English National Ballet’s must-see Giselle revival will give you a touch of the Wilis

United KingdomUnited Kingdom English National Ballet’s Giselle: Dancers of English National Ballet, English National Ballet Philharmonic / Gavin Sutherland (principal guest conductor). London Coliseum, London. 11.1.2024. (JPr)

Aitor Arrieta (Albrecht) amd Katja Khaniukova (Giselle) in Act II © Laurent Liotardo

Music – Adolphe Adam
Production and Choreography – Mary Skeaping
Original Choreography – Jean Coralli and Jules Perrot revised by Marius Petipa
Music – Adolphe Adam
Designs – David Walker
Lighting – Charles Bristow (recreated by David Mohr)
Artistic Advisor – Irmgard Elisabeth Berry

Cast included:
Giselle – Katja Khaniukova
Albrecht – Aitor Arrieta
Hilarion – Fabian Reimair
Bertha – Laura Hussey
Bathilda – Stina Quagebeur
Myrtha – Alison McWhinney
Peasant pas de deux – Ivana Bueno, Daniel McCormick
Zulma – Minju Kang
Moyna – Chloe Keneally

Because of the importance of Giselle in the history of ballet, some background is worth repeating and repeating. It was premièred in 1841 in Paris, first staged in England the following year and shortly thereafter was presented by almost every ballet company in the world having been recognised as an exceptional ballet. The original choreography of Jean Coralli, Jules Perrot and Marius Petipa has remained largely intact to this day, and it is set to music basically attributed to Adolphe Adam but with some important additions. There are some great psychological depths here – in comparison to some of the other narrative ballets – and it explores social class, love, betrayal, despair, forgiveness and redemption.

David Walker’s designs for the first act shows an idyllic vision of Rhineland peasant life and it is the last day of the wine harvest. Giselle has fallen in love with the nobly born Albrecht, who is in disguise as a lowly villager (Loys). After Albrecht is exposed by his love rival the gamekeeper Hilarion the first act ends with the community torn apart by deception, madness and grief. Albrecht already has a fiancée and Giselle dies through the shock of his betrayal. For the second act we enter another world entirely which is the ghostly moonlit realm of the Wilis inspired by a passage in Heinrich Heine’s On Germany. The Wilis are jilted young brides-to-be, many abandoned on their wedding day and who have died of a broken heart. They will rise from their graves at midnight and exact their revenge on men by dancing them to death, though their power ends at dawn. Giselle forgives Albrecht because he is genuinely remorseful and saves him from the wrath of Myrtha, the Queen of the Wilis.

Revived for the first time since 2017 English National Ballet present the late Mary Skeaping’s celebrated 1971 production for London Festival Ballet (renamed English National Ballet in 1989) which originated in 1953 when she was artistic director of Royal Swedish Ballet. Skeaping was from Woodford (now East London, formerly Essex) and danced with Anna Pavlova in the 1920s and was keen to reconnect ballet with its roots. In recreating Giselle she worked closely with Tamara Karsavina who had danced the leading role in the ballet in pre-revolutionary Russia. This Giselle apparently is as close as one might wish to the 1841 production, though later significant revisions to the ‘original’ choreography is retained. This historical accuracy extends to Adolphe Adam’s score which is also performed as complete as possible although there are some familiar subsequent accretions such as Ludwig Minkus’s Act I variation for Giselle. Skeaping also choreographs the oft-deleted fugue for the Wilis in Act II after Giselle and Albrecht seek sanctuary by the cross on her grave.

I wish I could say that the English National Ballet Philharmonic were their usual excellent selves under their (now) Principal Guest Conductor Gavin Sutherland but I have heard them play much better and I am sure they will improve as the run of performances continue.

The ENB’s new Artistic Director Aaron S Watkin seems to be continuing the company’s upward trajectory which began under his predecessor. This Giselle was danced superbly but most importantly, in this version of the ballet, it never seems to pause for breath and as a result, the story comes dramatically alive. There is clarity to the narrative, not something which is always given due importance, whether it is a nineteenth-century classic or a full-length modern work. Never for one moment did I think the ENB’s dancers were going through the motions and just recreating the steps which had been passed down to them. We saw an engrossing story in music and movement …and without words. Actually that is not entirely true, as the mime is so good that at times I imagined characters speaking, such as when Bertha (Laura Hussey), Giselle’s mother, was recounting her Act I doom-laden tale of the Wilis. I almost imagined I heard Bertha’s words as she mimed ‘listen to what I have to say’ (as explained in detail in the splendid ENB programme).

Katja Khaniukova gave a suitably detailed and nuanced performance as Giselle: from her girlish glee in her burgeoning romance with Aitor Arrieta’s Albrecht, to her descent into madness at his deceit, and as the epitome of a love so strong that in the second act she pardons the errant Albrecht. There are many moments in Khaniukova’s dancing which show it as the poetic language it should be: for instance, her apparent weightlessness, airy jump and limpid arms. There is an otherworldly grace to Khaniukova’s defence of Albrecht in the face of the rampaging Wilis and her overcoming the wrath of their imperious, implacable queen, Myrtha (a typically fine performance from Alison McWhinney).

For a successful Giselle we need to be convinced that Albrecht is an irresponsible young aristocrat having some fun with a local girl and not realising its consequences until too late. When Giselle collapses at the end of Act I we understand the exact moment when Albrecht truly appreciates the horror of what he had done and should glimpse – as here – greater nobility to his decadent facade. He then confronts his rival Hilarion, who truly loved Giselle, but is also complicit in her downfall. Albrecht’s body is completely consumed with grief, and you cannot help but feel his pain. Aitor Arrieta is a young and supremely talented dancer and gave a very persuasive reading of the role. My minor criticisms of firstly Skeaping, and then Arrieta, is that there are no entrechats six in Albrecht’s Act II coda and because Arrieta breezes – or is that brisés? – his way through his solo he never appears as exhausted as his character should.

The Wilis in Mary Skeaping’s Giselle © Laurent Liotardo

In Skeaping’s production the gulf between village and court does not appear as unbridgeable as in some productions and Albrecht’s fiancée, Bathilde (Stina Quagebeur), seems untypically sympathetic. Fabian Reimair in the first act is a glowering presence as Hilarion who falls prey to the Wilis in Act II and is despatched disdainfully. Ivana Bueno and Daniel McCormick catch the eye in the peasant pas de deux used perfectly here as an entertainment for the royal hunting party. Minju Kang (Zulma) and Chloe Keneally (Moyna) gave solid support as the queen’s attendants. As the Wilis, the remarkable ENB corps de ballet was the quintessential embodiment of ghostly sylphs. Have I ever seen the corps dance with such porcelain delicacy, poise and synchronicity before, I doubt it.

My first Giselle was at Covent Garden in 1980 and I have seen quite a number since then, both there and elsewhere, but for some reason this is only the second time I have seen Mary Skeaping’s version. Unlike the Dutch National Ballet’s Giselle (to be seen in cinemas from 21 January) there is not a single overblown and – as a result – wasted moment. In the end I could have happily sat through it all again …definitely one not to be missed!

Jim Pritchard

Featured image: Mary Skeaping’s Giselle Act I © Laurent Liotardo

For more information about future English National Ballet performances click here.

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