A Giselle worth savouring
Giselle is not the most technical of ballets, but its spectacle, as realised in this fine production, is hard to match
Elisha Willis as Giselle. Photograph: Bill Cooper
Bord Gáis Energy Theatre, Dublin
Giselle is a ballet of two halves. The first act introduces us to the beautiful peasant Giselle (Elisha Willis, who dances throughout with youthful levity) in her native habitat of a small rural village, where she is wooed by disguised nobleman Albrecht; when she discovers his deceit, she swoons to her death. The second act unfolds at the graveyard, when the heroine is awoken by Myrtha, Queen of the Wilis (a statuesque Céline Gittens) and her brides of death, who lure their past lovers to the grave. The contrasting setting and tone of each act may be somewhat startling for a modern audience expecting the uniform tragic swell of Swan Lake, but is typical of the mid-19th-century ballet.
If the first half of this production by Birmingham Royal Ballet feels particularly old-fashioned, it is because it is keen to place the ballet in its original context. The first act features traditional rituals of harvest and hunting that make the love story seem secondary to the peasant drama, and demands more acting than dancing of its leads. Indeed, the technical centre-piece of Marius Petipa’s original choreography is delivered with blade-like precision by Momoko Hirata in the harvest pas de deux, with her muscular partner Tzu-Chao Chou. Hayden Griffin’s design, meanwhile, is a masterpiece in German romanticism: the set is akin to a Caspar David Friedrich painting rendered in three-dimensional form, complete with gently gushing waterfall.
The second act, however, is more aesthetically streamlined and technically impressive: the Wilis are to Giselle what the swans are to Swan Lake. Veiled in white tulle, they move across the ruins of a Gothic cathedral, superbly moonlit by Mark Jonathan, with a weightlessness, which is only slightly dampened by landings on the noisy floor. The last 15 minutes, when Giselle and Myrtha fight for the body and soul of the grief-stricken Albrecht, is absolutely mesmerising. Giselle is not one of the most technically challenging ballets, but in terms of spectacle, the closing moments are some of the most memorable in the history of dance.