Giselle is the oldest ballet still being performed on a regular basis by the world’s top ballet companies. Created in 1841, some 36 years before Swan Lake, its romantic style is very different from the classical dance seen in Tchaikovsky’s masterpiece: steps are quick and neat, performed close to the floor; arms are softer and more rounded; there are no (or few) whizz-bang pyrotechnics seen in the variations.
The English National Ballet is currently performing Mary Skeaping’s production at the London Coliseum, and what a gem it is. The first act is bathed in the golden hues of late summer – the lighting for both acts is particularly atmospheric – and most of Adolphe Adam’s beautiful score is used (other versions cut out long passages of music).
There is a lot of mime but it is performed with great clarity and moves the tale along. The peasant girls – including Giselle – wear their hair down in Act I (and this obviates the need for the irritating and sometimes all too obvious hairpin shredding when Giselle goes mad at the climax). There is a clever moment at the start of the famous mad scene when all the dancers except Giselle freeze – her swift descent into insanity follows from this and it is dramatically powerful.
The Wilis – girls who died before they have married – are deliciously malevolent in Act II. Their pursuit of men who happen to have strayed across their path is quite chilling and their dancing is magnificent. On opening night Katja Khaniukova was a shy and gentle Giselle, overcome with happiness in Act I before her tragic betrayal. Her Albrecht was Aitor Arrieta, making his debut in the role. He is a powerful dancer and gave a thoughtful interpretation of a man who is in love but unaware just how much damage his lies will do. Fabian Reimair was a sympathetic Hilarion who meets a nasty end at the hands of the Wilis, led by a cold and haughty Alison McWhinney as Myrtha.
There have been countless productions of this ballet, but this version is one of the best there is and not to be missed.
The English National Ballet in Giselle is at the London Coliseum until 21st January.