They were Wilis with evil intent, unimaginably scary as they encircled their prey. Their bodies bowed and their arms crooked across their faces, elbows pointing out in front. Woe betides any hapless young man who entered their domain after midnight! There were 24 of them, identical in white tarlatans which picked up a pale earthen green shade in the dim lighting, giving off the impression of having lain in their graves for some time. But whatever their intent, they danced with perfect synchronicity, musically and choreographically, and in well-drilled straight lines. These ghostly creatures were the highpoint of the evening.

This production of Giselle by the National Ballet of Cuba was one of many works on show by the company and foreign guests during the ten days long 24th International Festival of Ballet in Havana. It also celebrated, to the day, the 71st anniversary of the première of a young ballerina, Alicia Alonso in the leading role when she danced it with the Ballet Theatre of New York (now American Ballet Theater). After a highly successful career and, despite sight problems that began when she was just 19, Madame Alonso went on to establish ballet in Cuba, creating a world class company and school, thanks to much financial help from then President Castro. She staged her own version of Giselle during a period when she was confined to lie prostrate in bed for a year, visualizing every role and step in her mind, even the sets and costumes she wanted. She continued to dance well into her 70s, and was acclaimed over the years for her own portrayal of Giselle, said to be her finest role, Sadly for her guests here in Havana, Madame Alonso, now 94 years old and completely blind, was unable to attend the Festival festivities due to poor health.

This time also, the impressive Gran Teatro de la Habana is closed for renovations and the two-a-day performances have been staged at other theatres around the city. Giselle was performed in the more bland and contemporary Teatro Nacional, whose temperature inside the auditorium would have delighted a polar bear. The orchestra, under the baton of Giovanni Duarte, alas was pretty poor with some awful scrapings in the violin section. Many instruments are old and in need of expert repair, but the Maestro pulled out as much talent as he could.

The production has an old-fashioned feel to it. The peasants are definitely peasants here, dressed in homely woody colours of brown, green and yellow, with greased and matted hair, and lots of make-up. But they danced well, especially the boys, who joyfully leaped in competition with each other. Albrecht was clearly out of place in his disguise of a tan leather gherkin, a fact pointed out by Hilarion to the villagers when about to denounce him. Contrasting were the garments of the nobility in garish multi-coloured displays of turquoise, magenta, bold red and deep blue velvets. The Prince of Courtland himself sported a woolly beard – the kind children put on when dressing up – which took away from his authority somewhat. The villagers entertained the regal entourage, with some nice but crowded dancing – at one point there must have been over forty bodies moving around outside the minuscule cottage of Giselle and her mother. When Giselle had her mad scene, she had to rush in and out of them all, which added to her confusion.

Taking the role of Giselle was one of the company’s favourite ballerinas, Anette Delgado who has performed it countless times before. She is proficient in her technique and doesn’t show off technically like some ballerinas, but she didn’t seem to charm the (foreign) audience, as she should. Her acting was so-so and her dancing textbook clean, yet her performance lacked fire. There were a couple of wow moments in the first act—when she added doubles to her diagonal of piqué turns, and when she made her final run to Albrecht and slithered to the floor speedily before he could embrace her. (The Cubans loved that and at the very moment there should be stunned silence at the death of the young heroine, they were cheering wildly.)

Her Albrecht was Dani Hernandez, a clean-cut young man, tall and slim, with a pleasing technique – good beats, jumps and turns. But his college boy looks were at such odds to the homely peasants that he had no hopes of blending in.

Hilarion was danced by Ernesto Diaz, and he first was presented as a bashful lover of Giselle, too timid to leave his offering of wild flowers at her cottage door, and hiding them from the other villagers when they asked him what he was doing. In the second act, sent to his death by the Wilis, he displayed some strong jumps.

The second act, as has been mentioned, belonged to the Wilis, the ethereal ghosts of girls wronged by their lovers. Their Queen, Myrtha was danced by Amaya Rodriguez who polished off some fantastic silent bourées, covering the floor with speed, the body held serenely still while the feet moved as though on smooth ball bearings. There are some fun extras in this production: when she calls up the Wilis from their grave, two appear, covered with veils and bent over like old persons. They are quickly dismissed and the whole corps de ballet appears to perform in spectral unison in their splendid linear formations. And there is Giselle’s final return back into the grave, where she sinks down half in the wings and suddenly is pulled from unseen handlers making it look as though she were sucked down into the depths. The two solo Wilis – Estheysis Meniendez and Dayesi Torriente – impressed with their fluidity, especially Torriente, whose jumps seem to hover in the air.

Delgado showed off some pleasing controlled technique in this act but never really tugged the heartstrings of her watching public. Hernandez made a caring and sorrowful lover, repentant for his early treatment of her and finding peace at the end.