Unlike some contemporary Giselle being performed in the West, National Ballet of China’s version harks back to the delicacy and romance of the 1841 original. The choreography performed at Beijing’s NCPA last Friday was strikingly beautiful, wonderfully capturing the profound emotion of the piece. 

Early in 2014 National Ballet Artistic Director Feng Ying revived the Anton Dolin 1940 restaging of the original Coralli / Perrot version (revisited by Petipa), with a few modifications. In her adaptation, Feng aimed to preserve the original style, beauty and romance of the French ballet. It certainly paid off.

As Giselle, Wang Qimin was animated and sweet. She lit up beside Ma Xiaodong’s Albrecht, loving the attention – they made a very playful pair. She was quick and delicate throughout their pas de deux, while he played the strong support and light-footed lover in equal measure. Many little choreographic details allowed space for the pair to flirt outrageously without slowing the story.

The act one soloists seemed oddly paired. They moved nicely enough together but their partnering was not strong. Their arms wobbled visibly as he supported her in arabesque – they were too close together. Zhang Xi’s arms swung about as if detached from his body, and at some moments he didn’t seem able to jump high enough (his feet not fully pointed beneath him). But Zhan Xinlu moved beautifully alone, her footwork crystal clear, her poise graceful if a little rigid, and her port de bras steeped in elegance.

Shi Liyang acted the authoritative yet anxious mother wonderfully. Her disapproving looks put both of Giselle’s lovers in their place when they attempted to enter the house. Her mother’s unfaltering concern – checking her daughter’s heart rate, mopping her brow and generally insisting she should not dance – rendered Giselle’s death inevitable. From the first instant they interacted, it became clear that this girl was constantly attempting to defy a weak heart by taking risks she knew she ought not to take.

Giselle’s death was all the more tragic for its plausibility  – reliving their pas de deux, her hair and eyes wild, she saw and yet did not see Albrecht. Her strong spirit restricted by a frail body was obvious rationale for a believable death.

Act two was marvellous – I couldn’t imagine a better rendering of the Wilies. Qiu Yunting floated back and forth across the stage, her footwork perfect throughout Myrtha’s opening solo. The corps seemed rather appropriately zombie-like as they stepped deliberately into the frame of the proscenium, leaning forward with their heads bowed and shrouded in veils. They filled the stages as a sea of brilliant white. 

Wang and Ma made an even more convincing couple in their somber state, desperately clinging to love and life; Giselle’s weakness became strength after death and the cockiness in Albrecht’s gait dissipated with his sincere efforts to impress Myrtha. Prima Ballerina Wang’s flawless footwork seemed even more impressive knowing that Friday’s performance was her first after a serious knee injury. Myrtha was icily forbidding, her iron will in refusing the exhausted Albrecht wonderfully conveyed by her flat palm and straight, outstretched arm directed at him as she looked the other way.

Act two soloists Lu Di and Fang Mengying, who both danced brilliantly, stood out from the crowd. But they did not stand out – they fit perfectly into the vast group of identical, exactly aligned Wilies, who moved as a single entity (excepting only the impression that they were half an inch taller than the rest). 

One can really see a tangible Russian influence on this Chinese company through their impeccably straight backs and the near regimental lines of dancers during larger corps sections. They were arranged so perfectly that all the Wilies looked exactly the same height. The dancers displayed such clear footwork, despite enormous speed of some sections, that it was tempting to watch only their feet.

This performance resonates profoundly; National Ballet of China set the bar extremely high with their Giselle. Feng Ying’s adapted choreography indeed preserves the beauty of the original while adding revealing touches of humour and emotion to several of the characters’ relationships. The overall performance was incredibly touching, technically impressive and incredibly memorable.