Giselle is a ballet that perfectly balances dance and narrative. Audiences are captivated in particular by its timeless second act, a living and breathing example of the Romantic ideal: on one side the revengeful, supernatural Wilis and on the other the ethereal Giselle whose love for Albrecht transcends heartbreak and death.
The leading role has been a rite of passage for many ballerinas, but Albrecht also presents a substantial opportunity for the danseur. Both characters are complex enough to allow artists to explore personal interpretations (and for this reason the mature performers are generally the ones who captivate me the most). This season Sergei Polunin – the Royal Ballet’s youngest Principal dancer – has been chosen to dance Albrecht and his debut last week created a buzz among Covent Garden regulars.
The recently promoted Polunin is admired for his technique and stage presence, yet Albrecht is the first role in his repertory to test him for equal measures of bravura and drama: Albrecht’s deceitful behaviour, the weight of his conscience and subsequent repentance are key elements that help us accept the fact that Giselle is willing to forgive and to sacrifice herself for him. Polunin’s accomplished debut indicates his commitment to characterisation, even though his Act 1 is still a work in progress. He seems thoroughly smitten with Giselle, but does not hesitate to also claim Bathilde (a regal Tara-Brigitte Bhavnani) as his own, so when the mad scene unfolds we are not clear on which side he stands; or whether he ever had any feelings at all for Giselle. His acting is clearer in Act 2 where he convinces us of Albrecht’s remorse.
Roberta Marquez is a fine Giselle of wide, tragic eyes. At first hesitant and shy when Albrecht approaches, sweet when she decides to respond to his attentions. Her springy jumps are well matched with Polunin’s impeccable variations (incidentally, during his series of 32 entrechats -six I heard more than one gasp) and though Marquez might not be the most technically flashy of the current crop of Giselles, she gives us moments of ethereal beauty that make for a moving theatrical experience.
If you are a fan of the ballet, you should try to see this staging by Sir Peter Wright (see cinema listings below). In my opinion it remains the most consistent account of Gautier’s libretto. The production also features John Macfarlane’s attractive designs: his Rhineland of autumnal shades, his gloomy and ominous forest in Act II add much to the poignancy of the tale.
Sir Peter Wright’s Giselle continues at the Royal Opera House until 19 February. Roberta Marquez and Sergei Polunin appear as Giselle and Albrecht tonight. For more information & booking visit the ROH website.
This production of Giselle is also being shown in cinemas worldwide. For listings visit Opus Arte’s website.