Critic Caragh Medlicott reviews Ballet Cymru’s much-anticipated return to the stage with their modern take on the romantic classic, Giselle.
Giselle is a layered ballet, one which blurs romance with betrayal, loyalty with regret. Its less romantic – though nonetheless central – concern with social inequality and the hungry gaze of power make this story, a hundred and eighty-years old as it may be, a timely production from Ballet Cymru. Opening amidst the Gothic arches of Lichfield cathedral, this is a long-awaited outing from the punchy, Newport-based company. Though I caught it via livestream – with all the associated limitations we’re too familiar with by now – it was uplifting to glimpse the stage-turned heads of a live audience, too.
Evidently, the players of Ballet Cymru felt the same, bursting onto stage with palpable jubilance. Though small in number, the sway of bodies easily conjured the requisite bustle of Giselle’s village, accompanied by a new and vibrant score from Catrin Finch. There’s not a single dancer en pointe in the first act, precision exchanged for the sheer joy of animation. The costume is modern – printed leggings, zip-up hoodies – with only Giselle appearing anachronistic in more traditional peasant girl get-up.The motivation for this contrast is unclear, though it certainly adds to Giselle’s general sense of sentimentality. Her feather-light hands landing frequently over her weak heart, though she is, seemingly, unperturbed by its nag while flushed with a lust for life.
Though an infamously tragic second-string, we are presented with a less pathetic take on the lovelorn Hilarion. Here, he dances in strong and confident sweeps; his assuredness of movement catches the eye even on a busy stage. His doting on the doe-eyed Giselle seems less unrequited than it might, and only when the disguised duke Albrecht arrives to whisk her away do we see how this confidence might fizzle into a fateful fit of jealousy. In the arms of Albrecht, Giselle is a figure of luminescent wooziness; swooning, collapsing, yet always effortlessly buoyant – Beth Meadway dances with the poise and naturalism of a blossom breeze. As we edge closer to Albrecht’s unmasking, tension flourishes in Finch’s score, an urgent patter of piano portent of the looming storm to come.
When Hilarion learns of Albrecht’s deception, a projection of fluffy clouds inverts into something viscous with the strands of white oscillating across the stage like sparks. Discovering her lover’s betrayal and betrothal to another woman, Giselle fades away from the large variety of outstretched arms. It’s a death scene which can be played with violence or delicacy, and artistic director Darius James OBE opts for the latter with Giselle slipping from life in silent heartbreak; the drama rendered instead in surreal violet light and crashing drum beats.
In its second act, Giselle turns ghoulish. The arrival of Myrtha, Queen of the Wilis, brings a delicious stir of creepiness. Her clan – the wronged Havisham-esque spirits who lure men, siren-like, to their death – writhe like insects under magnifying glasses. Their forest backdrop is conveyed via a dark projection of twisted thickets which falls across the unblinking face and jutted chin of a commanding Myrtha. While you’d expect nothing less of a vengeful ghost queen, she is genuinely terrifying – a perfect encapsulation of the power of dance to convey otherness, strangeness; her lustful violence is primal and chilling.
Giselle has been considered a ballet of high romance for nearly two centuries now, yet its core message is arguably one of injustice. The rich and powerful Albrecht is the key source of disturbance – his philandering is the trigger for both Giselle and Hilarion’s death – yet he lives to see the end. It’s not a message which necessarily survives the spectacle of Ballet Cymru’s second act, yet in the throes of folkloric roar and romantic salvation, it’s clear that this might just be the point.
Giselle is a Ballet Cymru production.