Sunday, 13 October 2019

A Brace of Giselles

asekhaya Standard YouTube Licence

Birmingham Royal Ballet Giselle 28 Sept 2019 Birmingham Hippodrome 19:30

Dasa Masilo Giselle 12 Oct 2019 Bradford Alhambra 19:30

I have seen two fine productions of Giselle: David Bintley's for the Birmingham Royal Ballet at the Birmingham Hippodrome on 28 Sept 2019 and Dada Masilo's at the Bradford Alhambra last night. Both were impressive even though they could not have been more different.

Bintley's was a direct descendant of Jean Coralli and Jules Perrot's of 1841 with Marius Petipa's modifications.  He created his version in collaboration with Galina Samsova who would have studied the lead role in Ukraine before performing it herself to great acclaim with the company that is now known as the English National Ballet in London.  According to Susan Turner's note for Birmingham Royal Ballet's programme, Samsova found a tape in which Anton Dolin, Galina Ulanova and Alicia Alonso had recorded their recollections of the ballet which influenced Bintley too. Turner noted that he and Samsova set out to create a "proper Giselle" in contrast to Arthur Mitchell's for the Dance Theatre of Harlem, Mats Ek's for the Paris Opera or. now, Akram Khan's for English National.

With breathtaking designs by Hayden Griffiths and ingenious lighting by Mark Jonathan, Bintley succeeded spectacularly. The set for the first act with its apparently flowing waterfall was particularly arresting as the audience awaited Hilarion with his offering of game as well as Albrecht and his squire, Wilfred. For some reason, principals at the Hippodrome appear not to be applauded when they first appear.  I experienced quizzical looks from fellow audience members when, instinctively, I began to clap Brandon Lawrence's entry on stage.  I was more careful when Celine Gittens appeared at her door shortly afterwards.

Gittens was outstanding in the title role. An accomplished actor as well as virtuoso, it was hard to stay dry-eyed as she glided inexorably towards her fate. First, the plucking of the petals, the heart murmurs, the warning from her mother, feeling the hem of Bathikde's garment and finally the deception as Hilarion produced Albrecht's sword and Albrecht acknowledged his posh betrothed.

Lawrence also impressed me as he always does.  He is a powerful dancer magnificent in his solos.  I am not sure that Albrecht is his most natural role but he discharged it well.  He came into his own in the second act with his soaring leaps and graceful turns.

Crucial to the success of any Giselle is a strong Myrtha for it is she who commands the wilis and indeed the audience.  Her role is technically difficult requiring considerable strength and stamina.  She must be tall, icy and aetherial.  Yijing Zhang performed that role with flair.

I must also commend Matthias Dingmann and Yanquian Shang for their peasant pas de deux, Alexander Yap for his performance as Hilarion and Jonathan Pain as a worthy Wilfred.  My companion who is a sports fan likes to choose a man or woman of the match when she watches a ballet and she chose Payn.  Finally, I must also congratulate the corps for their highly polished performance.  A lot is asked of them in Giselle and they gave their all.  Bentley's was indeed a proper Giselle and one of the best.

I approached the Alhambra with a degree of trepidation for I love Giselle and would have hated to see it spoilt.  While I am intrigued by innovation I detest change for change's sake. A choreographer who reimagines a classical ballet plays with fire so far as I am concerned. Ted Brandson got away with it with his Coppelia as did David Dawson with Scottish Ballet's Swan Lake. Others have been much less successful.

Masilo's reworking of Giselle succeeded for me in a way that Akram Khan's did not.  I attended the premiere at The Palace three years ago have never been tempted back. By contrast, I have already booked my ticket at The Lowry to see Masilo again.   Though transposed to the banks of a lake in rural Africa it was still recognizably Giselle.  There were a few tweaks to the story.  Obviously, Albrecht did not carry a sword. Instead, his smart trousers indicated his rank. Hilarion appears to have been Berthe's choice for an arranged marriage. She is nothing like the kind concerned mum in the traditional story.  The mad scene is particularly poignant with Giselle reduced to nakedness on learning of Albrecht's betrayal.  It is followed by her funeral to the haunting music of a beautiful Zulu hymn. The biggest change was with the wilis half of whom are men. Clad in identical raspberry costumes they are fiendish creatures.  Myrtha, their leader, a sangoma, is danced by a man. In this version, Albrecht is shown no mercy. Giselle takes an elephant whip to him.  The show ends with Giselle scattering white dust over his grave.

One of the reasons why I think Masilo's Giselle worked was her choice of score.  She commissioned the South African composer, Philip Miller, to combine Western and traditional African instruments in a composition that was rooted in Africa but quoted Adam at many points. Sometimes it was just a chord. At other times a phrase or melody.

It was clear from their turnout and posture that all the dancers were classically trained but their steps were very different.  There were hardly any jumps, precious few lifts, no pointework so far as I could see and not a single grand jeté.  There were dialogues and soliloquies and plenty of grunts. But I think it would still be fair to call it ballet.  And it was certainly gripping theatre.  Unlike traditional Giselles, there was no break between act one and two,  It was one of the tensest 80 minutes I can remember.

Masilo herself danced Giselle and like Gittens, she can act as well as dance,  Her Albrecht was Lwando Dutyulwa. One of those most gripping moments of the show was a fight with Hilarion danced by Thshepo Zasakhaya. Also impressive was Berthe, nothing like the caring, considerate mummy in the traditional show. A three-dimensional character danced by Sinazo Bokolo.  Though very different from the usual Myrtha, Llewellyn Mnguni commanded the stage at least as much as any other.

As I have seen nearly as many Giselles as I have had hot dinners I had no difficulty in following the libretto but that was not true of everybody in the audience.  Even though I can understand why there was no interval I think it would have welcomed by the audience. There is only so much the senses can absorb at once.  There were folk in the theatre who had never seen any other Giselle whose enjoyment would have been enhanced with a fuller synopsis and a better explanation of the cultural allusions. But Masilo is a remarkable dancer and choreographer and I can't wait to see her work again.

Any comparison between the work of one of our national companies and Masilo would be invidious and I am not going to try.  I left both theatres on a high.  Both versions of Giselle have their strengths. I learned a little bit about both works from seeing the other.

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