Tuesday, 18 January 2011

Heart-breaking romance

As if that glorious piano recital last week was not enough, I was able to follow it up on Friday with a tremendous performance of “Giselle” at Covent Garden… Admittedly I cry easily (it runs in the family), but I was in tears several times during the evening. At Leanne Benjamin’s subtle, beautiful performance, at the fate of poor, hapless Hilarion (Johannes Stepanek in terrific form), and at the final, utter romantic sadness of the end.

“Giselle” is one of the oldest ballets in the repertoire – I think I’m right in saying that – and is rather different from the other big classics. It runs to two longish acts instead of three mid-length ones; its heroine dies halfway through, giving the dancer portraying her the chance to do both living passionate girl and feather-light ghost; and its principal male character is totally unheroic, in fact he’s a louse.

I’m very glad to have seen Edward Watson dancing Count Albrecht. He may not have quite the technical caroumph of some of the other blokes in the company, but he seems to agree with my opinion of Albrecht’s character, and that is undeniably satisfying; seeing him played as a romantic hero has always made me distinctly uncomfortable.

Watson does nasty people rather well. I’m sure he’s a perfectly nice chap, but as a performer he does seem to specialise in obsessive lovers and tormented types. His Albrecht is blithely self-centred, enjoying his ability to seduce a pretty girl with happy thoughtlessness. You can really believe, when Giselle falls dead, that this is the first time he has ever had to deal with the consequences of his actions, or had to see the fact that his behaviour is selfish – and his immediate reaction is to lash out at someone else. By the end of his night of terror with the wilis, protected only by Giselle’s unfaltering devotion, he looks a wreck, wild-eyed and half-insane, and you sense he’ll never be quite the same again – not so much redeemed by the experience of love as shattered by it.

Leanne Benjamin isn’t one of the RB’s big names, but she is a dancer who knocks my socks off. She’s into her forties now; every season I fear she’ll retire quietly when I’m not looking - and I’ll miss her combination of fiery intensity and grace dreadfully when she finally goes. She was a terrific Giselle, her tiny physique perfect for the character of the frail girl longing to live life to the full and completely in denial about her ill-health. Albrecht’s betrayal literally crushes her; she seems to shrink as though the shock actually sucks the life force out of her, and her mad scene is painfully real. Her return in Act 2 both is and is not the same girl; the same loving personality, but now with a presence of the most weightless etheriality.

The rest of the cast was, as it were, batting right down the order – Deirdre Chapman as Giselle’s anxious mother, Gary Avis a bluff, well-meaning Duke, Yuhui Choe gorgeous doubling as a Pas de six peasant girl and a wili, Itziar Mendizabal an imperious Myrtha, nailing every jump, her beautiful El Greco face frozen to a mask of icy reserve. And I was really impressed by Johannes Stepanek’s decent, honourable Hilarion. He handles the largely mime-based work of Act 1 with lovely sensitivity, then produces powerful, passionate dancing as Hilarion is tortured to death by the wilis in Act 2. Hilarion is a tragic figure; the truer lover to Giselle in some ways, but as thoughtless in his way as Albrecht, unable to see past his jealousy and the conviction that he must reveal the truth, unable to see how much harm this particular truth could do. Still, thoughtless or no, he gets a bum deal and I am always sorry for him.

Mr Stepanek is one of several young men I have my eye on at the RB (oh dear, that sounds awful!! – especially given my tendency to crow over what hunks they all are…). They have some very fine dancers but they also have an odd habit of recruiting chaps who are solid wood on stage (recalls recent sad spectacle of Tamara Rojo emoting with every inch of her body to a blankly handsome young man like a dancing brick wall). I look at the blank chaps (when I have to) and wonder why others, who have the dancing chops but can also act, don’t get to the top. Why are some people (naming no names!) company principals while others, who look just as good to my eyes, are not? I suppose there are technical issues I haven’t the know-how to spot. But I’d like to see Johannes Stepanek dancing some MacMillan leads, for example – he’d be a lovely Romeo or Des Grieux… He’s a clean, elegant dancer and a strong partner, and he’s tall and good looking and he can act. What’s not to like?

Anyway, it was a terrific “Giselle” that pulled all the heartstrings and drew them taut almost to breaking point; and where “Giselle” is concerned, that is what one wants.

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