Giselle is normally a ballet more bucolic that all the chocolate box villages of Britain put together. Mary Skeaping’s version, performed by the English National Ballet, exemplifies this, serving up delicate beribboned maidens one after the other. Part of the horror of the tragic storyline – and the jump between Edenic bliss and the ghostly realm of the Willis – hinges on understanding of Giselle as a sweet, deeply loved-up and naïve girl cruelly treated by the callous Albrecht.
Akram Kahn’s masterpiece (not too strong a word) radically slashed through this frothy aesthetic, situating the ballet in a dystopian sweatshop where the workers are always on the verge of being brutally crushed by their Hunger Games style overlords. Ludovic Ondiviela’s new version for Ballet Ireland takes a similarly bold approach. It might not contain the same level of expertly evocative beauty or emotion, but this stylish and modernised staging similarly shuns gentle greenery and set pieces in the marketplace in favour of a blue and silver-tinted urban environment.
The most overt rewrite to the original is [spoiler alert] to have Giselle die of a fatal stab wound, instead of the classic ‘broken heart’. Seized by jealousy at the palpable attraction between Giselle (Ryoko Yagyu) and Albrecht (Rodolfo Saraiva), Bathilde (Ana Enriquez-Gonzalez) cannily stabs her rival in a group brawl. If nothing else, this immediately gives Bathilde a more interesting role than she is afforded in the traditional set-up, where she remains an oddly silent figure, spotted in brief moments to remind the audience of the prince’s fate in marrying her and not Giselle.
It kick-starts a series of dramatically rich and often very fun scenes, starting with the interrogation room of a police station. In its use of settings more familiar to film or television shows than classical ballet, Ondiviela’s Giselle visually resembles a modern opera or staged musical more than the ballets we’re used to seeing. With groups of teenagers loitering around town together, graffiting their crushes’ names on walls and dressing in almost-uniform outfits, the piece as a whole takes on a bit of a West Side Story or Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo and Juliet vibe.
It’s also – and this is one of the best things about it – enjoyably gothic, especially after the interval. Giselle’s dead body, fresh from having been dolled-up by the make-up artist morticians, is half-caressed and half-manhandled by her distraught former love interests until it resembles a bedraggled rag doll dragged along the pavement by a very loving but very careless toddler. The Willis, meanwhile, emerge from a line of upright concrete partitioned spaces – sort of like a cross between post-war public conveniences and Anne Rice coffin beds. Yagyu, performing as the barely-awakened Giselle, starts her afterlife dance with stilted angular movements that can only be described as zombie-like.
The whole thing is very enjoyable to watch, even if it might not excite the fans of traditional ballet, but the most interesting thing is how it subtly rewrites the role of Giselle herself. There’s no cutesy blushing maid on stage here. Instead, there’s a young woman who knows exactly what she wants (Albrecht) and what she doesn’t want (Hilarion). It’s just so terrible she ends up dead for it.
Giselle by Ballet Ireland is on at Dance Base until 19 August 2018. Click here for more details.