A staple in the repertoire of all major ballet companies, Giselle has always been an audience favourite. Romantic ballet fans will have a sentimental connection with this quintessential story dealing with man’s encounter with supernatural characters. They cherish not only its iconic solos, the challenges they pose to the the central ballerina and her partner but also the dark beauty and awe of its ensemble pieces, one of the ultimate tests for a company’s corps de ballet.
Mary Skeaping, a scholar of Romantic ballets, created for the English National Ballet a very particular production of Giselle. It attempts to stray as little as possible from its original conception in 19th century France. Missing pieces of the choreography have been restored, the second act featuring an additional scene where a group of gamekeepers is surrounded by the ghostly Wilis, as well as the complete fugue in which the Wilis circle Giselle and Albrecht, arms raised in threat.
Skeaping’s production also employs mime more frequently (she learned the original mime directly from Tamara Karsavina) and alters certain sequences to emphasise key aspects of the story. Thus, the peasant pas de deux, with one variation for each peasant and Giselle’s solo woven in, becomes a sort of divertissement for the nobility. Since the villagers are gathered to celebrate the vine harvest, the group dances center around the event, with a new pas de deux and additional solos for Giselle and Loys/Albrecht. For those familiar with Giselle, a first glimpse at Skeaping’s version might come as a mild shock; differences between hers and other more conventional productions popping out here and there. Whether these changes actually enhance the storytelling is a question I can only answer after additional viewings.
Any successful production of Giselle will also depend on a strong leading ballerina and, in this respect, Elena Glurdjidze hits the spot. She is a sweet Giselle with a beautiful expressive upper body, a powerful jump and the sound technique to deliver Spessivtseva‘s famous diagonal without a glitch. In the mad scene Glurdjidze’s Giselle is haunting and heart-wrenching, as a Wili she stays rooted in the Romantic style (think rounded arms, ethereal steps, tilted torsos). Arionel Vargas, her Albrecht, is a dancer of elegant lines but ultimately not entirely convincing as the repentant Count, never fully projecting transcendence through Giselle’s love.
In addition to Glurdjidze, the evening’s highlight was the corps de ballet. English National Ballet boasts a strong and disciplined set of dancers; few times have I seen such stunning Wili scenes, sweeping lines of Wilis in shades of white and green moved across the stage in menacing waves, creating images of dark beauty. They were led by Chantel Roulston, solid in technique but somewhat lacking in the icy, commanding manners of Myrtha, Queen of the Wilis.
The evening’s programme began with Men Y Men, a short “all male” ballet set to Rachmaninoff. Choreographed by ENB’s Artistic Director Wayne Eagling, the piece showcases the male contingent’s technical gifts, giving them extra stage time in an evening dominated by the women. Despite some interesting sections of choreography in canon (i.e. in succession, with the next dancer overlapping the movement of the previous dancer) and flashy solos to dazzle the audience, I thought the piece lacked substance and that the dark tights worn by the dancers against a dark setting led to a strange effect of torsos floating on air. It did not leave a lasting impression, unlike Giselle and its eternal supernatural powers.