Jenna Roberts as Giselle and Iain Mackay as Albrecht. Photo Roy Smiljanic

Jenna Roberts as Giselle and Iain Mackay as Albrecht. Photo Roy Smiljanic

Birmingham Hippodrome; June 19, 2013

David Mead

Technical brilliance and an air of melancholy are essential ingredients in romantic ballet, and both were in plentiful supply in this Birmingham Royal Ballet telling of “Giselle.” Led by Jenna Roberts as the ill-fated heroin and Iain Mackay as the womanising Albrecht, the whole company were outstanding, filling the stage with joyful dancing, beauty and sadness in equal measure.

The settings are as romantic as the ballet itself. The recently deceased Hayden Griffin’s mid-European village garlanded by autumnal leaves and hidden in a gorge with vineyards and a waterfall as a backdrop is a Victorian Romantic painting come to life. If anything, the placing of Act II in the remains of a huge church is even more impressive, and surely one of the best around. The scene reminded me of Turner’s 1795 painting of Tintern Abbey that hangs in the Ashmolean in Oxford. Gothic arches soar heavenwards above the ruined choirs. Lit by a full moon, peeking in through what is left of a window, it is the spookiest of atmospheres. What a shame it is spoiled slightly by the aerial swooping of two Wilis on wires. The titters it raised from the audience did rather break the spell momentarily.

Making her debut in the role, in Act I Roberts was perfectly joyful and naïve. Here was a girl apparently in love for the first time, with all the happiness and slight uncertainty that comes with it. Of course, she misses Albrecht’s manipulating the number of flower petals to prove his true love for her, an early indication that all is not what it seems if ever there was one. When the truth did finally dawn it was high drama indeed as she circled the stage passing through the assembled throng like a being possessed before ending it all with his sword.

Birmingham Royal Ballet in Giselle. Photo Bill Cooper

Birmingham Royal Ballet in Giselle. Photo Bill Cooper

Roberts handled the tricky transition to the second act with ease. With her glazed expression she really did appear like a spirit detached from her body, although there was enough there that we did not need telling this was the same person. Best of all was how feather light she appeared, something helped by Mackay, who made all the overhead lifts look so smooth and easy you would think she was indeed completely weightless.

Mackay was a rather refined Albrecht, a man whose bearing marked him out clearly as being from a different class, even if everyone except Tyrone Singleton’s solid and upright Hilarion missed it. Mackay’s demeanour suggested Albrecht knows exactly what he is doing. It is not that he does not care about what might happen if he is caught out, more that the idea never even enters his head. His dancing was a powerful and sure as we have come to expect. His series of 24 entrechat sixes particularly, and quite rightly, impressed the audience especially.

Momoko Hirata and Tzu-Chao Chou in the Harvest pas de deux. Photo Roy Smiljanic

Momoko Hirata and Tzu-Chao Chou in the Harvest pas de deux. Photo Roy Smiljanic

Samara Downs was extremely impressive as Myrtha. Here was a ‘lady’ no-one was ever likely to win an argument with. The way she looked coldly at Hilarion and Albrecht, and especially the commanding way she pointed her forefinger sent a chill down the spine. Anything other than obedience was not an option. Returning to Act I, Momoko Hirata and Tzu-Chao Chou’s Harvest pas de deux was the feast of technical excellence Birmingham audiences have come to expect from the pairing. Elsewhere, Marion Tait as Giselle’s mother Berthe came close to stealing every scene she was in. It has been said before, but if there is a better character actor in British ballet today, I do not know who it is.

The rest of the company and even the youngsters from Elmhurst supported the lead dancers impeccably. What makes watching Birmingham Royal Ballet so enjoyable is the company-wide understanding that every dancer’s role, even if only a bystander, is important. Wherever you looked in the village ensemble scenes of the first half, you saw a host of characters, not merely figures as decoration. That extends even to the children. The moment when a young boy (Giselle’s brother) opens the door and stands for moment, mouth agape and eyes wide open in disbelief at the sight of the Duke and his daughter Bathilde, was sheer delight.

The Royal Ballet Sinfonia was conducted by Koen Kessels.