Principle dancers Jenna Roberts and Iain Mackay lead this faithful retelling of Theophile Gautier's Romantic ballet
There are few more heady or enduring artistic experiences than Giselle, the archetypal Romantic ballet, which premiered at the Paris Opera in 1841. It has the fingerprints of 19th century Europe all over it.
Created by the French poet and critic, Theophile Gautier for the glamorous young Italian ballerina, Carlotta Grisi, the dramatic storyline was inspired by the work of German poet, Heinrich Heine and completed in collaboration with the French librettist, Vernoy de St. Georges.
When it came to translating the story into a ballet, the task fell to Grisi's mentor, the virtuoso dancer and choreographer Jules Perrot, who faultlessly plotted a path through the glorious score composed by his friend Adolphe Adam.
The resultant ballet soon found its way into the hands of Europe's most distinguished companies, including the Imperial Russian Ballet, now known as the Mariinsky or Kirov Ballet. When Perrot was appointed as its principal ballet master, he refashioned the piece, with assistance from Marius Petipa.
Giselle became part of the Royal Ballet's repertory in 1934, when it was first danced by two great English dancers, prima ballerina assoluta Alicia Markova and Anton Dolin.
So Birmingham Royal Ballet's artistic director, David Bintley, had quite a pedigree to contend with when it came to envisioning a new Giselle for the company. But at his side was another iconic figure from its rich history, the ballerina Galina Samsova, who had herself danced the title role in 1971 for London Festival Ballet.
As is so often the case, it is the past that has hugely influenced the present as Bintley and Samsova set out 'to capture the spirit of the Romantics and restore the poetry of the original ballet'.
In the course of her research, Samsova uncovered an old tape, given to her by Dolin, in which some of the most influential Giselles – Svetlana Beriosova, Galina Ulanova and Alicia Alonso–- talked about the ways in which they had prepared for and interpreted the role.
The name Jenna Roberts might not yet rank in that starry pantheon, but on the basis of her performance on the opening night at the Grand Opera House, Belfast it cannot be long before it does. There is a bewitching, understated softness about Roberts's style, yet her steely technique is strong, confident and wonderfully controlled.
The ballet spans two worlds – this world and the next. Act I is set in a picturesque village high in the mountains, where local people hunt, carouse and make merry. Act II crosses over to the other side, to a ghostly otherworld, peopled by the weirdly named Wilis, wan-faced young girls who have been jilted at the altar.
The production is dedicated to its designer Hayden Griffin, who died earlier this year. Together, he and lighting designer Mark Jonathan transport audiences into the heart of two interlocking universes, whose parameters demand, and achieve, equally contrasting performances, most notably from the two principals.
The village scenes are styled to resemble a fading postcard from long ago, with costumes, in muted tones of burnished bronze, cloud grey, sepia beige and cream, basking in the golden light of idealised happiness.
The joy and tenderness of the love between local girl Giselle and her suitor Loys – in reality, the aristocratic Count Albrecht – exude from the partnership of Roberts with Glaswegian Iain Mackay, whose flourish and engaging stage presence compensate for the fact that the character is a deceiver.
As the truth of his previous betrothal to a high ranking woman dawns upon Giselle, the bright day darkens to engulf Roberts's convincingly distraite descent into death.
The staging of the second act is chilling in its monochromed simplicity, with a seemingly endless line of ethereal, white-veiled abandoned young brides soundlessly flitting beneath the great gothic arches of a ruined abbey.
Out of her grave emerges the spirit of Giselle, to join briefly with the desolate Albrecht, who has entered into this vengeful female world, where hapless men are danced to their death. The central pas de deux, weightlessly and sensitively danced by Roberts and Mackay, would melt a heart of stone even if it were not accompanied so poignantly by the Royal Ballet Sinfonia under the direction of Koen Kessels.
Elsewhere, rising stars Momoko Hirata and Tzu-Chao Chou add real sparkle to the reinstated harvest pas de deux and Samara Downs, Yvette Knight and Yijing Zhang are a formidable trio as the stoney-faced Queen of the Wilis and her two stern cohorts.
One could take issue with a few raw edges among the corps de ballet and a handful of the support roles, but this stirring production is all about that central partnership. Opening night audiences at the Opera House are privileged, as Roberts will not appear in the role again until the end of the company's run in Dublin next week (July 4 – 6).
But if they do not see this ballet danced again for a very long time, they will have been more than compensated by witnessing two instinctively locked performances, which coax every iota of emotion from this unforgettable work.
Giselle runs in the Grand Opera House, Belfast until June 29.