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Royal Ballet, Giselle, Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, 2 April 2016
In an interview with the journalist Mark Moynihan which is transcribed in the Royal Ballet's programme notes for this season's Giselle, Sir Peter Wright said:
"When I first saw Giselle way back in the early 1940s I used to think: 'That's silly. That doesn't make sense. So when John [Cranko] asked me to do Giselle my first reaction was, 'Oh no, I couldn't do that - that poor young girl going mad'. The ballet always seemed rather inconsistent to me and sometimes downright stupid."Until last night that had been my reaction too. I had always been troubled by the libretto (possibly for the same reason as Wright for he had been brought up as a Quaker and I have become one) as the second act is very dark, superstitious, even a little satanic, or so it had appeared to me for many years. My coping mechanism until last night had been to put the story out of my mind and concentrate on the dancing as thought it were an abstract work like Jewels or Les Sylphides.
However, Sir Peter changed his mind about Giselle and so have I. In Sir Peter's case it was only when he saw the great Russian ballerina Galina Ulanova's interpretation of the role of Giselle when the Bolshoi first came to London that he realized what an extraordinary work it could be. That is because the libretto is coded or perhaps, more accurately, on more than level. There is all the difference in the world between knowing the story of a ballet and understanding it. Sir Peter needed Ulanova to unlock the work for him and it was Lauren Cuthbertson last night who did the same for me.
I am not a newbie when it comes to ballet. I have seen Giselle many times by several different companies with some of the world's greatest ballerinas in the title role. The best compliment that I can pay to Cuthbertson is that she unlocked the ballet for me much in the way that Ulanova appears to have done for Sir Peter. Yesterday I saw not a ballerina dancing Giselle but Giselle herself and for the first time I really understood the ballet which has far more substance than I had previously supposed. Giselle was not stupid but in love - or least infatuated - and infatuation makes fools of us all. I have seen what it has done to my friends and it is actually one of the stories on my favourite radio soaps right now as Helen ignores the danger signs that are so obvious to her friend, Kirsty - just as Giselle ignores the tampering with the petals and the other indicators that were so clear to her mum and, of course, Hilarion.
What is it about Cuthbertson's performance that was so special last night? I don't know. I had seen her several times before and admired her artistry and virtuosity. I had listened to her talk to the London Ballet Circle and even managed to meet her brielfy afterwards to say how much I enjoyed her work. It may be that her horrendous injury has made her an even greater artist (see Nowness's video London's Royal Ballet I Portrait of a Dancer: Lauren Cuthbertson) but if that were so, why? Perhaps she was in the right place at the right time to interpret Giselle for me.
One of the hitherto exasperating points of Giselle had been that Albrecht, the cad, survived the wilis but Hilarion who lost the girl also had to die. But actually that is one of the points of the ballet that Wright's production and Cuthbertson's dancing brought out last night. Nobody is beyond redemption - not even after death. Albrecht showed remorse for his treachery and Giselle forgave him and, who knows, was perhaps redeemed herself by sustaining him through his trial. There is a crucial bit of the choreography that I had missed in the past where Giselle stands before Albrecht with her hands outstretched in the form of a cross from which Myrtha and the other wilis are forced to turn away. They recover, of course, and continue their persecution until the exhausted Albrecht is saved, quite literally, by the bell.
And Hilarion? Well he was jealous and let his jealousy get the better of him which caused Giselle to stab herself (at least in Sir Peter's version). He did visit her grave but he fell asleep and ran into the woods as lights flashed and wilis darted across the stage. It was perhaps his lack of courage, his lack of resolve and his jealousy and selfishness that condemned him.
Great though Cuthbertson was last night she needed a strong partner and Federico Bonelli partnered her magnificently. "Wasn't that so beautiful!" whispered the lady next to me during a moment for applause, "he held her as if she were a feather." It was indeed beautiful and I was close to tears. I have to think long and hard in my half century of ballet going to remember a pas de deux that has moved me as much. Sibley and Dowell perhaps? But I can't for the moment think what that could have been.
A strong performance, too, from Benet Gartside as moody, sulky, vengeful and in the end irresolute, Hilarion. As I say, I had always felt sorry for the gamekeeper in the past but I had less sympathy for him in Gartside's interpretation of the role - though I still find it hard to understand why he had to die. Berthe (Giselle's mum) danced by Elizabeth McGorian was crucial to the story. Usually she is the spoil sport - Madame Simone transposed - who stops her daughter dancing but yesterday she showed she had good reason as she predicted her daughter's suicide in mime. Spine chilling performances, also, from Claire Calvert as the icy, imperious, heartless, spiteful queen of the wilis and from Elizabeth Harrod as Moyna and Meaghan Grace Hinkis as Zulme. In fact, the whole cast was great. The only reason I have not mentioned more names are the usual limitations of time and space.
Regrettably I had to leave the Opera House, Cinderella like, after the first few curtain calls to catch my train back to Yorkshire but the clapping and cheers were deafening even outside the auditorium. When the flower market was next door the stage would have been knee deep in flowers after a performance like last night's. The dancers - Cuthbertson in particular - were extraordinary and I hope this review does justice to them all.