Giselle, the Gothic-Romantic iconic classical ballet of love, betrayal and forgiveness is one of the few ballets to have come down to us from the 19th century. This version by Varna, the Bulgarian International Ballet company founded in 1947, follows the traditional choreography of Coralli and Perrot, reworked by Marius Petita and now Leonid Lavrovsky revised by Sergei Bobrov to the original music by Adolphe Adam. This is one of a series of ballets they are bringing on their first tour of the UK.
What audiences come for, of course, is the gothic Act Two
There is a charmingly old-fashioned feel to this production, especially the set in the first act with its backdrop of a Rhineland turreted castle on a hill like a 19th century oil painting. The story is irredeemably sexist, despite giving the female soloist’s part to a peasant girl, shocking in its day (1841) and there have been various feminist or otherwise reworkings. Giselle is passive and sadomasochistic in her self-sacrifice, committing suicide and later forgiving her betrayer. But really who cares? What audiences come for, of course, is the gothic Act Two with the eerie wraiths, the Wilis, ghosts of betrayed brides who haunt the graveyard and are out for vengeance on duplicitous lovers.
Varna’s second act has everything: precision dancing from the corps de ballet in identical long white tutus, exquisite pattern-making over the stage and expert solos from the two main Wilis, Agnese Di Dio Masa and Andrea Conforti. The grey backdrop of headstones and crosses also has a suitably 19th century feel. There is a surprising addition of animations of Wilis floating across the backdrop, finally to sink back into their graves. Giselle (Anastasia Lebedyk) is delicate and graceful in the first act, but in the second her many solos which require much strength and endurance are amazingly graceful. The cad, Count Albrecht (Marco Di Salvo) also excels in impressive leaps. However, there is little chemistry between them until the very end when he shows remorse and she shows forgiveness.
Overall Act Two is superb and certainly worth waiting for. Unfortunately, there is Act One to get through first. Starting with a male, for no good reason walking across the stage (not dancing) - we have no idea who he is, though later discover he is Hans, aka Hilarion, (Federico Farina) Giselle’s intended. Later there is much miming, little dance except for the pleasant enough peasant girls. It is almost painfully dull. Varna make the best of it with eye-catching costumes for the aristocrats, in particular the black costume with red vertical embellishments worn by Albrecht’s fiancée, Countess Bathilde, (Giulia Visallii) who gives us a magnificent imperious walk. It is quite baffling why most companies continue to perform Act One though interesting from a ballet historian’s point of view.