A bumper fortnight for Covent Garden florists thanks to a 20th-anniversary flower shower for the Royal Ballet’s Marianela Nunez and bales of bouquets to mark major debuts by new(ish) principals Francesca Hayward and Yasmine Naghdi.
Giselle, the timid village beauty whose ghost returns to forgive her duplicitous lover, was never an obvious vehicle for Nunez’s sunny virtuosity, but she has always had absolute command of the role’s fiendish mix of crisp footwork and melting lines. Naghdi and Hayward both gave polished, intensely felt performances, their innate musicality enhanced by Koen Kessels’s responsive handling of the Adam score.
Hayward is marked for misery from the moment she opens the cottage door. Giselle loves to dance — she has a special mime that tells us so — but she isn’t a show-off and Hayward strikes exactly the right note of bashful bravura. Her exquisite feet frisk through the Act One variations with happy facility and her thistledown elevation makes her an eerily insubstantial ghost, wafting free of Alexander Campbell’s yearning arms.
Albrecht isn’t like other boys. Better bred, better fed, the slumming aristocrat in disguise observes the Act One peasant festivities with a sardonic, anthropologist’s eye. He learns their steps but he still has an alien glamour that sets him apart. This isn’t a crude matter of height — heroes come in a range of sizes — nor even mere grooming. The Royal Ballet’s lost star Sergei Polunin danced Albrecht in Moscow during one of his skinhead phases and still managed to convince as a posh boy on the prowl.
Alexander Campbell excels in comic roles but he struggled to convince as either the infatuated puppy or the broken-hearted lover purified by suffering and remorse. He partnered strongly but his gestures lacked emphasis and he gave Hayward little to work with.
Matthew Ball, who debuted the following lunchtime, couldn’t match Campbell’s clean account of the steps but made an ardent and utterly believable Albrecht. The early games of kiss-chase had a real sexual charge, as if he couldn’t wait to get Giselle in his embrace. Ball has a nice clean-and-jerk lift and frequent pairing with Naghdi enables him to shadow her line with meticulous grace. His jumps were juicy and although his beaten steps were fudged (counting entrechats is vulgar, luckily for him) he managed to give the sense of a man being danced to death without actually running out of puff.
Leading cast changes can be thrilling, but giving everyone a turn in secondary roles, while generous-spirited, can turn the delicious Act One pas de six into a bit of a curate’s egg. Casting principal dancers helps (Naghdi and Campbell were both terrific on the opening night) and James Hay, for whom there is simply no such thing as a minor role, brought a blast of starlight to his scene-stealing solo.
Myrtha, Queen of Act Two’s avenging battalion of Wilis, demands a rippling pas de bourrée and a massive, heat-seeking jump. Mayara Magri and Fumi Kaneko possess both, together with a commanding stage presence that lets us know who is in charge of this scary woodland deathtrap.
More wronged women, more remorseful men in Christopher Wheeldon’s 2014 production of A Winter’s Tale. It’s a dour and difficult story and despite Bob Crowley’s handsome, action-packed designs, and acres of fine dancing, it remains a hard ballet to love and cries out for a sympathetic pruning.
Joby Talbot’s quirky, folk-inflected score has plenty of sounding brass but fails to fuel the big emotional reversals and never finds the lyrical sweep needed for Leontes’s reconciliation with his ‘dead’ queen.
Great dance acting can rise above these weaknesses. Ryoichi Hirano, in a shattering debut, showed a man eaten alive by his groundless suspicions, elegant lines snapped and distorted by his toxic delusions. His cruelty revolts us but Laura Morera’s sternly forgiving Paulina teaches us to pity rather than condemn.
Wheeldon’s ugly cat-and-mouse duets for Leontes and the pregnant Hermione (a luminous Lauren Cuthbertson) make dramatic sense but this novelty pairwork becomes wearisome in the pastoral second act. Perdita finds love with the son of her father’s ex-friend and expresses her joy by clamping herself around his shoulders in unlikely attitudes like a sex-starved bush baby. Happily, the spun-sugar Sarah Lamb and the effortlessly virtuosic Vadim Muntagirov transcend the acrobatics, making silk purses from the unlikeliest materials.