Before going to the press night of the English National Ballet’s Giselle, I took a late afternoon trip to the National Gallery. In between avoiding “Ugh. That bloody horse” (as I refer to it) and almost getting locked in, I stumbled across one of Degas’ famous ballerina paintings, Ballet Dancers (about 1890 – 1990, room 44). A neat precursor to the evening’s coming events, I thought at the time.
And in some ways it was, not least in the painted women’s soft blue romantic tutus echoed in the costume design for the Wilis. Yet rather than just mimic this most obvious piece of visual art, watching Mary Skeaping’s ballet is actually quite similar to taking a winding trip through the National Gallery as a whole.
Act One takes place in a bucolic village populated with smiling, buoyant peasants. There’s a bacchanalian glint providing by the annual wine festival taking place, but it’s the quality of the lighting (David Mohr) that really instils a sense of health-giving bliss. We are, as it happens, in the Rhineland, but the saturated glow of the stage is stolen straight from the Impressionists. You can find it in Cézanne’s Avenue at Chantilly (1888) in room 43 of the NG. Or, in particular, in The Avenue at the Jas de Bouffan (1868 -70, possibly later), which hangs alongside. It’s the light Monty Don identified in The Road to Le Tholonet as doing the job of a thousand SAD lamps (I write, with mine switched fully on to trick my body into imagining the existence of any daylight, let along Mediterranean daylight).
Along with Cézanne, there are also suggestions of the pomp of Tudor styling (seen if you scuttle next door to the NPG and check out the portraits from Henry VIII’s reign by Hans Holbein the Younger and others) in the clothes worn by the aristocrats when they arrive in the village to sample the wine. Then, in the delicately fading leaves adorning the stage and the rendering of a perfectly picturesque countryside (no cow poo in sight) the production also steps prissily into Gainsborough territory. In fact, with the baby blue of the dress worn by Giselle (Alina Cojocaru) we get both the fashions and rural idyll of Mr and Mrs Andrews (about 1750, room 35).
When Albrecht’s (Isaac Hernández) deception is revealed, the glorious light immediately dulls to a copper-tinted autumnal gloom. When the curtain lifts for Act Two the once picture-postcard world has been plunged into a Whistlerian fog (apologies, but you’ll need to head to Tate Britain for Nocturne: Blue and Gold – Old Battersea Bridge (1872 -5, room 1840)). Alternately, there’s a similarity to the palette of Leonardo’s perennially unsettling The Virgin of the Rocks (about 1491/2-9 and 1506-8, room 66).
Act Two is far more beguiling, both narratively and aesthetically than the first (Ruskin, were he alive, might disagree with me on that point). Laurretta Summerscales (possessor of one of the world’s most beautiful necks) is majestically stately as Myrtha, Queen of the Wilis; her movements are simultaneously cold and sensual, like mercury beads sliding over china.
Skeaping’s Giselle is, of course, The Original Giselle. Yet such was the impressiveness of Akram Khan’s new version for the ENB in 2016, it’s easy and tempting (perhaps helped by the programming order) to re-categorise this as ‘The Other Giselle’ and make Khan’s the benchmark. The heavy-hanging question in the Coliseum is: how do they compare? Asking this – and attempting to answer it – misses a vital point. Or rather it becomes a futile act. Skeaping’s romantic classic and Khan’s radical mechanistic rewrite are beautiful works of art in their own unique ways. Posing the question of how they compare is like asking how Turner and Picasso compare, when both artists just exist as exemplars of their own genre.
More than this, Khan’s is of course reliant on the existence of Skeaping’s earlier work and revisiting it in turn highlights even more the inventive genius of his new creation. This is particularly true of the scenes involving the Wilis, where direct links exist in the choreography of the pointe work and the undone ethereal costuming (in this production the Wilis arrive with long veils covering their faces, in Khan’s the same effect is achieved through long, untied hair).
One of the best parts of having free access public art galleries, is that you can choose each time you visit whether you’re in the mood for Abstract Expressionism or fourteen century religious iconography. Like with the two Giselles, it’s perfectly possible to appreciate both, even on separate days in the same week.
Or, if none of that entices, you could head back to the Tate and nurture a neck fetish with the Rossettis.
Giselle is on until 22 January 2017 at the London Coliseum. Click here for more details.