Giselle may look like the most delicately pale and perishable of Romantic ballets, but its plot is very robust. This tragedy of a young woman destroyed by rival lovers has survived every possible relocation, from a slave plantation to a madhouse. And now in Michael Keegan-Dolan’s surreal and sinister dance theatre version it’s become a lurid tale of sexual dysfunction set in a fictional Irish town called Ballyfeeny.
Keegan-Dolan has junked all but the bare outlines of the libretto. There is a tough electronic score by Philip Feeney, chunks of dialogue, and a radically new cast of characters. Giselle, no longer a pretty peasant girl, is a chronic asthmatic, kept semi-prisoner by her incestuous brother, Hilarion. Her only happiness is found in the local linedance class, taught by Albrecht, a bisexual stranger from Bratislava. He seduces Giselle but breaks her heart when she discovers him being cheerfully buggered by the town butcher.
Realism is clearly not Keegan-Dolan’s prime goal. Pinched, woebegone Giselle not only has Hilarion’s abuse to deal with (he ties her up like an animal, spits on her and rapes her) but also a bullying town nurse (a fat, bi-polar nymphomaniac), and a father who has retreated up a telegraph pole. Despite brave, even brilliant performances and the light relief of some beguilingly slick linedance numbers, this savage, comic and occasionally scabrous material can sometimes feel too mad and too chaotic to engage with.
But once Giselle has died of her broken heart Keegan-Dolan gets the focus absolutely right. His version of the ballet’s original White Act is peopled by androgynous ghosts who rise through trapdoors in clouds of white dust and advance on their male prey with a blind, bestial vengefulness that is skin-crawlingly creepy to watch.
In contrast, Giselle’s attempts to save Albrecht register the most purely human pulse of the show, dancing with him a skimming duet in which she tries for one last embrace beyond the grave. Finally, she leaps free of Albrecht, and as she bounces happily and smilingly on the stage alone the closing bars of Adolphe Adam’s original score are heard.
It’s a sweet, forgiving, exultant image, and for all the flaws it confirms Keegan-Dolan as a choreographer of impressive range.
Judith Mackrell, The Guardian ★★★★