Alla Bocharova's astounding Giselle

Almost completely unknown in France, the Yacobson Ballet from Saint-Petersburg clearly displays all the good qualities and failings of a successful Russian theatre company that performs the classical repertoire.


Imagine an avid cinema-goer who frequents all the latest film screenings, but rejects the opportunity to re-discover one of the old, cult classics that have already become a part of cinema's history. Or someone who gladly listens to music by Boulez, Bério, Schönberg, or Dusapin, but is completely disinterested in Mozart, Beethoven, or Berlioz.

A ballet company from Saint-Petersburg

This is more or less what happened in Lyon. Out of 11,125 people who hold season passes to the Maison de la Danse, which allow them to see shows from across the world, two thirds have given the cold shoulder to the masterpiece of French Romantic ballet that is Giselle, first staged at Opéra de Paris in 1841. It passed unnoticed by around 8,300 spectators from Lyon, who refused to come and see this archetype of classical dance in the interpretation of a Russian ballet company that had come all the way from Saint-Petersburg: Yacobson Ballet.

With the majority of the theatre's regulars having turned their backs on the performance, it was a completely different audience that filled the Maison de la Danse during the eight consecutive shows that were given by the Leonid Yacobson Ballet, one of the four topmost ballet companies in the former capital of the Russian Empire.

Ignorance and sectarianism

This is the kind of example that perfectly illustrates the split dividing today's French public. The fans of contemporary dance, who are catered to by the essential part of the programme at the Maison de la Danse and Biennale de Lyon, have become as sectarian as those who still prefer classical ballet. Just like the latter keep rejecting any form of innovation, so do the followers of contemporary choreographic creations consider anything that does not come from currently active authors to be old-fashioned junk, and exile more than two centuries' worth of countless ballet masterpieces to the purgatory, if not to hell itself.


Do not dismiss the old

This regrettable schism is, without doubt, the fruit borne by the policy that has been employed by the French government for many decades now, and is followed blindly by the theatre management. It also clearly reflects the mentality of the French, who feel compelled to reject every single type of aesthetics, artistic movement, or way of thinking that differs from the one they have adopted, without realizing that in art, the present is never separate from the past, and that together, they form a continuous narrative, which keeps unfolding over time, evolving from one school to another, regardless of all the ruptures, antagonisms, and revolutions that punctuate its flow.

Of course, it is pretty evident that in the 1970s and 80s, it was absolutely necessary to shake the layer of dust off the French dance canons and to fight against conservatism; this was accomplished by the new creative generation, which uprooted the entire ballet world. But this does not mean that we had to erase our entire heritage, giving off the impression that there had been no such thing as French dance before the 1980s!

In Lyon, thanks to Giselle, the Maison de la Danse has certainly managed to win over the new kind of public, which has never before subscribed to a season pass. But it has also shown how difficult it is for the modern French audience to overcome its sectarian bias.

The Yacobson Ballet

Barely known in France, the Yacobson Ballet is a famous Russian company of 85 dancers that was established in 1969 in Saint-Petersburg, then known as Leningrad. It was founded by Leonid Yacobson, an outstanding choreographer and ballet master, who had enlisted the support of the local authorities in an attempt to widen the scope of the Soviet Union's overly academical ballet repertoire and to make it more open toward neoclassical dance. It was a very gradual change, not intended to result in an open confrontation with the reigning academic doctrine, as the ballet canons of Soviet Russia were overwhelmingly conservative, firmly tied to the regime's ideology. The most shocking displays of modernist audacity were limited to allowing male dancers to perform shirtless, instead of wearing the classical ballet attire.

To fully measure the abysmal gap between the USSR and the more advanced nations (which still remains between today's Russia and the Western countries), we must bear in mind that in the eyes of the American avant-garde, the neoclassical aesthetic had become outdated long before it was first adopted by the Saint-Petersburg ballet, and that later on, many young choreographers in Europe, and in France in particular, would view neoclassicism as something of an oddity from Neolithic times.

While the Yacobson Ballet dancers (mostly alumni of the celebrated Vaganova Ballet Academy, along with former dancers from the Mariinsky, formerly Kirov, Theatre) posses the exact set of characteristics that sets aside the great Russian ballet companies: technical excellence, lyricism, elegance, and, in the case of danseurs, virile energy — their strengths are also accompanied by the common shortcomings of Russian dancers, resulting from a rigorous but terribly outdated training routine.

Act I: Ridiculous

This may be seen in Giselle, a pantomime ballet in two acts, which was staged by Jean Coralli in the heyday of Romanticism, and subsequently got revamped in Russia: first by Jules Perrot, who helped Coralli with the creation of the original ballet, then by Marius Petipa. The ballet is based on a libretto by Jules Henri Vernoy de Saint-Georges and Théophile Gautier, and accompanied by Adolphe Adam's musical score. The ballet's key feature is the striking contrast between the elegance and lyricism of the so-called l’acte blanc ('white act'): the second act, where the action is almost exclusively carried by female performers — and the ludicrously exaggerated pantomime of the first act.

The Russian dancers perform with the highest degree of grotesque, bringing to mind the expressive excesses of the first silent films, where the over-the-top grimaces and gestures were used to explain what was happening; and this pantomime is quite painful to watch. It is as if the dancers can't be bothered to think about the meaning of the gestures they are making, or the role of these gestures in understanding the plot.

Act II: Emotional

The second act, l’acte blanc, which features the appearance of the Wilis (the ghosts of young women that died before their wedding), is the sole domain of dance: the members of corps de ballet display all of their finest qualities, their excellence of training, and their elegant style. Surrounded by scenery that is permeated by melancholy, they successfully convey the evanescence and poetry of Romantic art.

Among them, we see the apparition of Giselle, who was transformed into one of the Wilis at the beginning of the second act. Alla Bocharova plays the role with an almost otherworldly grace; the softness, simplicity, and astounding spirituality of her dance are truly sublime. She is the one who makes the scene so magnificent. She is the best Giselle that Lyons will ever get to see.

Raphaël de Gubernatis