she was given the all clear to return.

Alexandra’s NYCB tenure gave her a huge fanbase and the opportunity to work closely with important choreographers, from the legendary Jerome Robbins to the young  & budding Christopher Wheeldon, but she wanted to explore the big world of classics outside the local repertoire, so she decided to leave City ballet in 2005  to look for something else. This strategy paid off and in less than a month she was receiving offers from major companies with classical repertoire, amongst which an audition with Monica Mason followed by an invitation to join the Royal Ballet as a First Soloist, in other words, just the ticket for Alexandra to slowly break into those great classical and narrative roles she was aiming for.

Even though she started as a First Soloist, Alexandra quickly saw principal roles coming her way. She danced The Lilac Fairy and Aurora in The Sleeping Beauty, Christopher Wheeldon’s Polyphonia, Balanchine’s Tchaikovsky’s Pas de Deux and Jerome Robbins’ Afternoon of the Faun. Some critics loved her  (and we are forever indebted to FT’s Clement Crisp for first drawing our attention to her) but Covent Garden audiences were divided, given the stylistical differences the SAB training imprinted on her dancing. All this she took as a challenge, with a clear determination to conquer the dramatic undertones in the Royal Ballet’s own style.

In March 2009, after a great season which began with plum debuts in Ashton’s Ondine and as Swan Lake’s Odette/Odile (“a performance of beautiful line, emotional finesse and of fascinating promise for the future” as Mr. Crisp  then noted), Alexandra claimed ballet  no longer completed her and announced her retirement. She had just wrapped up performances as Gamzatti in La Bayadere and the Sugar Plum Fairy in Sir Peter Wright’s Nutcracker, and had been lined up for Mayerling and Sleeping Beauty (amongst others) in the 2009/2010 season.

The Goodbye

Her last performance in London on June 16 as the lead female role in Balanchine’s Rubies opposite Carlos Acosta felt quite fitting, given her NYCB roots. Whilst she had throughout her Royal Ballet years expanded her range enormously, having drawn praise and a whole new fan base with her soft, rippling Ondine of just a few weeks before, Rubies never stopped fitting her like a glove: she dazzled and enchanted us, showing her fiery character and throwing herself into the choreography (It was quite a contrast to Yuhui Choe‘s more restrained, more studied performance in the same role). Alexandra’s last night at Covent Garden was a success, not only due to its aura of adieu, but because it was incredible to see someone clearly enjoying herself on stage and yet about to stop for good. She went out and gave it her all, with Carlos, who enjoys “upping his ante” when the occasion befalls, outstanding but giving Alexandra the opportunity to shine, since it was her night.

At the end of Rubies, with a continuous flow of applause and some ruby red flowers thrown in from the amphitheatre, Carlos chivalrously led an emotional and teary eyed Alexandra to take centre stage, taking a back seat and directing the applause her way, letting Alexandra enjoy her moment all the way through the red run curtain calls. As the applause went on we felt as if some of the audience was trying to convey to Alexandra that she was loved and appreciated and that she certainly was going to be missed.

See also: Emilia’s take on Alexandra’s farewell performance

Some Quotes:

On Why she left City Ballet:

It’s the music in the story ballets, the music, and then the story, that touches a part of my soul that is indescribable.

On the classical repertoire:

I’ve always been passionate about the classical works, and it was important to me as a ballerina to get that education.

On Balanchine’s take on épaulement:

I think he wanted his own style, different from the classical world that he had left behind in Europe.

On what she finds fascinating about ballet:

One of the things that fascinates me about ballet is to see how very different it ” looks ” from one country to the next.

What she would like to see happen in ballet over the next 20 years:

I would like the ballet to have a much broader audience, to reach far more people, and to have them understand more, and to be more involved, with our art form.

On her decision of leaving ballet:

I feel one must be completely devoted if you are a dancer, it’s like a marriage. I have had to face the realization that this is not completing me as a person.

Alexandra’s last performances with the Royal Ballet are in Washington DC, at the Kennedy Center (June 24) and in Cuba, at the Gran Teatro de la Habana (July 14-16). She will be performing the lead role in Ashton’s A Month in the Country as part of the Royal Ballet’s triple bill.

Sources and Further Information:

  1. Interview with Alexandra Ansanelli (circa 2005) via In the Name of Auguste Vestris [link]
  2. Alexandra Ansanelli interviewed by David Bain. Report from The Ballet Association (circa 2006) via Ballet.co [link]
  3. Alexandra Ansanelli’s Artist Detail at www.roh.org.uk [link]
  4. The Classical Test for a City Ballet Star who Flew by Roslyn Sulcas, via the NY Times [link]
  5. A Young Ballet’s Star Surprising Choice by Roslyn Sulcas, via the NY Times [link]
  6. An Early Swan Song by Sarah Kaufman, via the Washington Post [link]
  7. Behind the Scenes with Alexandra Ansanelli. From Pointe Magazine’s 10th Anniversary Photo Shoot, via Dancemedia [link]
  8. Statement by Alexandra, issued by Pointe Magazine via BalletTalk [link]

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Copyright: Bill Cooper, Source: Royal Opera House

Roberta Marquez as Giselle, Source: The Royal Opera House ©. Copyright belongs to its respective owners.

Giselle belongs to the team of ballets we could watch over and over again: short & sweet (2 acts), few character dances  (as compared to Sleeping Beauty or Swan Lake), an engaging Romantic story blended with wonderful  vintage choreography.

And it’s a real treat to be able to cherry pick so many great pairings in this current run at The Royal Ballet. In fact it was so difficult to narrow down choices that we ended up seeing a whopping 6 out of 8 pairings. We don’t do that very often.

But which did we like best? As it turned out, each of these couples offered something interesting in terms of chemistry or interpretive choice, allowing us to see this classic again and again with fresh eyes.  So even though we cannot love all performances in equal measure (no prizes for singling out our favorites below!), we found lots to notice and to enjoy in each pair:

Happy and Bleeding*

Marianela Nuñez & Carlos Acosta

Marianela’s first ever Giselle was just the thing for those who need a multi-tasking ballerina: equally perfect turns, jumps and balances. Marianela’s supernatural technical abilities jump out from the first long held attitude, spanning from incredibly musical hops on pointe in Act 1 (during Giselle’s trademark variation) to perfectly still balances and monster jetés in Act 2. All this without a hint of strain, it was hard to believe she had not danced the role before. Carlos offers an assured yet subtle Albrecht, whilst we tend to prefer them more passionate. But the issue for us was Marianela’s portrayal of Giselle as a happy girl with a kilometric smile. We wondered: why would such a contented, sunny creature go mad or want to stab herself?

The Desperate Kingdom of Love*

Tamara Rojo & Rupert Pennefather

Tamara Rojo’s dramatic intelligence is evident from the way she frames her believable Giselle: a shy, frail girl discovering the lure and danger of love. It seems as if this Giselle suspects Albrecht might be “too good to be true” and when her instincts prove her right, her emotional fragility takes over. We thought Pennefather, debuting as Albrecht, was a very good match for Rojo, he belongs to the team of “dreamer Albrechts” who love Giselle and are torn between desire and the need to observe social boundaries. His solid technique  elegantly got him through act 2. Rojo’s own dancing was magical, particularly in Giselle’s variation where she substituted the usual piqué turns with a fiendish sequence of pirouettes en dedans & en dehors (watch Tamara do this at 2:02 in this amateur video). Oh and those lush balances were – literally – to die for.

The Darker Days of Me and Him*

Leanne Benjamin & Edward Watson

Leanne and Ed’s Giselle was always going to be the most markedly different. Both draw on their strong dramatic skills rather than technical feats to portray an almost Victorian-Gothic tale, think meek Jane Eyre spellbound by domineering Mr. Rochester. Watson is a seductive Albrecht, very aware of the powerful grasp he has on Giselle, who on the other hand knows her place and is self-conscious of her humble background (especially in the scenes with Bathilde, watch how Benjamin argues the case  for dancing over a taste for fine clothes). Giselle’s mad scene is anger with hints of hurt pride.

Sharp contrasts between the two acts are used to bring their characterizations full circle – if in the first an imperious, proud Albrecht is calling the shots, in the second he learns a lesson in humility, with no choice but submit to Myrtha’s command and to the redeeming powers of ghost-like Giselle. Personal imprints are also woven into the drama – Albrecht, arriving at Giselle’s grave, is instantly aware of the “supernatural”. Watson lowers his working leg to the ground, shaping a long yearning line (his forte) which he slowly draws up, as if willing Giselle to rise out of her grave – There is a continuous flow of dancing from Benjamin in Act 2, she hovers musically throughout and seems to dissolve to Albrecht’s touch like the dried ice onstage. Like Cojocaru & Kobborg’s, here’s another Giselle crafted with alchemy. Fascinating.

We Float*

Lauren Cuthbertson & Rupert Pennefather

Our last Giselle was the lovely Lauren Cuthbertson, another debutante. She created a Romantic, innocent Giselle, showing the full dimension of her heartbreak in the mad scene. Rupert seemed on even better physical form in this fourth performance (2 with Rojo & 2 with Cuthbertson), with more elevation, adding more entrechats and extra finishing touches to his solos. Albrecht is a role which seems to showcase his full potential as an elegant danseur. Lauren’s best dancing, after a more technically restrained Act 1, came when she is initiated as a Wili: spinning beautiful attitude turns on Myrtha’s (Laura McCulloch, our favourite Queen Wili of the run) command to “fly” and floating on a cloud of dance with her light jetés, just like she does when she dances in Balanchine’s Serenade. Albrecht was swooning, love was in the air.

See also our 2 previous reviews:

Leanne Benjamin & Johan Kobborg reviewed here

Alina Cojocaru & Johan Kobborg reviewed here

*One singer fits all: In keeping with our editorial choice of using rock songs to illustrate ballet and its many moods, indie music lovers will note we have assigned to each of these Giselle pairings a different song by Brooding-queen PJ Harvey.

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Given the full run of Giselles, it is always very enlightening and enjoyable to experience different casts and portrayals. This is not only a challenge for the dancers, as they could be prone to imitate “famous” versions, but is an opportunity to experiment and dare to find subtle ways of connecting with the audience and communicating the story.

Giselle is the ultimate romantic ballet and a classic. The first act is full of pretty colours and sunny characters (almost Disney-like); plenty of mime and charming details. However, there is the dramatic twist at the end which leads to the famous “mad scene” which serves as catalyst for the forthcoming events. Gloom and darkness are the ingredients on the second act, in which a completely different world materialises. All the colour is gone, replaced by a ghostly white sheen. Human emotions are set against a supernatural background: Giselle’s love and Albrecht’s repentance against the terrible but beautiful Wilis gliding on unison.

Leanne Benjamin, made use of her experience to show us a mature Giselle, which has overgrown any naiveté, so that when Albrecht’s deceit is revealed, Giselle develops madness fuelled by rage, rather than pure heartbreak. Johan Kobborg’s Albrecht is clearly charmed by Giselle and is, without knowing, falling for her. This is more evident when Giselle dies, as he realises what he has lost.

In the second act, Leanne brings us a Giselle which is a shadow of her former self, very dark and eery. This was the first time I’ve seen such a portrayal, as it is clearly different to the sad and forgiving Giselle one expects. I found her acting to be without fault, but some of the balances were not held long enough (in particular, the famous penché) and her phrasing with the music was a bit off. However, her bourées were lovely and the overall feeling of weightlessness was definitely there.

Johan’s dancing on the second act was spot on (some lovely cabriolés and amazing footwork). The chemistry with Leanne is something of an on/off thing, as their complicity varies depending on the piece (their Manon, earlier this season was amazing). Giselle is certainly not one for them, and somehow the portrayals of their characters do not add up (somehow I can see Leanne doing Giselle with Ed Watson).

The pas-de-six had standout performances from Yuhui Choe and Steven McRae (they should be paired every time!). Another highlight for me was Samantha Raine as one of Myrtha’s attendants and Thomas Whitehead as Hilarion. I find her dancing to be quite ethereal, with beautiful arms, while Whitehead commands the stage as soon as he steps into the spotlight. Myrtha was danced by Laura Morera, in a role that does not play to her strengths (I prefer her allegro work).

All in all, Peter Wright’s production for the Royal Ballet is as beautiful as ever. Definitely worth a trip to Covent Garden.

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As we begin our regular musings on “everything ballet” what more fitting than to start with our darlingest of all Covent Garden darlings, Alina Cojocaru, and her return to the stage after a one year long absence earlier this week. We knew it was going to be a special evening, after all, Alina wisely chose to return in the classic that she is most often associated with, Giselle, the ballet that is also a perfect match to her 19th century lithograph physique. And perhaps most importantly, one that is not too taxing as we also expected she would be careful not to over exert herself in tackling the steps.

 

Emilia says:

While, for the above reasons, there were slight changes & toning down to the choreography, Alina portrayed through her pure dancing the most unfussy-but-eloquent of Giselles. Free from any artifice or pyrotechnics, her actions and expressive dancing spoke volumes and touched the heart. All innocence in Act 1, all purity and spirituality in Act 2. And with the very best of Albrechts to match in Johan Kobborg. He showed us, earlier than usual for this ballet, a sincere regret, a realisation of his wrongdoing to Giselle coupled with a sense that the deceitful Albrecht was really falling for this girl, that to see her go mad and suicidal (a heart wrenching mad scene it was!) is deeply distressing to him. Johan’s Albrecht clutches the lifeless Giselle in his arms for much longer than any other Albrechts I have seen in this Royal Ballet run (more on them and their respective Giselles later), he is clearly desperate. Because he understands that letting go is losing all that is goodness and innocence, thankfully for him then (and for us the audience) that he has a chance of redemption in Act 2.

One very minor quibble of mine is that Laura Morera’s Myrtha, the revengeful Queen of the Wilis, was somewhat lacking in “revengefullness”. Laura did not seem as comfortable here as she did playing the Bayadere’s rival Gamzatti a few months ago, and I thought the earlier Myrthas in the production danced with more authority. But overall the performance as a whole and, in particular, Alina and Johan’s partnership felt like a journey back to a different time line in ballet history, one that simply honored romanticism and substance vs. form. A vintage Giselle.

 

Linda says:

It is something rare to find a ballerina that can actually perform and realise Giselle in both acts. The first act presents a sunny Giselle, a naive girl that dreams of love, while the second act brings us an ethereal creature that becomes broken and is not whole, but whose love manages to redeem Albrecht. Many dancers today usually excel in any of both acts and bring a variety of interpretations through the phrasing and musicality, but Alina Cojocaru truly becomes Giselle.

When she is betrayed by Albrecht, not only does she lose herself and all she holds dearly to her heart, but the audience gasps and stops breathing while the atmosphere becomes filled with her sadness and despair. Her second act is just a thing of wonder: every step, flick of her arms and expression on her face are used to bring the audience into this supernatural world.

We, as Albrecht, are almost in denial of what is happening, entranced by the spell of the Wilis. The only opportunities for us to regain our senses were on Albrecht’s variations. Johan Kobborg was on fire and his jumps and lines were clean, sharp and reaching wonderful heights, but what really struck a chord was that never did he leave Albrecht behind to become Johan, he was always in character, showing pain and accepting his penance after he realised that he became a victim of his own game: he fell for Giselle and now she was lost to him forever.

In this way, when dawn approaches and reality befalls, Albrecht’s pain becomes our pain, since Giselle is gone and at least in this performance, it was clear something magical had happened, something for the ages. A shower of flowers during the curtain calls, and stomping and cheering that celebrated not only the return of Covent Garden’s favourite ballerina, but the appreciation and gratefulness towards Alina and Johan for their dancing and the miracle they had just materialised.

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