As we all invariably seem to note, in the UK this is the year of Giselle with The Royal Ballet, Cullberg Ballet, Bolshoi Ballet, Scottish Ballet (SB) and now Birmingham Royal Ballet (BRB) presenting productions. What's more all except the RB and SB versions have been new to us. And of course there have been the new productions at San Francisco Ballet and Finnish National Ballet. And for good measure we've also reviewed Giselles by Ballet Nacional de Cuba, The State Ballet of Missouri and the Kirov in the last year. None of this makes me, for one, tire of Giselle and as usual we went to Birmingham very much looking forward to the premiere.
The new production is by David Bintley, the BRB artistic director, and Galina Samsova the ex-Scottish Ballet artistic director and former principal with London Festival Ballet and Sadler's Wells Royal Ballet amongst others. For Bintley, who also created some new pieces of choreography for Giselle, this is a first foray into producing a classic and something not done lightly given the benchmark production of Peter Wright (his predecessor) for both the Royal Companies. But everybody has to make a start somewhere on the classics and fresh views are the stuff of progress.
As ever Act 1 opens in a Rhineland village though this one looks less foresty than many. Giselle and her mum live in a 3 storey ski-chalet it seems - a massive construction, with probably at least 3 en-suite bathrooms, that dominates and feels rather out of kilter with a peasant's house. As with many productions little space is left for dancing, especially when the grape harvest celebrations really get going. There are no really radical changes but in comparison to the Wright production one of the village girls (Nao Sakuma) gets to be crowned and lifted atop the wine barrel and we have a pas de deux rather than a pas de trois. And much of the mime has gone as well.
The harvest numbers look fun and the stage is well filled but the hunting party section looks very thinly attended - perhaps hunt saboteurs had waylaid them. As if to make up, a horse, bearing Bathilde, and two hounds arrive with the party. Bintley always likes an exciting and different twist in his productions, though I think on this occasion it's perhaps a little gratuitous. It was however entertaining as one of the hounds whimpered for much of the time and then the horse had a little say too. I think on balance fewer animals and more people might be better. The mad scene is pretty traditional though it does not equivocate on how Giselle dies - it's clearly the sword and that seems to fit the story best.
I liked the designs for Act 2 which sets the action in an abandoned, overgrown and rather eery Abbey - very much romantic style. The Bintley twist was to have some Wilis - the ghosts of jilted brides - fly literally about the place. The original 19th century productions featured many clever and ghostly effects and it is in this spirit (groan!) that I think these effects should be seen - though perhaps inevitably you think poor taste for a while. The trouble is, my dear, that we are all too sophisticated these days! The Royal Ballet Ondine revival showed the power of good theatrical staging I think and I hope we see more things out of the ordinary, even if they do make some of us wince occasionally.
The designs for the corps are not quite the classic romantic tutus, they are not dissimilar to those for RB Swan Lake (Act2/4) - you know all off-white shredded gossamer. They don't have little wings either, instead they are suggested by little hangings from the top of the arm to the bodice - the overall look being less stern. The choreography and story telling is as you would expect, though it was interesting to hear that at the end Giselle literally goes up to heaven. Alas we could not see this from our seats to the sides of the stalls.
One thing about premieres is that they can be hit or miss for dancers who have often had too little time to rehearse or get into their role; there is much to be said for seeing a production later in the run. But we all want to be first don't we. Leticia Muller and Andrew Murphy were in the lead and Muller has the look of Giselle all over her - fragile and with the most sorrowful and trusting eyes. But alas as a couple they did not really convince me, being just too restrained. Catherine Batcheller, as Myrtha Queen of the Wilis, bourred well, but otherwise seemed very preoccupied with the steps. Even Joseph Cipolla as Hilarion seemed to be thinking his way through rather than the instinctive acting one normally sees.
The (mini-)stars of the evening were Nao Sakuma and Chi Cao in the Harvest pas de deux. Sakuma in particular has marvellous technique and now seems to have learned that there is no need to be rushed: there is time to clearly and cleanly put all the steps together. Apart from this Sakuma has the most dazzling and huge eyes. The confidence is there to go far. Cao is not quite Teddy Kumakawa (yet!) but he does go for it and more often than not really brings it off by finishing with a great flourish. He could partner a little better but that should come.
Overall I found the production pretty traditional and enjoyable with the odd theatrical twist that may or may not appeal. Any company needing a good Giselle would be pleased with it I think. The only fly-in-the-ointment is that BRB had a terrific and traditional production by Peter Wright. Hopefully I'm not going to turn into one of those folks who forever complain about new productions of classics not being a patch on those they replace, and that's not quite the position here. But new views in an essentially traditional context are possible as Guillem did for Finnish National Ballet. You don't have to do an Ek (Cullberg) or a Bourne (Adventures in Motion Pictures) if that is the concern.