Dance review: Those Nazi brutes have butchered our Giselle

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The Independent Culture
The first assault is on the ear. Even before Adolphe Adams's 1841 overture has got underway, there's the crack of rifle fire. Then a sweep of searchlights over barricades and dark tenements. A scuffle, more fire, then we see the bedraggled bunch of flowers Hilarion has risked his life to leave at Giselle's front door. Ah, so we are at the ballet after all.

Christopher Gable and his company Northern Ballet Theatre have a mission to widen the audience for ballet by making it "relevant" and "accessible". Usually this has meant working up new shows from scratch,but to mark his 10th anniversary with the company, Gable has decided to put the NBT stamp on the established classic of Giselle, bringing the aesthetics of a stage musical (the dancers do at one point sing) to Coralli and Perrot's delicate choreography.

Shifting the action from woodland glade to war ghetto, Gable fast forwards the cast by 100 years, peasants and aristocrats becoming refugees and jackbooted officers. No specific time or place is cited, but the graffiti in Polish and German daubed on Lez Brotherston's triumphantly grim- looking set makes it impossible not to think of these people as Jews and Gestapo. This colours every turn of the story - and helpfully, as it turns out.

But to begin with, strong company acting gives Act I tremendous fizz. Set dances that can appear quaint and stilted in traditional productions are cleverly integrated into the bustle of ghetto life, so that dancers appear to dance when the community spirit takes them, not just when the music dictates. Without a flicker of traditional mime, we get all the information required: a wan-looking Giselle in plaits and cardie whose mum worries for her health, a loyal boyfriend in specs, and a new beau who swaps his stormtrooper uniform for a ragged Fair Isle so that he can woo her as one of the clan. Oppressor falls in love with oppressed; victim unwittingly submits to the enemy. For the first half-hour you congratulate Gable in finding so much additional resonance in the old tale of love and betrayal.

But once Denis Malinkine's elegant Albrecht has been unmasked, Jayne Regan's Giselle is dead, and Charlotte Talbot's rich bitch of a Bathilde has gloated her victory, the plot goes haywire. Wilis belong to fairy tales not political history, so instead of summoning the avenging ghosts of jilted maidens, Gable is forced to invent a complicated holocaust nightmare to haunt Albrecht's guilty mind: every man jack of Giselle's family and friends is marched out and shot. Effective, but a jarring intrusion into the original spirit of the piece. It also left me wondering what the hell was going on.

New choreography gives this gruesome chorus of undead some pretty odd moves. Scraps of T'ai Chi, breakdance and Jane Fonda exercise class send a confusing message of anger and inertia. Is their gripe Albrecht's betrayal of Giselle or their own grisly fate? Are the two events connected? Did the massacre really happen or is it just a nasty dream? As they say in America, go figure.

The main Act II dances of Albrecht and the ghost of Giselle are left untouched and are beautifully done by Regan and Malinkine. But the reason for the pair's increasing virtuosity has lost its force. There was logic in the original. They danced better and better to persuade the Wilis to let Albrecht live, rather than dance himself to death. These two seem merely trying to impress the ghost of Giselle's mum that he's really a nice goy after all.

Where once was clarity, all is muddle. Poignant fantasy falls prey to docu-drama. Giselle in its original form has been popular - and perfectly accessible - for 150 years, so why meddle? For all his good intentions, I suspect Gable is reacting against his own over-familiarity with the ballet, rather than acting positively on its behalf.

'Giselle': Plymouth Theatre Royal (01752 267222), Tues-Sat; then touring.