|Author Sian Trenberth Photography © 2021 Ballet Cymru - all rights reserved|
"We are a ballet company who like to do things a bit differently. We enjoy finding new ways to make what we do exciting, innovative and relevant."
Nothing exemplifies that better than their new Giselle which was premiered at Lichfield cathedral and online on 8 July 2021 (see Giselle Reimagined 9 July 2021). They are a small but important company which spends much of its time on the road. Many of their venues are small auditoriums with limited ranges of stage equipment. Ballet Cymru's artistic directors, Darius James and Amy Doughty, have taken the essentials of some of the world's great ballets and refashioned them for a small cast that is constantly travelling before audiences that may not see a lot of ballet. They succeeded spectacularly with their Cinderella and Romeo a Juliet. Their Giselle is a similar success.
Making such adaptations often requires adjustments to the libretto, characters and score. For example, the mesmeric effect of rank upon rank of artists in white romantic tutus approaching each other in arabesque as the music reaches a crescendo is difficult to achieve with a small cast on a tiny stage playing recorded music. Moreover, most modern audiences are unfamiliar with Rhineland folk tales about forest maidens who die before their wedding day. Most of us have seen or at least heard of horror movies about the undead who crawl out of their tombs at night. That is why there were zombies crawling about the stage instead of wilis en pointe in Act II.
If you replace wilis with zombies you probably need a new score. James and Doughty commissioned Catrin Finch to adapt Adam's music. Finch had previously contributed the music for Celtic Concerto and The Light Princess and it was through those works that I first learned about her. I have started to explore her other work. I was lucky enough to meet her at a reception at the Riverfront Theatre after the show. I hope to write more about her work in this publication later. Finch kept important parts of Adam's score such as the overture to Acts I and II and passages from the made scene but the greater part of the work was her own. Some of it was very dramatic such as the percussion to indicate a heartbeat.
Apart from substituting zombies for wilis, James and Doughty kept the story more or less intact. It unfolds with great clarity. In keeping with their mission to make everything they do exciting, innovative and relevant James and Doughty set the ballet in contemporary Wales rather than the medieval Rhineland. As there are not too many lords of the manor in Brexit Britain, Albrecht is no longer a noble, Merely a married man playing the field away from home. He does not carry a sword but he does keep something in his wallet that enables Hilarion to denounce him. The main character changes are the introduction of male as well as female zombies and Cerys, a besty for Giselle instead of an over solicitous mum,
I have now seen the ballet three times - once on-screen on 8 July, once live at the Stanley and Audrey Burton in Leeds on 4 Nov and again live in Newport on 6 Nov. Each performance was a different experience. The company danced well in Lichfield and Leeds and must have made a lot of friends in both places but their performance in Newport before their home turf was of a different order of magnitude. After a performance of TIR some years ago, their patron Cerys Matthews described them as "the pride of Newport and the pride of Wales". She won a peel of polite applause for that remark. On Saturday, it was palpable. The crowd in the Riverfront have learnt to appreciate ballet and taken their home company to their hearts. Just like the crowd in the Grand has adopted Nothern and the Hippodrome BRB. Ballet Cymru has put down roots that may one day blossom into a mighty national company with its own school.
The cast was the same in all three shows. Beth Meadway danced Giselle with grace and poise. It was as if she was born for that role. Tall with an expressive countenance, there were instances when she was on pointe in Act II that reminded me of the lithographs of Grisi. Andrea Battagia is a powerful athletic dancer but he is also a fine dance actor capable of expressing the subtleties of Albrecht's personality and his many emotions. Isobel Holland, one of the most pleasant individuals one could ever hope to meet in real life, was a convincing personification of decay and evil as the lead female zombie. So, too, was Robbie Moorcroft - again congeniality itself in real life - who created the new role of lead male zombie. Two newcomers to the company impressed me particularly: Yasset Roldan as Hilarion and Hanna Lyn Hughes as Cerys. I shall follow their careers with great interest. All the members of the company danced well in all three performances and I offer all of them my congratulations.
James designed the sets and video projections. These were ingenious and set each of the scenes effectively. I particularly admired the churchyard scene just before dawn. Ballet Cymru relies heavily on such projections but these were particularly good. The opening scene of an ECG flashed onto the gauze together with the percussion and the cast's jumping like cardiac muscles warned the audience at the start that Giselle had a weak heart. James's designs were accompanied by skilful lighting design by Chris Illingworth and the imaginative costumes of Deryn Tudor.
Wales has a strong dance tradition as you can see from this grasshopper dance but it does not yet have a national ballet school or comprehensive nationwide facilities for developing balletic talent. There are good ballet teachers in the main towns and cities but most of Wales is rural. Ballet Cymru's Duets Programme goes some way to filling that lacuna. Before Saturday's show, several young local schoolchildren on that programme presented a short demonstration of what they had learnt in a very short time. They drew rapturous applause after which most of them watched Giselle in the row in front of me. Ballet Cymru's investment in its nation's youth will create, at the very least, an eager and informed audience for dance and possibly even some of the next generation of the world's principals.