ENB Giselle review: Mary Skeaping’s exquisite ballet is a classy blast from the past | Theatre | Entertainment

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Ballet always loves a devastating ‘girl done wrong’ story and Giselle set the template long before the Manons, Swan Lakes and Onegins to come. It also gave its tragic heroine agency, even in her devastation, that resonates just as powerfully today.

It’s a mark of the remarkable range of this company that the ENB can field both Akram Khan’s spectacularly modern Giselle and also Mary Skeaping’s traditional 1971 version that pays such exquisite hommage to the original 1841 Paris Ballet du Théâtre de l’Académie Royale de Musique production.

Skeaping restored or tried to replicate much of the choreography lost across the centuries and created a reverently measured, understated piece that asks far more of its dancers than so much other flashier fare.

A ballet of two very different halves, Act 1 is a bright and initially joyous swirl of bucolic delights, centred on a vibrant village beauty who loves to dance, despite her weak heart. Cue sunny lighting, costumes in warm, golden tones and euphoric group dances.

Giselle’s love for smooth suitor Albrecht is her downfall, however, as she discovers the bounder is a disguised nobleman already engaged to another. In the ensuing shock, her dodgy ticker gives out.

Act 2 dramatically plunges us into the shadowed forest, the feared kingdom of the wilis – avenging spirits of wronged women who drive men to madness, dancing them to their deaths. The sensational shadowed lighting creates marvelous moments of pulse-pounding drama as they swirl around terrified woodsmen with palpable attack. 

It is the wilis who actually hold the central focus of the show. Fluttering en pointe in diaphanous green-tinged white taffeta, arms aloft, they appear a mesmerising mirage, so beautifully synchronised is the ENB corps de ballet.

Our doomed lovers were played by Katja Khaniukova and Aitor Arrieta on opening night. Their Act 1 frolics were perfectly lovely but they lack any chemistry. He is a superb talent but appeared a little distant throughout.

She made more impression in Act 2 in some featherlight lifts and dreamy partnered sequences but never really shone on her own. The climactic scenes also require powerful acting to match the flourished footwork and both leads came up a little short.

The sets, costumes and lighting are fabulous, the corps de ballet is strong throughout and Adolphe Adam’s heavenly score was sumptuously played by the English National Ballet Philharmonic. I just wish its passion was matched by some of the lead performances. 



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