Victoria Hulland blissfully twirls from one end of Sarasota Ballet’s sticky-hot rehearsal studio to the other, her pale pink tutu opening and closing like a parasol as she spins. As if being parted by a frenzied tide, a dozen ballet dancers gracefully step to the side, their faces turned up and their hands clutched behind their backs, as they watch Hulland spin into Octavio Martin’s arms.
The dance ends, and Hulland retreats to a corner of the studio, her face flushed, a circle of sweat spreading across her back. She approaches Tracey Tucci, another dancer, and quietly asks for a rubber band. Pulling her blond hair from its tightly swirled chignon, Hulland prepares herself for Giselle’s descent into lunacy — her favorite scene.
Pulling her hair up into a messy twist, she glides into place and lets her blue eyes glaze. Channeling the fury of a woman scorned, she rips at the bun, loosens it from the elastic and lets it fall across her face like a stringy veil, at once moving from a lovesick peasant to a writhing madwoman.
The other dancers close in on her. Choreographer Margaret Barbieri watches prudently, her back against a mirrored wall.
Hulland falls to the floor weeping. The other dancers feign shock and dismay. Barbieri smiles slightly. Even though Barbieri, a former principal of The Royal Ballet, has performed this scene a hundred times, she never tires of unrequited love.
“Every production I stage is important,” Barbieri says. “But this one is particularly special to me. I had my first lucky break dancing ‘Giselle.’ It was, as they say, ‘a dream come true.’”
Barbieri has danced the title role in Sir Peter Wright’s “Giselle” more than any other ballerina since the production premiered in 1966. When Sarasota Ballet’s Artistic Director Iain Webb expressed interest in performing Wright’s seminal ballet, the British director and choreographer gladly granted Barbieri permission to stage it in Sarasota.
“It’s quite a bit of responsibility,” Barbieri says. “I want to do my very, very best.”
There’s tension hanging in the room, mixed with exhaustion and excitement. This is Hulland’s first turn as Giselle, a role she has dreamed of dancing since she was a little girl. Even more thrilling, the 21-year-old will share the title role with one of the most famous ballerinas in the world — The Royal Ballet’s Alina Cojocaru, who, together with longtime partner Johan Kobborg, will headline two of the show’s four performances.
“I was pretty nervous about the mad scene,” says Hulland, a company member since 2007. “I wasn’t sure if I could make it believable. It’s funny, though, how you can find that inside you.”
When the music stops, Barbieri rises from her chair. She tells the principal dancers they can sit and asks for the “waltz girls” to line up. A dozen, tiny female dancers perk up.
“I’m not seeing pulled-up ankles,” Barbieri says. “I’m not seeing pulled-up knees. You can’t be in a straight line just standing there.”
It’s been difficult to find time to run through the ballet. Nine of the company’s dancers are in back-to-back performances of “Contact” at the Asolo Repertory Theatre. Between rehearsals for “Nutcracker,” “Boutique” and Dominic Walsh’s “I Napolitani,” scheduling studio time for “Giselle,” has been a “logistical nightmare,” says Barbieri.
“I don’t want to kill them by rehearsing too much,” Barbieri says, “But we rehearsed the waltz dance for a bit last week and it looked really good. I felt this week’s wasn’t as good. You can’t have the dancers get into a rut. You’ve got to remind them of what to do.”
To an outsider, Barbieri’s criticisms seem harsh, but to a dancer, the feedback is invaluable.
“Jeté! Tombé!” Barbieri says swinging her arms. “You’ve got to have energy in the arms. Keep your chests open. C’mon, smile, you guys. Enjoy this stuff.”
Meanwhile, at the opposite end of the room, Hulland sits chatting with a fellow dancer, sipping water and cooling off, waiting for her turn in the hot seat.
“She’s very particular,” Hulland says of Barbieri. “That’s good. She knows exactly what she wants. She tells you exactly how to be. She’s danced this role a million times. She knows better than anyone else how it should look.”
Contact Heidi Kurpiela @ [email protected]
if you go
Royal Ballet stars Alina Cojocaru and Johan Kobborg will perform in Sarasota Ballet’s “Giselle” at 8 p.m. Friday, Nov. 27, and Saturday, Nov. 28, at the Sarasota Opera House. Sarasota Ballet principal dancers Victoria Hulland and Octavio Martin will perform at 2 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 28 and Sunday, Nov. 29. For tickets, visit www.sarasotaballet.org or call 351-8000.
Did you know?
•The first act of “Giselle” was inspired by Victor Hugo’s poem “Les Fantômes,” about a girl who dies from dancing too much.
•“Giselle” premiered June 28, 1841, at the Théâtre de l’Académie Royale de Musique, in Paris.
• The romantic ballet period is marked by the advent of gas lighting (limelight), which allowed for dimming effects and other subtleties.
• The “Wilis” in “Giselle” are the spirits of betrothed girls who were dumped the day before their weddings.
• In 1984, the Dance Theatre of Harlem presented a Creole version of “Giselle” set in a Louisiana bayou.