Ballet Cymru, Giselle Livestream from Lichfield Cathedral, 8 July 2021 19:30
Ballet Cymru is not a big company. If one consults the dancers' page as I tried to do yesterday because there were several artists in the cast I could not recognize, Ballet Cymru appears to have only four members. Yet Ballet Cymru is capable of staging major full-length classical ballets and often doing them better than many bigger and better-resourced companies. its Romeo a Juliet is one of the best and its Cinderella is definitely the best - much as I admire the Hampson and Wheeldon versions for Scottish Ballet and HNB.
Those productions are successful because Darius James and Amy Doughty rethink those ballets for a small cast on the road. They are innovative without being gimmicky. Their works are of our time yet remain anchored in the classical tradition. Most importantly, though their artists are from Australia, Bermuda, Italy and Yorkshire, the company is unmistakably Welsh. Here are two examples of how they work. If a score does not quite work for them they have the courage to commission a new one. As often as not, that commission will go to a Welsh composer such as Jack White or Catrin Finch. Another example is how they tell a story. Romeo a Juliet is set not in renaissance Verona but post-industrial Newport. The brawl between Montagues and Capulets in Act 1 takes place in the pedestrian underpass to the River Usk. It is broken up not by a duke but by flashing blue lights.
James and Doughty applied that formula to their new Giselle which was premiered at Lichfield Cathedral last night. Although I saw it only on screen I have no doubt that it was a spectacular success. The camera caught the front row of the audience who rose to their feet at the curtain call. Standing ovations are de rigeur in some parts of the world, but in Lichfield they are rare. I know that city well because I attended prep school there.
As I knew that James and Doughty had commissioned Finch to write the music I was surprised to hear the opening notes of Adam's overture but it was quickly followed by percussion as the cast entered the stage and shortly afterwards (and my memory may be playing tricks on me here) Bugeilio'r Gwenith Gwyn. As I tweeted last night Finch's arrangement of Adam with her own work and traditional Welsh airs was one of the reasons for the ballet's success.
The ballet followed the familiar story but with some modern twists. There are not too many peasants in Newport these days so there was no peasant pas de deux. Fox hunting is illegal in Wales so there was no ducal hunting party. Young Welsh women can learn about the men they encounter from their smartphones nowadays so there was no petal picking. But there was still a Giselle danced by Beth Meadway, an Albrecht (Andrea Battaggia), a Hilarion (Yasset Roldan), a Berthe (Hanna Lyn Hughes) and a Bathilde (Natasha Chu). Other artists, described in the cast list as "friends", were Robbie Moorcroft, Joe Powell-Main, Madeleine Green, Jakob Myers, Sanea Singh and Jethro Paine. Chu and Lyn Hughes also appeared in the crowd scenes.
We at Powerhouse Ballet hold all the dancers of Ballet Cymru in high regard but we have a particular affection for Meadway. She taught us In my craft or sullen art at the Dylan Thomas workshop when Ballet Cymru visited Leeds (see More than a Bit Differently: Ballet Cymru's Workshop and the Launch of the Powerhouse Ballet Circle 29 Nov 2018 Terpsichore). She also gave us one of the best online company classes ever last year. Above all, she is a North Country lass - just like most of us. I already knew that she could dance but I had never seen her act before. She is at least as good an actor as she is a dancer. She did not just dance Giselle. She made us believe that she was Giselle.
Tall and dashing, Battagia was cast well as Albrecht. It was easy to see how Giselle's head was turned by him. He did not carry a sword but he did have some sort of ID that he carelessly left in a wallet in his coat pocket. I have always felt a bit sorry for poor old Hilarion. If anyone deserves to die it is Albrecht and in Dada Masilo's version, he does (see A Brace of Giselles 15 Oct 2019 Terpsichore). James and Doughty stick to tradition and he perishes in a horrible way. Roldan danced his role with verve and passion. The choreography gives him opportunities to demonstrate virtuosity and he took full advantage. Berthe seems even younger than her daughter which may be why she is described in the cast list as "Giselle's friend". There is a poignant moment as Berthe comforts Giselle when she first experiences heart trouble. It is also Berthe who tries to revive Giselle at the end.
In any production of Giselle, there is a contrast between acts 1 and 2. In this production, the contrast was marked by the absence of pointe work in act 1. The women wore soft shoes and turned on demi. In the spirit world, Myrtha and Giselle were on pointe. No doubt to emphasize their lightness like Taglioni in La Sylphide or Grisi in the first Giselle. The wilis were the scariest I have ever seen. The friends in act 1 became spirits in act 2. They, therefore, included men who were particularly threatening. They crawled over their graves like serpents. No graceful arabesques or penchés. They were led by Isobel Holland. The tension between Holland and Meadway was palpable. Holland like Meadway is an excellent actor. She also taught us at our Dylan Thomas workshop. We at Powerhouse know that she is delightful in real life but as queen of the wilis she was grisly and venomous.
The set was simple but robust which will be ideal for touring. Essentially rectangular slaps with reflective surfaces. As in their other ballets. Ballet Cymru relied on projectors to create scenery or change mood. One background - ancient Celtic and Latin crosses - was simultaneously beautiful and unsettling. All credit to the lighting designer, Chris Illingworth. Congratulations also to the costume designer, Derek Tudor. Myrtha's was stunning. The women's skirts with their layers of material must have been a joy to wear.
I look forward to seeing this show on stage very much. A screen is all very well but it is two dimensional and ballet has depth. If Ballet Cymru ever offers this choreography as a workshop we should love to learn it. Once this third wave has subsided we shall learn the Coralli-Perrot-Petipa version of the dance of the wilis but the James and Doughty version would be such fun.