BRB’s Giselle: Midsummer Madness and Poignant Farewells

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Adolphe Adam, Giselle: (Performed to the choreography of Marius Petipa after Jean Coralli and Jules Perrot, with additional material from David Bintley), Dancers from Birmingham Royal Ballet, Royal Ballet Sinfonia / Koen Kessels (conductor), Birmingham Hippodrome, 21.6.2013 (GR).

Principal Dancers:
Giselle: Ambra Vallo
Count Albrecht:  César Morales
Hilarion: Kit Holder
Myrtha, Queen of the Wilis:  Victoria Marr
Harvest Pas de deux:  Maureya Lebowitz & Mathias Dingman

Giselle; Ambra Vallo as Giselle; photo Bill Cooper
Giselle; Ambra Vallo as Giselle; photo Bill Cooper

Conceived by Theophile Gautier around a Heinrich Heine poem to the music of Adolphe Adam, the ballet Giselle had its Paris premiere in 1841 and remains one of the most popular romantic ballets in the catalogue. Returning to the Hippodrome to close the Birmingham Royal Ballet 2013 Summer Season, its run had been dedicated to Designer Hayden Griffiths who sadly died earlier this year. Griffiths’ sets for this Giselle alone are a magnificent memorial to his artistic innovation and overall contribution to the BRB repertoire. But the performance of Friday June 21st was extra special as Midland ballet supporters said farewell to four BRB company dancers – Principal Ambra Vallo, First Soloist Victoria Marr and Artists Kristen McGarrity and Laura Davenport (more details on the BRB website news item of June 7th). These events an extra buzz of anticipation as the packed audience assembled. The occasion lived up to expectation and resulted in a highly memorable evening.

Ambra Vallo has been with Birmingham Royal Ballet for seventeen years and a highly regarded and admired principal. An Italian by birth, she was trained in Flanders before joining ENB in 1993 and BRB three years later. Excelling in dramatic roles, the effervescent Titania in The Shakespeare Suite was created for her. Artist rotation means that our paths have not always crossed, but I particularly recall her seductive dancing powers as Lykanion in Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloë last year. This striking memory has been surpassed; for me she will now be synonymous with her swansong Giselle, a quintessential interpretation. Her natural acting talent was in abundance throughout Act I: the lovesick peasant girl with the dicky-ticker was tenderly put across; the empathy with her anxious mother (Ruth Brill successfully disguising her innate cuteness) in contrast to her delight on receiving the necklace gift from ‘rival’ fiancé Bathilde (the glamorous gold lame gowned Samara Downs) meant no storylines were blurred; the dismay upon discovering the true identity of the Count and her subsequent manic derangement on this midsummer night was truly graphic; her demise – in this production seemingly a combination a self-inflicted wound and heart failure – was worthy of a diva’s exit. Buried in unhallowed ground, Giselle emerged as an honorary member of the Wilis coven in Act II, and the dancer in Vallo took over, shining through with grace and technical precision. The BRB decision to pair Vallo with the dynamic and classy César Morales as her Albrecht of the night produced a scintillating pas de deux. Good luck to her in her new yoga-instruction career!

Another regrettable departure on view was First Soloist Victoria Marr who ruled her Wilis troupe with a veritable mix of poise and authority. A fine example of the sterling foundation work by the local Edgbaston-based Elmhurst School for Dance, she also joined BRB in 1996, surely an endorsement of the ballet group’s reputation as a family company with a concern for their artists. I have fond memories of Marr too, notably as a ‘commanding’ Black Queen in Bliss’ Checkmate and a ‘delectable’ Alice in Paul Reade’s Hobson’s Choice. In the June 7th press release, Marr said how hard it was to ‘hang up my pointe shoes…. at the top of my game’ and begin a new business venture. That she was still at the pinnacle of her art was demonstrated by another ‘commanding’ portrayal as Myrtha. She is a personality who will be missed by both colleagues and ballet fans alike.

One dancer who looked every inch a star capable of filling departed shoes was Maureya Lebowitz – a relative new name to me, but surely soon to rank above her present Soloist status. Along with Mathias Dingman she formed a handsome partnership for the Harvest Pas de deux; I loved her statuesque poses, her deportment and effortlessly smooth movement and look forward to seeing her in a lead role. As always the corps de ballet (predominantly the female half of BRB in this Giselle) were superb; as the Wilis they were a unified fright of ghosts, guaranteed to inflict their St Vitus magic on any male judged guilty of jilting their loved one. Ironically it was forester Hilarion (Kit Holder) constant in his desire for Giselle but nevertheless in the wrong corner of the story’s love rectangle, who was their first victim – no match for the domineering Queen and her obedient subjects. The eighteen supernatural Wilis in their buoyant white dresses and veils floated around, covering the Hippodrome stage floor with a spectacular sea of white foam. Another attractive ensemble sequence was the Marche des vignerons of the first half: the corps created a merry band of winemakers, with several of the grape-growers looking as if they had already had a glass or two, although six of them were still up for the following energetic Galop in which Morales joined.

The traditional props employed by Petipa that move the narrative along were of course in full view: the Count’s sword that gave his identity away, the hunting horn forecasting the arrival of the Duke of Courland’s entourage, the necklace that turns from welcomed gift to manic symbol of deceit for Giselle and the magic mistletoe twigs of the Wilis. But Director David Bintley has added a few tricks that bear his BRB trademark: the shire horse that bore Bathilde into the village clearing and the pair of flying Wilis that heralded the dawn, the traditional starting time for the ghostly vampires to commence their vengeful mission. There was eeriness to the Gothic setting of Act II, much due to the subtle lighting of Mark Jonathan.

Pairing Coppélia with Giselle for the BRB 2013 Summer Season provided an instant comparison between their two French composers and patently illustrated similarities of style (Delibes was a pupil of Adam). Steeped in the tradition of opéra-comique, Adam aimed to write music that was transparent and amusing. He often employed motifs for his leading characters, exemplified here by the catchy triple time phrase for the eponymous Giselle. The BRB Sinfonia under Koen Kessels ensured Adam’s intentions were delivered all the way from the opening bars to the closing chords. Major contributors in this process that I picked out were the piccolo of Sandra Skipper and the violin of leader Robert Gibbs, while their ensemble playing was as good as I have ever heard it.

An exhilarating evening’s entertainment and judging by the whistles, shouts and applause from the audience at the close, one that Ambra Vallo and Victoria Marr will hopefully remember for the rest of their lives. I certainly will!

Geoff Read