There is nothing like a sold out show to get me into a complete ticket buying frenzy. I’d kind of ignored the emails English National Ballet had been sending me about their new version of Giselle: what can I say, I was out of work for two months and tickets to Sadlers Wells were not on the list of things to buy with my limited funds. (This despite the fact that their ticket pricing structure is extremely kind especially to the unemployed.) And, well, ENB just isn’t that exciting to me in general. But it got closer to the time and I thought, hey, Giselle, that’s my favorite ballet, why don’t I make the attempt? And then GASP it was sold out. And so for three weeks I set poised with my computer browser set to the Sadler’s ticket buying page. Even after it was announced that it would be returning in 2017, I still wanted to go NOW, when it was all fresh and hot and juicy, and not wait for a whole ‘nother year. Yummy fresh ballet! I had quite a balancing act to pull off though because I had to fit in a time to see the new Wayne MacGregor at the Royal Ballet as well … so there I was yesterday STANDING IN LINE at Sadler’s at 6:45 hoping some person would fail to show up for their date and said date would hand over their ticket in eager anticipation of getting a little bit of money back (as Sadler’s will refund tickets if they are sold on – once again proving how wonderful they are). And POW I finally got one, back of the stalls for £38.
And, wow, what an utterly powerful and deeply creepy version of Giselle this was. Are you familiar with the normal plot? Prince (Albrecht) goes to a random (possibly eastern European) small town, woos innocent young girl (Giselle – Tamara Rojo) with a heart condition, makes her local beau Hilarion jealous, then gets in a bit of a situation as his family (the local king and queen or duke and duchess) show up, while hunting, along with his fiancee. Giselle is initially enchanted by the party of richies, especially the queen (and her clothing), and does a little dance for them to entertain them (because she’s just a lowly peasant after all), for which she receives a necklace in thanks. But then Hilarion blows Albrecht’s cover, forcing Albrecht to publicly show Giselle that his loyalties are actually with the nobility and his love is pledged to another (Bathilde). This causes Giselle to go mad; she does a dance and then dies of a heart attack (or stabs herself depending on the versions). Albrecht is very sad; so sad that in the next scene we see him at Giselle’s grave. She is buried in unconsecrated ground, and SURPRISE she has been recruited to join a band of evil fairies, the “Wilis,” who hunt down young men and kill them. (Wilis are the spirits of girls who died of broken hearts.) Hilarion is also sad and goes to Giselle’s grave only SURPRISE he gets captured by the Wilis and is forced to dance to his death. The queen of the Wilis then tries to get Giselle to join in killing Albrecht, which she should do as he’s directly responsible for her being dead, but unfortunately Giselle is as stupid in death as in life and instead saves Albrecht, thus losing her chance to live forever as a Wili. It’s hard to decide if this is a sad or happy ending but overall it’s a tremendously satisfying story.
SO: we have a NEW version of the ballet, which has taken some characters from the original and about five minutes of the music and dropped it into the tremendously powerful framework of this highly emotive production. I didn’t buy a program, so I’ll tell you what I thought was going on; some key moments were changed (or excised), so we are presented a much more original story that I felt was influenced both by modern fantasy drama (Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones) with a good solid sploosh of Japanese horror sloshed on top. Maybe the intent of the choreographer was NOT to change things in the ways I saw; but it was still a strong story which held the following elements intact: a love triangle, an independent heroine who is betrayed by her love, and death dealing fairies. The rest of it, well, to say it “diverged” was fair; but like good Shakespeare, a good ballet and its characters transcends one choreographer’s interpretation.
In a village somewhere, villagers, men and women, are dancing in front of a looming wall. The dancers’ moment is tribal rather than classical; the men spin and leap (and do backflips). Everything seems to have an air of gloom. These people are poor, and they seemed trapped somehow. One woman stands out amongst them, in part because two men are fighting over her affection. One seems devoted and protective; the other, arrogant.
Out of nowhere a ram’s horn sounds. The effect is eerie, otherworldly: the dancing stop. It is the call of the Wild Hunt. Suddenly, the wall behind the villagers begins to tilt and light flows from underneath it. A crack is forming between the worlds, and the immortal members of the Court of the Fae have chosen to walk out into the land of mortals. We see them, in their elaborate gowns, head dresses, damasks, and lace, silhouetted behind, and yet above, the shabby villagers. They are clearly above their petty concerns. One woman in the group stands out, in her body conscious top more Cretan goddess than human nobility; Giselle is fascinated by her clothing but refuses the glove the woman drops at her feet. Then one of her lovers returns … seemingly Albrecht, the member of the tribe of priveleged people, for he goes around attempting to make all of the villagers bow to the strange creatures. Giselle refuses, and the gentler man rushes to her defence, triggering a battle with Albrecht which Giselle attempts to break up. In the end Albrecht loses, and is stolen away by Bathilde, who seems to have enchanted him. His fate looks to be about as kind as that as the male of the Black Widow spiders when caught by a female member of their species. The Fae depart with their prey, and with Albrecht.
In the next scene, a long haired, blonde supernatural straight out of KwaiDan appears, a veil covering her face and a long slim stick in her hands. She is clearly Myrtha, queen of the Wilis. She looks to want to be taking Giselle to be one of her minions. But then Albrecht appears, and in a violent rage chokes Giselle to death. This prompts the rest of the evil fairies to come out of the darkness with their sticks and herd him into a small circle; then, finally, they kill him, hoisting him overhead like a village sacrifice. It is primal and frightening.
And, as it is the nature of this story, the kind and loving boyfriend shows up. Giselle loves him but as she is a ghost now he doesn’t seem to be able to touch her any more; still, she swoons in his presence. And when Myrtha give the order to kill, she refuses, somehow managing to protect him from the lesser fairies; eventually, it becomes a battle of the wills between Murtha and Giselle, and Giselle wins, driving Myrtha off of her toes, leaving her flat footed. Doing this, Giselle has given up her chance to live forever, but she has kept her ability to make choices about her own actions intact. She is incredibly powerful. As the act ends, we shiver at the naked power she has displayed; to stand against the supernatural at any cost, even beyond death. And with that, she is gone.
Now, I’ve probably got some things wrong because the diversion from the original story seems unlikely to have happened in the way I saw it … Giselle dies after Myrtha shows up? Albrecht is her true love? … but this is how it read to me. And I liked it. The dancing was not very balletic but the Wilis used their toes well to express their otherworldliness and the men were given the opportunity to really show off (although not as much as in a traditional Giselle where the two guys have to “dance to the death” for Myrtha). Frankly I found this an incredibly compelling tale of the supernatural and I enjoyed it a lot. Thank goodness it’s coming back – it deserves to be seen again and again.
(This review is for the opening night performance at Sadler’s Wells, which took place on Tuesday, November 14, 2016. It continues through Saturday night but returns in 2017.)