As a congratulatory mummy-daughter day out for my five year old Valentina doing her Grade One ballet exams, I took her to see Mary Skeaping's Giselle by the English National Ballet at the Grand Opera House. I always thought the Nutcracker, Swan Lake, or even Hansel & Gretel would be her first show with me - as Giselle can be quite sinister, haunting and very definitely grown up in parts - but it sure didn’t disappoint with some of ballet’s most dramatic scenes played out in beautiful costumes and en pointe footwork by the super talented baleros and ballerinas. In short, it was perfectly poised and aesthetically - truly outstanding.
On curtain up, we were immediately impressed by the set, which opens onto the happy and idyllic village scenes at the beginning of the story. The music, by Adolphe Adam, was performed live by English National Ballet Philharmonic, and Act I’s harvest dance introduces the troupe as well as the love interests of the beautiful and innocent Giselle (Jurgita Dronina) and her new love Loys - who is really Albrecht, the Duke of Silesia, disguised as a peasant, (played by Isaac Hernandez) as well as her suitors including manly hunter Hilarion (who suspects the true identity of his rival, and soon finds out that Albrecht is not the peasant he claims to be).
The following scenes, in which the villagers return from the fields to celebrate the grape harvest and join in a dance with Giselle and Albrecht, are full of energy and optimism, peppered only by Giselle’s Mother, Berthe, who is concerned that Giselle’s passion for dancing may be the death of her delicate daughter, and she warns Giselle of the spell of the Wilis, vengeful spirits of virgin-brides who have been abandoned before their wedding night.
Giselle is amused at her mother’s concern, and continues dancing with her friends, until she is finally crowned Queen of the Vine in a fantastic crescendo of dance.
Admittedly, I had to give a bit of a running commentary at times (sotto voce of course), to Miss Valentina, who asked questions like ‘Mummy, why is there no speaking?’ while I explained that love, lies, jealousy and even motherly concern can be expressed through body language and dance, which fascinated her. And she really got it as we moved towards the final scenes in Act I, when the Prince of Courland and his hunting party stop at the village to taste the wine. One of this party, the Prince’s daughter, Bathilde, is engaged to Duke Albrecht. Hilarion takes this opportunity to reveal the truth about Albrecht’s identity. Giselle, destroyed by grief at Albrecht’s duplicity, loses her mind and/or stabs herself with Albrecht’s sword - then dies.
As we moved into Act II, I fell in love once again with the set - much more simple this time in the woods, but it was the lighting in particular which was exquisite - with romantic and sinister shadows cast across the stage to create a wonderfully atmospheric backdrop to the iconic dances of the Wilis. I explained that this moonlit world of mystery and menace was Giselle’s new home after she died, but then got asked questions like “Mummy is that heaven, then?” and had I dared to go into the realms of the supernatural world in my explanations, i could have conjured up ghosts and ghouls in her sleep that night, so it took some tricky and hurried whispering about this being a special story about things which weren’t so real like the lives we lead to get through that. The questions soon dissipated as the Wilis, (18 of them), came en scène, each reminding me of Dickens’ Miss Havisham in their beautiful blue-white, inky moonlight wedding dresses, and danced a wonderfully hypnotic and really breath-taking dance with perfect footwork and brilliantly precise timing. The corps de ballet floated en masse and en pointe across the stage as they twirled and swirled around unfortunate huntsmen who came to close to their cursed nightly practise. This scene in particular was mesmerising to watch - Valentina was enthralled.
Separately, Hilarion and Albrecht visit Giselle’s grave, mourning her tragic death. Hilarion is caught by the vengeful spirits and Myrtha, Queen of the Wilis, condemns him to dance until he falls dead of exhaustion. Albrecht faces a similar fate, but Giselle’s love and forgiveness protect him through the night.
The Queen of the Wilis tries to get Albrecht away from the cross on Giselle’s grave which is helping to protect him, but her magic Myrtle branch breaks. She makes a desperate effort to maintain her control by commanding the Wilis to attack the cross, but its power is too great.
She commands Giselle to come away from the cross, knowing Albrecht will follow her. However, as dawn breaks over the forest Queen Myrtha loses her power and the Wilis are forced back into their graves.
Giselle and Albrecht are reunited in graceful and sad dance before he falls exhausted as Giselle and the Wilis return to their graves.
This is a classic production of one of the greatest romantic ballets - and one which allowed me to explain that, just like in some fairytales, the path of true love doesn’t always run smoothly - but it was wonderfully expressive and, choreographically, it was a really joyful ballet to watch. Bravo!
Giselle - Grand Opera House Belfast - until Saturday 24th June 2017