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Royal Ballet
Royal Opera House

Giselle production photo

The poet Théophile Gautier on reading Heinrich Heine's Über Deutschland (full of supernatural creatures) wrote, 'Wouldn't this make a pretty ballet?' And a pretty ballet Giselle is, one that has pleased generations of ballet lovers.

Apparently the scenario was written swiftly, as was the music, which is why, no doubt, there is an easy lightness and joy about it.

But, as in many classical ballets, this lightness and prettiness conceals the hard craft that sustains them. Giselle requires both subtle acting and strong dance technique, and casting and chemistry can be crucial.

The Royal Ballet has a whole stable of versatile performers to showcase: six couples take on Giselle and her deceiving lover Albrecht, each one as different as the personalities performing them. I'd happily go to see any of them, though the one I'd be most curious about is Sergei Polunin, new to the role of Albrecht. And the delicate Alina Cojocaru can wring the hardest of souls.

Carlos Acosta and Tamara Rojo, with their commanding stagecraft, bring experience and maturity to their roles on the first night. Acosta, dancing better than ever, pulls off some amazing double tours en l'air and beautiful entrechats with great ballon and soft landing. His partnering is tender, and his kind face reveals not a callous deceiver but a man full of remorse for misleading an impressionable young girl.

But the heart is not to be trifled with. Giselle, not a robust village girl, as this nobleman might suppose, is a delicate flower easily crushed. Rojo's sturdy technique is in conflict with this innocent sweetness. Her strength is a self-centred seriousness and a moodiness that suit the second act better.

And it is the second act that has the most resonance: twenty-seven ethereal sylphides flitting hauntingly about an unconsecrated moonlit glade, where the bodies of girls driven to suicide by unfaithful lovers are laid to rest.

Except these are restless implacable spirits out to dance to death any male who crosses their vengeful paths. In white dresses and wedding veils they pursue their victims to their doom till dawn breaks and the light of day saves them.

Nineteenth century gothic Romanticism, unrequited love, life after death, love conquering death, all should bring tears to our gullible eyes and lumps in our throats, but my tear ducts remained resolutely dry in spite of beautiful dancing, a solemn Rojo in her element, a dashing Albrecht in flowing cloak, white lilies in his arms, making a striking entrance in Jennifer Tipton's murky silver lighting...

They did not touch my very soul. The last time I was surprised into tears for Giselle and Albrecht was in Irek Mukhamedov's and Viviana Durante's 1992 pairing at the Royal Opera House, whereas Rojo and Acosta, well matched though they are, accessed only my admiration.

One nineteenth century critic wrote that the first act is a long prologue for the second poetic act, which is where the dancing comes into full force. In a way he was right. The two acts are as different as earth and air, as night and day, almost different genres. And the ballerina, as with Swan Lake's Odette/Odile, has the chance to show off a contrasting duality in performance and characterisation.

The first act sunlit Rhineland rural scene is full of joyful life, celebratory peasant dances, and traditional mime storytelling. Giselle's mother Berthe (an excellent Genesia Rosato) warns of what may come in lengthy mime, which might escape some first-timers. Concentrate and you get it. The music motifs help.

The scene ends, as Berthe predicted, with her cradling a dead Giselle in her lap, alone on the stage, the merry-making over. The distraught Albrecht is whisked away by his squire.

The second act at Giselle's grave is a shadowy world of the inner spirit, and needs no explanation. This is dance as pure love. Albrecht survives, a wiser better man, but Hilarion (the reliable Gary Avis), who truly loved Giselle, dies. Why? Because he betrayed Albrecht? There's no reason where the heart is. His was an unrequited love, too.

Worthy of mention are Yuhui Choe and Ricardo Cervera, who are terrific in the pas de six in Act One, as is the up-and-coming Akane Takada. Christina Arestis is a marvellously condescending Bathilde, Albrecht's intended, but Laura McCulloch had not yet hit her confident stride as Queen of the Wilis, the malevolent Slavic fairytale Vili with "the aristocratic refinement of their mysterious natures." (Heinrich Heine).

In rep till 19th February 2011

Reviewer: Vera Liber