DANCE / A tribute to dogged realism: Judith Mackrell on the Australian Ballet's Giselle at the London Coliseum

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THE INADVISABILITY of sharing a stage with children and animals was hilariously confirmed on Thursday night in the first act of Australian Ballet's Giselle. When the Court hunting party glided onto the stage to alarm and dazzle Giselle and her peasant friends, they had in tow a very large and rather lanky hound. Instead of looking period and dignified, however, the dog shot one look at the audience before stolidly and placidly turning its back - pensively twitching its skinny tail and rivetingly refusing every furtive attempt to make it sit down.

It was for a brief few minutes impossible to concentrate on anything else - including the rather significant by-play between Giselle and Bathilde, the woman who, unknown to Giselle, is her lover's fiancee. Yet distracting as the dog proved, its presence was also a mark of the loving naturalism with which Maina Gielgud's production has been conceived. The dancing is about as close to the 19th-century choreography as you get (Petipa's revision of Coralli) and there are no gimmicks. Yet every gesture, every whispered aside, every facial expression relays with extraordinary lucidity the characters' motives and feelings and the vicissitudes of the plot.

In Act 1 the balance between realism and poetry almost swings too far away from the latter. Giselle and Albrecht are so frank and uncomplicated in their courtship, their faces such open books, that they seem too much like the girl and boy next door rather than protagonists caught up in a tragic fate. Thursday's dancers (Fiona Tonkin and Steven Heathcote) compound this by looking too nice, as well; they smile too readily and Heathcote hasn't a trace of duplicity about him. Only the darkly handsome Hilarion (Josef Christenson) who is eaten up with frustration and rejected love looks as if he is being swayed by dangerous passions.

Yet the ballet shifts gear dramatically during Giselle's mad scene when Tonkin's face and body agonisingly chart the disintegration of her heart and mind. Out of a terrifyingly detached point of calm Tonkin moves from bewilderment through frenzy to unbearable terror - wrenching us totally into the world of uncharted horror in Act 2.

This itself opens with an image of perfect eerie poetry. The shrouded Wilis emerged from a mist as if rising one by one from their dank graves and they dance with a peculiarly chilling grandeur - their arms stretched in steely commanding lines even as their bodies sway with romantic delicacy. In this act, too, the total attention to motive and gesture is even more exemplary, so that we see with unusual clarity Giselle being torn between the desire to dance once more with her lover and the need to save him from the Wilis' revenge. Tonkin dances this act with an authority both human and unearthly while Heathcote is mesmerising not only as a man driven by love and remorse but also as one dancing on every perfectly working cylinder.

In its purity and its clarity this production is one of the most satisying of Giselles, and the company dance and act it with commitment. So complete is their identification with the ballet's world that it feels odd to have an entirely different work tacked on at the beginning of the evening - Stephen Baynes's Catalyst. This is set to Poulenc's Concerto for two pianos and feeds off the music's spiky vivacity and calm. The result is some very good looking if fairly predictable dance where a lot of Balanchine-derived groupings are punctuated by a few very striking images - a ripple of lovely, limpid bourrees to what I remember as rocking piano arpeggios and a whole string of lifts where the women sky-dive ecstatically on the shoulders of their men. The movement would look even better, though, without the dancers, spangled Lycra costumes and the distracting fuss of Andrew Carter's hanging designs - these add pretension and clutter to movement that works on its own sculptural and decorative terms.

Final performances of 'Giselle' and 'Catalyst' tonight. Box-office: 071-836 3161.

(Photograph omitted)