This is my third Giselle in a year, and I think the one I liked best. Birmingham Royal Ballet’s production (Galina Samsova/David Bintley) holds on to the traditions, and sometimes the familiar is appealing. (I found Akram Khan’s production with English National Ballet intellectually interesting but not necessarily as enjoyable). It’s an odd ballet, really: one of the great classics of the Romantic tradition, which begins like a fairytale, set in a vaguely medieval, Germanic village, where a prince in disguise seeks out the beautiful village girl he has seen. There is even a (well-behaved, beautiful) real horse on stage. The first act can be cloying, with all the happy dances of the villagers and the growing love between Giselle and Albrecht (Mathias Dingman), with the jealous discarded lover Hilarion (Lachlan Monoghan) looking on, but this production stays just the right side of sentimental, with Miki Mizutani as Giselle being in turn modest, compellingly coquettish, and then deranged, but never mawkish; she shows off as much as her lover, revelling in the developing flirtation…until it all goes wrong. Love is dangerous for women in ballets.
The second act is more exciting and beautiful, though we have been set up for it perfectly by the sudden fall of tragedy at the end of the first act, when Giselle realises that Albrecht is betrothed to Bathilde and thus not free to marry her. Her dance of insanity ends with her stabbing herself with Albrecht’s sword, and as her mother holds her, the curtain falls. Act Two, then, is set in a wonderfully Gothic ruined abbey, with Giselle’s grave and the mourning Hilarion (who I’ve secretly always felt rather sorry for). Then the Wilis appear: women who died by their own hand before their wedding after betrayal by their fiance. These Wilis are perfect: they fly in, swooping down the stage from the air, gliding ethereally with their impeccable bourrees, veiled with filmy draperies, slipping behind the unsuspecting Hilarion and Albrecht in a ghostly mimicry of the pantomimic effects of the first act (she’s behind you…)
The Wilis are an interesting breed: they play the role of the Furies, seeking vengeance on men for the damage they carelessly do to women; they dance to death any man who arrives during the dark hours, and there is something ancient and mythical about them which seems to have some modern feminist resonances. Hilarion’s death has always struck me as a bit unfair, having said that (he might be jealous but none of this is really his fault) but the focus of this second act is Giselle’s protection of Albrecht from Myrtha, Queen of the Wilis. I’ve always liked Myrtha, danced last night impressively and chillingly by Yijing Zhang, for her leadership of this terrifying company of woman, who dance together freed from the male gaze. There was a real feeling of liberation and power in the Wilis, with a sinister uniformity of movement combined with exquisite expression. It’s the pas de deux with Giselle and Albrecht, with its wonderful symmetry of movement, which is particularly moving, though, indicating a deeper love between them that the first act could, before the Wilis, flitting no longer but closing in with purpose as they circle and befuddle him, begin their dance of death.
To be logical, Albrecht doesn’t deserve Giselle’s defence, but when does logic ever matter in love or ballet? These are the most beautiful moments of the performance, I think, perhaps because the power balance has shifted and Giselle can now control Albrecht’s destiny. There are some spectacular moments in Dingman’s performance as he dances with the Wilis, including the incredible, endless entrechats (which deserved more applause than they got), and as the Wilis vanish when dawn breaks, and he collapses in grief and exhaustion on Giselle’s grave, there is a powerful sense of desolation which (even after several Giselles) I found genuinely moving. It’s fascinating how an excellent cast can take what could be a rather too camp, slightly farcical ballet and turn it into something transcendent.