Two archetypal ballet heroines have been facing each other across WC2: at the Coliseum, Giselle the blameless virgin, wronged in the first act, disembodied in the second; at Covent Garden, Manon the seductive, manipulative courtesan who can’t choose between love and money. Both in different ways are victims of a cruel world, and both must die. The men responsible for their downfall – of course – survive.
Mary Skeaping’s staging of Giselle for the English National Ballet, first seen in 1971, divides opinion among the cognoscenti. It reverts to what is known about the original 1841 Paris production, retrieving a substantial episode of expository mime – that will baffle modern audiences – as well as some musical interpolations of questionable taste (notably a flat-footed fugue assigned to the ghostly Wilis that sounds and looks weirdly out of key). Giselle’s two-faced lover, Albrecht, is also more sympathetically presented than in other iterations, which means that, with all reference to Giselle’s fragile mental and physical health removed, her sudden collapse when his deceit is revealed becomes that much less plausible.
These are negatives in the eyes of some sticklers, but even the grouchiest find it hard to deny the romantically evocative beauty of David Walker’s designs, the overall clarity of the narrative or the stylistic coherence of the choreography. ENB honours these virtues lovingly. The cast that I saw was led by Katja Khaniukova in the title-role and Francesco Gabriele Frola as Albrecht; she was too insipid in the first act to leave much of an impression, and he lacks the overtly aristocratic presence to suggest the character’s ducally entitled nature. But both of them raised their game considerably in the spectral second act – Khaniukova pure of line, Frola fleet of foot – as the corps of Wilis, ably commanded by a regal Alison McWhinney, conjured up the poetic nocturne at the heart of this ballet’s enduring appeal.
I guess I’ve seen Kenneth MacMillan’s Manon at least 20 times since its première in 1974 and although I continue to squirm at its interludes of knockabout comedy, I steadfastly rank it as a work of irresistible emotional power, offering magnificent opportunities for great dancers to chart the trajectory of a turbulent relationship through four electrifying pas de deux.