Giselle, English National Ballet, London Coliseum | reviews, news & interviews
Giselle, English National Ballet, London Coliseum
Giselle, English National Ballet, London Coliseum
Cojocaru and Hernández delicious in perfect heritage production
In the annals of ballet directors, always searching for the perfect balance between heritage programming and new work, there can rarely have been a double whammy so successful. In pairing a brand new Akram Khan Giselle with Mary Skeaping's near-perfect 1971 production in one season, English National Ballet may be setting an Orwellian future against a Romantic past, contemporary dance against the most classical ballet, but they have no jarring contrast on their hands. On the contrary, these two very fine pieces of work illuminate one another, and stand proud on their own.
For the true ballet fan, Skeaping's Giselle takes the crown: it is as fine a vehicle as ever a ballet company had for making a good impression, and the current crop of dancers and ballet masters at ENB are more than capable of doing justice to it. I see two or three Giselles a year, but I can't remember the last time I saw such exquisite Wilis. The corps dancers have been coached to perfection in the Romantic style of downcast eyes and softly curved arms: standing stock-still, they give the impression of imminent movement, like birch branches poised to tremble in the wind, while moving they flit and rustle like storm-tossed leaves. In clouds of greeny-white tulle, they look more elegant and more demure than the ragged spectres of John Macfarlane's eerie designs for the Royal Ballet. Skeaping's production is not necessarily less scary than others, but it conveys terror through beauty: the implacability of the Wilis is all the creepier when they are so soft and sylph-like.
Alina Cojocaru as Giselle certainly eschews the febrile and histrionic. Playing the character as the sweetest, shyest, most sheltered girl child, she gives no hint of a predilection to madness or a weak heart: hers is the devastatingly simple and obvious vulnerability of tender youth. Her shyness as she is wooed by Albrecht – covering her face in embarrassment, drawing back startled from the suggestion of a kiss – inflects her dancing as well. Though she is as brilliant a prima ballerina as one could wish to see, her show-offery throughout is of a quiet sort, and always pressed into service of the character. For instance, she executes the famous hops on pointe, inserted as a show-off solo and usually performed as such, hesitantly and almost awkwardly, like a Victorian child stumbling over words when called to recite its party piece in front of company – even if this was a choice forced by injury, she pulls it off as if it was dramtically deliberate. In Act II, she dances the Wili Giselle in the masterfully understated Bournonville style she has perfected through long professional and personal partnership with Johann Kobborg. It's heart-stopping stuff: her progress from floor to flight in the sylph-like lifts (pictured above right) creates the perfect illusion of gossamer lightness, so that she really seems to drift away from the ground like a petal on a breeze.
In all things she is ably supported by her Albrecht, fresh-faced Mexican Principal Isaac Hernández, who fully matches Cojocaru for soul and passion (pictured left: Hernández and Cojocaru). In a nice bit of characterisation he gives us Duke Albrecht as heedless boy romantic; no hint here of the calculating aristocratic philanderer with droit de seigneur in mind, just a lad whose exuberance (see the size of those jumps!) causes him to go too far with an impossible fantasy. He seems to be genuinely in love with Giselle, and genuinely stricken by the fatal consequence of his seduction. It's no surprise that the love of these two survives death: such radiant tenderness as we see between them in Act I makes Giselle's defence of him entirely believable.
In general, this is a production, and a performance, which embraces slowness and makes a virtue of restraint. Everything is given space to breathe, from Cojocaru's tentative hooking of her arm through Hernández's, to their almost langurous pas de deux in Act II – the latter stretching the concept of adagio almost to breaking point, it must be said. The dawn parting between the exhausted Albrecht and Giselle's spirit is much longer than in other productions and more emotional: so strongly has longing survived death that we almost believe Giselle will really manage to get those spectral arms around the man she loves and hold on to the day.
Supporting characters are good all round: Fernando Bufalá plays Hilarion with stolid decency and a hint of hot temper that can nonetheless barely penetrate the love-fog around Giselle and Albrecht. Lauretta Summerscales (pictured right), though a lovely dancer, needs more restraint to make a truly good Myrthe: her natural lyricism and passion bring a little too much Titania to her variation at the beginning of Act II. Lovely Stina Quagebeur makes meat of a small role as a regal, gracious Bathilde, while César Corales, memorable as the sneaking informer Hilarion in the Khan production, makes a decent job of a difficult solo in the peasant pas de deux.
In its careful drawing of character and place (David Walker's designs feature 3D tree trunks, and a discreet jug sign that suddenly makes sense of why the hunting party should ask Giselle's mother for a drink), its inclusion of passages of music that are normally cut (I loved the short fugue in Act II which sees wave upon wave of Wilis rush at Albrecht and peel off again defeated, harmless as spume in the face of Giselle's protection), and above all its sensitivity to the unearthly beauty of the Wilis' choreography, Skeaping's is a Giselle to treasure forever. And with some very exciting casts scheduled to dance (look out for Tamara Rojo putting Mariinsky star Xander Parish through his paces), this run at the Coliseum is a great treat for London's ballet fans: catch it while you can.
- English National Ballet perform Giselle at the London Coliseum until 22 January
- Read more dance reviews on theartsdesk
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