Review: English National Ballet - Giselle - London Coliseum

Performance: 11 - 22 January 2017
Reviewed by Graham Watts - Monday 23 January 2017


Performance reviewed: 14 January 2017

“People go to see new ballerinas dance as Giselle for the same reason we go to see new interpretations of Hamlet; the work is such a good one that we always discover something…we hadn’t seen before, some variation in performance that brings out an aspect that seemed previously concealed; we learn something new”. So, remarked George Balanchine, a man who made a lot of ballet history, himself.

2016 marked the 175th anniversary of this ballet that has come down through the years, more or less, in a constant flow of performances; a remarkable endurance set against the prevailing challenge of ever-changing fashions. Giselle has been nurtured and passed on from one generation to another since its first performance at the Théâtre de l’Académie Royale de Musique, on 28 June 1841. Made in France, it spread quickly around the globe before settling exclusively, for 50 years, in Russia, from where Serge Diaghilev eventually brought the ballet back to the world’s attention.

English National Ballet has been an important guardian of this Mary Skeaping production since it was commissioned by Dame Beryl Grey, in 1971, during her tenure as artistic director of what was then known as London Festival Ballet. Skeaping’s production uses Adolphe Adam’s hastily composed score in a structure very close to that of the 1841 Parisian premiere.

The French authenticity of Skeaping’s production met with two opposite forces in this Saturday afternoon showing. Firstly, the Russian influence that took over the ballet in the later nineteenth century was reintroduced in the form of guest artist, Xander Parish, cleverly borrowed from the Mariinsky Ballet to play the role of Albrecht alongside (first) Laurretta Summerscales and then, as here, with Tamara Rojo as his Giselle.

Earlier in the run, Isaac Hernandez had given a version of Albrecht that read as an innocent abroad. A young man caught up in the ongoing torrent of flirtation that led to a tragedy he could not bear. Parish, however, plays the role, haughtily, aristocratically. He knows full well what he is doing and when his duplicity is revealed by the unexpected attendance of his fiancée, Bathilde (Stina Quagebeur), his first thought is to cut and run! This presents a fine contrast with his Albrecht of the second act; whose remorse is palpable and moving. Parish is a dancer of exquisite nobility and line; the Anthony Dowell of this generation. He has developed into a great British dancer by not being in Britain and the Mariinsky has been the finest ballet finishing school imaginable. Full credit to Rojo for bringing him back to a British audience and let’s hope that these are the first of many such guest performances with ENB.

The second opposite force was Rojo herself. Initially, the ENB artistic director was not scheduled to dance the role but an arduous Christmas season of endless nights of The Nutcracker (and a few matinees, too) took its toll (including, I’m especially sad to say, the intended Giselle premiere for Katja Khaniukova); and, at 42 (who, on earth, can believe that), Rojo took responsibility for filling the void herself.

The upshot of this last minute substitution was to forge a remarkable partnership; since Parish’s swank was well-matched by Rojo’s fervour: his hubris melting in her blaze. Rojo danced the Skeaping Giselle in her very early career but – with so little time to prepare – I’m not convinced that she performed the role exactly to the letter of Skeaping’s instructions; but, who cares! The emotional spark between the leads was significant and it was easy to see why her death was the catalyst for his mortified penitence.

Cesar Corrales and Rina Kanehara performed a splendid peasant pas de deux and James Streeter brought an unusual depth to the maligned character of Hilarion; a respectable gamekeeper who no doubt would have become happily married to Giselle without the interventions of Albrecht. Alison McWhinney made an auspicious debut as the Queen of the Wilis, bringing an emotionless malevolence to this iconic role. If Act 1 is Giselle, then Act 2 is Les Wilis, with the ENB corps de ballet working as a single organism, making an essential contribution to both the choreographic design and the development of the narrative.

Gavin Sutherland and the ENB Philharmonic gave a delightful performance of Adam’s score, which contains a number of fashionable set dances (waltzes, a tarantella and quadrille), which Adam mixes together with an almost casual lack of regimen, thus allowing an intuitive juxtaposition of many dance styles. His use of repeated themes, essentially seven of them, especially in the two love melodies for Albrecht and Giselle gives this wonderful music an immediate and popular familiarity (even, as with my companion on the day, for those that have never seen the ballet before).

Tucked away, as it was, on a mid-January Saturday afternoon, following a seemingly unending torrent of performances; this was a little gem. An authentic revival of a French ballet given a Russian gloss (albeit by a young man from North Ferriby) stamped with an indelible splash of Rojo.

11 – 22 January 2017
English National Ballet

Graham Watts is a freelance dance writer and critic. He is a regular contributor to Dancing Times and also writes for, and other magazines and websites in Europe, Japan and the USA. He is chairman of the dance section of the Critics’ Circle in the UK and of the National Dance Awards. Twitter: @gwdancewriter

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