by Fiona Hardie, Arts Editor
Screened in cinemas around the world live from the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, The Royal Ballet’s performance of Giselle (27th January) was a dazzling evening of sincere, emotional performances and eerily beautiful staging.
Peter Wright, whose production of Giselle was first performed in 1985, says of Principal Dancer Natalia Osipova that she “makes classical ballet look natural” and she truly does, making the intricate details of each movement look effortless as the carefree young-and-in-love protagonist of Act I dances lightheartedly around the set, partnered by Carlos Acosta as Count Albrecht. Each leap and pirouette, one after the other in incredibly quick succession, is entirely graceful. The first Act as a whole is conveyed with such innocence and a pastoral quality, and this contrast with the later Gothic themes of Act II is especially well-presented.
When Giselle collapses at the end of the Act, her pain is horribly exposed as she begins to descend into madness, the shock of Albrecht’s betrayal too much for her weak heart. Osipova’s portrayal in this scene is a particular kind of frenzy: expressive and raw as her movement around the stage becomes more frenetic.
Act II in its entirety is the real showstopper; the true Romantic ballet section. It simultaneously combines intensity of emotion and revenge with slow, painstaking tenderness as it conveys the narrative’s main themes of loss and forgiveness.
The Wilis, spirits of women jilted by lovers and out to dance to death any man that comes near them, move as one, as they force Thomas Whitehead’s Hilarion to dance frantically until, exhausted, he is driven into the nearby lake. The tiniest of touches visible on screen, but not necessarily from the stalls – like the slight green tinge to their makeup – add to the sense of them being intrinsically linked to the forest; to the eerie, otherworldliness of them as an entity. Their traditional costuming, plain white dresses and veils, move naturally with their graceful yet commanding movements, adding to their ghostly image; the innocence of the white flowing material a stark contrast to their vengeful nature.
Hikaru Kobayashi’s Queen of the Wilis is another strong performance. The power in her movements and the bold lines she creates suggest a forcefulness and authority, but also real feeling and almost vulnerability – she says of her character that her own interpretation is that she was “in love… and then her lover betrayed her” – trying not to depict her as “just evil, or mean”, and this really does come across.
The set design here seems simple initially, but is enormously effective in conveying Act II’s trademark Gothic ethereal atmosphere, with the slightly transparent backdrop and lighting helping to make Giselle’s ghostly presence even more phantomlike as she disappears and reappears.
Generally it is this eeriness I love the most about Act II, and Giselle in general, but there is something in this performance about the loss and sadness that I hadn’t really experienced before. Osipova is a particularly expressive dancer and together with Acosta, the true pain, and the themes of love and forgiveness transcending everything, are presented in a distinctive way. Between these dancers, each lift and iconic pose looks seamless, Osipova completely embodying the spirit of Giselle as she carries the entire captivating performance, her feet barely touching the floor. The conclusion is soft, quiet and poignant as the dawn approaches, the night fading from view and Giselle alongside it.
The live relay itself, whilst not exactly the same experience you’d get in the audience of a theatre, certainly adds a distinct layer of elements you may not otherwise observe – snippets of interviews and commentary, small moments of live backstage activity just before each act begins – ultimately giving greater insight into this production, and overall a fitting way to celebrate this event. This kind of broadcast is a great way for students in particular to have access to live ballet direct from a prestigious venue without the prices or the travelling. It may not be an in-the-flesh performance, but the atmosphere is still unmistakably electric.
The next Royal Ballet live cinema broadcast will be The Sleeping Beauty (19th March), followed by The Winter’s Tale (28th April).
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