The opening dance programme of this year’s Hong Kong Arts Festival was Giselle, performed by La Scala Ballet, who made a welcome return to Hong Kong after seven years. Hong Kong audiences haven’t been treated to such a stellar ballet performance since American Ballet Theatre’s (ABT) appearance in last year’s festival. Giselle is a timeless classic about a peasant girl in love with Albrecht, who is hiding from her his noble roots and actually has a fiancée. After she finds out the truth, Giselle turns mad and dies. In Act 2, as a wili, Giselle saves Albrecht from having to dance to death as ordered by Myrtha, the Queen of the wilis.

The leading roles of Giselle were performed on opening night by two glamorous ballet stars – Svetlana Zakharova of the Bolshoi Ballet and David Hallberg, a principal of both the Bolshoi and the ABT, who made his début as a guest with La Scala Ballet here in Hong Kong. Zakharova, listed as en étoile of La Scala Ballet, had just danced in the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics in Sochi, and, after her two Hong Kong performances, had to rush back to Sochi to perform in the International Ballet Stars Gala there. It’s an excellent choice for the Hong Kong Arts Festival to invite both stars, neither of whom had ever danced in Hong Kong before, for two of La Scala Ballet’s six performances. 

Zakharova has the most ideal, ethereal physique for a ballerina. She’s still bone thin and long-limbed in her late-30s, with sky-high extensions. She was a sensation when she first emerged in her early 20s; I remember vividly her early performance of Giselle with the Mariinsky Ballet during its London tour in 1997. Now in her maturity, her artistry is in full bloom. Her solo was dazzling in Act 1, with her sharp pique turns. Her acting didn’t convince me entirely of the peasant girl’s fragility and innocence. Her descent into madness,  leading to her death at the climax, was movingly conveyed. Zakharova was divine as the wili in Act 2. Her spirituality was soothing yet human. Her every step was impeccably danced with proper weight and scale. It was a deeply moving, spiritual, and cleansing experience.

Hallberg, the first ever American principal of the Bolshoi Ballet, is one of the finest danseurs nobles in the world. He is a handsome blond dancer with a classical style that is as pure as water. His dancing is beautifully stated with nothing forced. In Act 2, his technical virtuosity was splendid; all his jumps and turns were impeccable and as light as breeze, and his landings were as soft as feather. His portrayal of Albrecht was touching: his remorse at the end of Act 1 was painful to see, and his dejection at the end was shattering.

Fired-up by both stars, the whole La Scala troupe was on top form throughout, surpassing past performances that I had seen. In Act 2, the corps de ballet of wilis could easily match the best Russian companies’ in stylistic coherence and upper body uniformity. Makhar Vaziev and Olga Chenchikova, the troupe’s artistic director and ballet mistress, are both from the Mariinsky, which may perhaps explain why. Nicoletta Manni was impressive as Myrtha with her bounding leaps. In the Act 1 peasant pas de deux, the stocky Frederico Fresi was impressive with his series of double double tours en l’air. Both performances led by this first cast were a triumph.

This fine production of Giselle was by Yvette Chauvire, a former étoile of the Paris Opera Ballet. Its choreographic text is faithful to the traditional version. However, it’s a pity that Bertha’s mime foretelling Giselle’s death has been excised. Alexander Benois’ set and costume designs were beautiful, particularly the autumnal landscape backdrop in Act 1. It would have been even more rewarding if La Scala had brought a second mixed programme to show the audiences in Hong Kong.