I came to this performance having read in Leanne Benjamin’s recently-published autobiography Built for Ballet the frank admission that, despite having danced Giselle all over the world, she never felt comfortable in the role. She then continued by referencing her admiration for the “extraordinary freedom” in Natalia Osipova’s interpretation. The latter has long ago convinced the ballet world at large to share Benjamin’s acclaim for her representation of one of ballet’s iconic roles and – on the evidence of this Royal Ballet opening night – Osipova has continued to push these boundaries further in a performance in which every second of her time on stage has been intelligently considered and finessed to bring a most extraordinary depth of meaning and emotion. Balletomanes often hark back to the greats of the past but here is a genuine great for today.

Natalia Osipova (Giselle)
© ROH | Alice Pennefather

Osipova’s consistent proficiency of technique – a steel piston inside a silk sheath – underpins the excellence of her performance but the nearness to perfection comes from her quality and journey of expression, particularly in the first act, which draws us inexorably into her dilemma and the path that we know will lead to Giselle’s suicide. Some interpreters dance before acting out the illness of a weak heart, but Osipova integrates that human weakness into her movements at the end of key phrases. She is living the role and no matter how many times we have seen the ballet, never has it been performed quite like this and that is because Osipova somehow manages to bring this unique freedom to overlay an unalloyed command of her technique. Nowhere is this clearer than in the so-called “mad” scene, to which Osipova brings a painfully slow, unfolding dramatic burn that is refreshingly different from any other interpretation.

The musical tempo is always an essential requirement for every ballerina and if there are fifty words for snow in the Inuit languages then there are at least that many ways for a ballerina to express slow in ballet and I think that Osipova may have many more. Adolphe Adam’s wonderful score was stretched and stretched again under Boris Gruzin’s direction to meet the requirements of his lead ballerina.

Natalia Osipova (Giselle) and Reece Clarke (Albrecht)
© ROH | Alice Pennefather

There was an immediate adorable connection between Osipova and Reece Clarke, her Albrecht, and the chemistry between them was palpable. Osipova’s Giselle presented all the excitement and shyness of a young girl who has fallen head-over-heels in love. Clarke danced with an outstanding vigour (the consistency of height in his multiple entrechats as Albrecht is being danced to death by the Wilis deservedly triggered spontaneous applause throughout the House) but he was unvaryingly aristocratic even when masquerading as the commoner, Loys. There was no need for Hilarion to suspect his aristocratic background when Albrecht attempts to draw a sword that is not there during their first argument because an unmistakeable noble bearing was there throughout. 

There was another outstanding connection between Osipova and Elizabeth McGorian, as Giselle’s mother, Berthe; another performance that has shaped the rich tradition of mime and expression into a personal work of art. Lukas Braendsrød gave a solid account of Hilarion, the local woodsman whose intentions towards Giselle have been thwarted by Albrecht’s duplicity, although I didn’t fully feel the desperation of his doomed resistance against the vengeance of the Wilis. Cristina Arestis played the pivotal role of Bathilde to perfection: so cold, bored and arrogant that we easily understand why Albrecht would fall for the free-spirited Giselle.

Mayara Magri (Myrtha)
© ROH | Alice Pennefather

The second act belonged, as ever, to the Wilis and the corps de ballet were thoroughly convincing as they hopped on one leg in arabesque, advancing in opposite rows that seemingly passed ethereally through one another and one must praise the coaching of Samantha Raine in the strength of this accomplishment. Mayara Magri was icily imperious as their Queen, proudly supported by Claire Calvert and Melissa Hamilton as her attendants. It’s a minor quibble but when the Wilis are lined at the side of the stage, facing into the wings, posed in arabesque, the varying all-sorts in the angles of their raised legs temporarily spoiled the uniformity that had gone before. There were other minor imperfections that stood out against the otherwise all-around excellence. Yuhui Choe and Luca Acri’s duet in the pas de six was superb but something went awry early in the synchronicity of the male duet and it wasn’t recovered. The second presage lift in the Act 2 pas de deux was not correctly balanced and Osipova had to grab her partner’s shoulders in order not to fall forward.

These are minor defects that simply prove the multiple complexities of this wonderful ballet that frankly has never looked better than in John Macfarlane’s subtle but important revisions (in 2011) to his original designs for Peter Wright’s masterful production, which has found the apotheosis of interpretation in the remarkable performance by a truly great ballerina.