It is doubtful that any other ballet company has two versions of Giselle in its repertoire let alone that it would risk performing both productions within weeks of one another. But, under Tamara Rojo’s innovative and inspired artistic leadership, English National Ballet has just completed this highly unusual, if not unique, double. Hot on the heels of the acclaimed success of Akram Khan’s modern interpretation of the tragic tale of love and loss comes a brief season of Mary Skeaping’s quintessential interpretation of the most enduring ballet of the Romantic age.

Alina Cojocaru (Giselle) and Isaac Hernández (Albrecht) © Laurent Liotardo
Alina Cojocaru (Giselle) and Isaac Hernández (Albrecht)
© Laurent Liotardo

While Khan has produced a Giselle for today with its focus on the exploitation of migrant workers, the Skeaping Giselle is the exact opposite, being more closely related to the original ballet - first danced in 1841 - than any other in present-day performance, around the world. Skeaping (who died in 1984) gave more dramaturgical context to the events of act one, which are centred around celebrating the wine harvest; using these rustic festivities to underscore the developing relationship between Giselle and Albrecht, the duplicitous aristocrat masquerading as a village newbie, named Loys.   

Mime is essential to Skeaping’s production – as it should be for any Giselle – and here, it is delivered with pristine clarity, thanks in large measure to the excellent mimetic skill of Jane Haworth (Giselle’s mother, Berthe), Stina Quagebeur (Albrecht’s fiancée, Bathilde), Grant Rae (Squire Wilfred) and Fernando Bufalá (Giselle’s frustrated suitor, Hilarion). There were also rich characterisations to be observed in the background interactions between the various villagers –amongst whom James Streeter was an evident livewire – and the Court followers in the Prince of Courland’s retinue. This first act also includes a splendid peasant pas de deux, danced both elegantly and ebulliently by Rina Kanehara and the irrepressible Cesar Corrales.

Alina Cojocaru (Giselle) and Jane Haworth (Giselle's mother) © Laurent Liotardo
Alina Cojocaru (Giselle) and Jane Haworth (Giselle's mother)
© Laurent Liotardo

The reason Giselle has retained such global popularity over the past century lies in the Romantic ideal of love surviving death. The second act, in the midnight woodland domain of the Wilis (ghosts of jilted brides), led by their malevolent queen, Myrtha, provides the quintessential representation of Romantic ballet and the performance of the ENB corps de ballet on this opening night was scintillating in its mix of perceived ethereality and very real rigour. These Wilis moved as one in their breathtaking, regimented harmony. It is a great credit to the dancers and their coaches to have achieved such superb cohesion in the margins of delivering 50 performances of The Nutcracker, over the Christmas season.

There are many more men out late-at-night, in Skeaping’s woods, and the Wilis are kept (literally) on their toes. Their devotion to the cause of revenge has much to do with the steely, imperious reign of their queen, here danced with great strength and resolute determination by Laurretta Summerscales: an ice-cold, mesmerising Myrtha to rival the very best. Senri Kou (Zulma) and Crystal Costa (Moyna) provided sterling support as the queen's attendants.

Alina Cojocaru (Giselle) and Isaac Hernández (Albrecht) © Laurent Liotardo
Alina Cojocaru (Giselle) and Isaac Hernández (Albrecht)
© Laurent Liotardo
Isaac Hernández brought a refreshing reading to the role of Albrecht. His perfidy is masked by a coltish exuberance that downplays faithlessness in favour of an air of the innocent abroad; an attitude that perhaps better explains the rapid journey to maturity, through grief, that takes his Albrecht into the tender afterlife encounter with the gossamer spectre of Giselle.  

And, just how does Alina Cojocaru achieve such a transcendental apparition of fantasy? Every moment of Giselle’s journey bristles with authenticity and artistry in Cojocaru’s interpretation: the delicacy of her physical well-being; the boundless joy when presented with Bathilde’s necklace; the myriad emotions that culminate in the most heartrending “mad” scene; the magical illusion of her incorporeal being as a newly-indentured member of the Wilis, aligned to the tenderness of her spiritual love for Albrecht. This, the greatest love of all, transcending the grave, was danced so beautifully by Cojocaru and Hernández that it brought chills and tingles to the spine. 

And a final bouquet must go to Gavin Sutherland and the exceptional, hard-working ENB Philharmonic for a sensitive, sublime performance of Adolphe Adam’s timeless music. The composer asserted that he had sketched the score in just one week; although the eminent dance historian, Ivor Guest, having conducted a detailed examination of the original 1841 manuscripts, identified entries that began on 11 April and ended on 8 June. There is a fascinating synergy in the expedient delivery of Adam’s best-known composition with that of Vincenzo Lamagna and Sutherland, himself, who are reputed to have composed and orchestrated the score for Khan’s Giselle in less than a fortnight.

This was a first-class, five-star evening made even more exceptional by the extra gift of Cojocaru’s masterclass. To see Cojocaru dance Giselle is one of the great cultural bucket-list items of our time.