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An Ode to Romanticism: The Royal Ballet’s Giselle Review

Written by Sophie Jones

The gossamer veils, delicate tutus and pointe shoes glisten in the wings as Adolphe Adam’s score soars above to the very tops of the Amphitheatre of the Royal Opera House… 

Last Wednesday I went to see the Royal Ballet’s latest production of Giselle. A haunting balletic tale of first love, loss and forgiveness, the ballet is beloved within the classical repertoire and a signature piece for the Royal Ballet. 

Giselle is a Romantic ballet of two acts, with music conducted by Adolphe Adam. First performed in Paris in 1841 with Carlotta Grisi as Giselle, the ballet has been a classic in the repertoire of many companies ever since. 

Sir Peter Wright’s original 1985 production revives Petipa and Coralli’s original choreography into a sublime display of artistic finesse. The choreography of Giselle is centred around magnificent grand allegro, with grand jetes (a type of leap) being predominant. Whether you catch this in the buoyant and sprightly jumps of Giselle in Act I or the sorrowful jumps of Albrecht in Act II (who is dancing near pure exhaustion, both as a dancer and as his character) these magnificent leaps become our main focus as the action unfolds. The corps de ballet (a group as the ‘body of the ballet’) offers an enchanting display of haunting and synchronised technique which holds Giselle together. The corps express her suffering and betrayal through soft but also stoically controlled movements which stand in defiance against the men who have transgressed the ballet’s heroine. 

The haunting, spectre-like ballet follows Giselle’s transition from innocence to experience. The first act opens in a quaint country village in Germany and intrigue immediately emerges as the nobleman Albrecht (danced by Marcelino Sambé) clothes himself as a peasant in order to intercept village-life. He begins by knocking on Giselle’s door – a playful scheme to flatter his pride – and Giselle (danced by Sarah Lamb) makes her first, iconic entrance; performing sprightly pique jumps, which capture her light spirit and kind-heartedness.

Sarah Lamb as Giselle in Act I
Picture credit: Royal Ballet

As activities for the harvest season take place, we see an array of dances and exciting activities displayed and Giselle continues to fall deeply in love with Albrecht. Sarah Lamb brings so much innocence, joy and lightness to the role that as you watch her, particularly in her Act I solos, we catch glimpses of a young woman who has fallen in love for the first time. 

In the final part of Act I, we see Giselle descend into madness as Albrecht’s ‘real identity’ and engagement to a noblewoman are revealed. Devastated, Giselle dies of a broken heart and descends into an unknown realm, revealed in Act II.

The second act opens to the ethereal, other-worldly realm of the Wilis, maidens who have died after the betrayals of their loved ones. The Wilis take revenge by dancing men to death by exhaustion. This act opens with Myrtha, the haunting yet delicate queen of the Wilis who enters onto the stage with a succession of captivating bourrées (small steps) in different directions. 

Gina Storm-Jensen danced Myrtha and projected her haunting yet protective stage presence. As the rest of the Wilis enter, the scene of the quaint German village vanishes and we descend into a realm of woe and heartbreak.  

The corps the ballet (group) as Willis
Picture credit: Royal Ballet

The gossamer veils and tutus, in an ethereal white, the delicate wings which adorn the backs of each Wilis create an atmosphere of haunting. The Wilis, although forbidding, are also protecting Giselle. They guard her against Albrecht who hopes to be reunited with his love beyond the grave. However, it is forgiveness that transcends through this final act as the intimate, sorrowful pas de deux (dance duet) between Giselle and Albrecht convey Giselle’s sacrifice and forgiveness for the man who betrayed her. 

Albrecht repents for his sins, and although the two are parted at the ballet’s close when Albrecht clasps onto the fragile petals of the strewn bower which Giselle has left behind, he ruminates on his love, her strength, her forgiveness, and by protecting Albrecht and saving him, Giselle saves herself from becoming one of the Wilis.

Written by Sophie Jones