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Cullberg Ballet

‘Giselle’

August 1999
Edinburgh, Playhouse Theatre

by Lynette Halewood


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An Ek retrospective, with the Cullberg Ballet performing Giselle, a triple bill and Sleeping Beauty, forms one of the major dance programmes at this yearís Edinburgh Festival. There had been quantities of publicity about Mats Ekís version of Giselle beforehand, along the lines of the revolutionary nature of its approach and its radical reworking of the story.

In the event, I was surprised at just how much of the original characters and storyline is preserved: the concentration of the publicists on the setting of the second act in an asylum ignores the retention of most of the characters and plot of act 1, and also the retention of the original score - recorded music, rather than a live orchestra. However, the Festival wishes to become more Ďcutting edgeí in its dance presentations in future, so it is possibly these aspects they wish to stress. Since the creation of this Giselle in 1982, we have become accustomed here in Britain to reworkings of many classic works in one way or other: perhaps what seemed so radical then doesnít seem quite so shocking now.

Act 1 in fact is a fairly conventional retelling of the story, minus some of the peripheral roles, but with other roles expanded. Giselleís mother does not appear, but Batilde and Hilarion are given rather more prominence, and the effect is to broaden out the story and to make us aware of the damage done to other protagonists, not just Giselle. For once, the peasants actually look like people who are used to hard manual work - no light hearted dancing around all day for them. The aristocrats are costumed in evening dress, and the tension between them and the peasantry is quite palpable: there is no deference here, just a sullen resentment.

Itís still difficult at times to watch without memories of the traditional Giselle flashing across your mind, particularly at pivotal moments. Ek can and does make beautiful phrases, and the dancers are excellent: but he can also make movements which seem quite deliberately twisted and ugly, like Hilarionís wriggling across the stage on his hands and feet towards the aristocrats, done to the lovely movement of Giselleís hopping variation.

Gunilla Hammar was a gawky, naive and almost child-like Giselle: we first see her quite literally at the end of her tether, flailing around at the end of a rope. Her response to Albrechtís interest is effusive and almost out of control: her pathetic desire for affection was both embarrassing and touching. All the dancers seemed very familiar with their roles and experienced in and committed to Ekís style of movement, but her acting was by far the best of the principal roles.

As Albrecht, George Elkin danced very strongly, but I was never much engaged with his character or his fate, and Iím not sure whether that is down to the dancer or Ekís conception. The confrontation between Giselle, Albrecht and Batilde gave much more prominence than the traditional version to Batilde and her feelings: in the end, one could hardly blame Albrecht for choosing Batilde instead of this half-mad, flailing, grunting girl. (It was a fairly noisy performance.)

As a character, Albrecht remained something of a cipher, and this was even more unsatisfactory in the second act. He returns to visit Giselle in the asylum, where he pursues her and finally reaches some kind of reconciliation. Although the dances for the white clad asylum women are very strong, and there are many fine individual performances here, the concept as a whole just didnít carry the sense of menace and threat implicit in the music, which rose to climaxes that seemed quite unrelated to what was taking place. Giselle relinquishes Albrecht and returns to the safety of her asylum, but a sense of redemption is somehow lacking, and Albrechtís sudden collapse naked cowering on the floor didnít quite ring true emotionally. It was hard to believe he cared that much. Nevertheless, in dance terms the second act was powerful stuff for the women, and put across with great force.

Although ticket sales had initially been poor, the audience reached reasonable numbers in the cavernous Edinburgh Playhouse, and gave the dancers a warm reception. Another Giselle to add to this yearís tally: next along is a new production for BRB this autumn.

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