DANCE / The first fine careful rapture: Judith Mackrell on the Berlin Ballet and Rambert Dance Company in London

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The Independent Culture
IT'S HARD to imagine a more lovingly detailed staging of Giselle than Peter Schaufuss's production for Berlin Ballet. Every moment of the story-telling - the mime, the lighting, the props, the grouping of the dancers - has been thought through with solicitous attention to sense. The choreography has been tactfully and exquisitely reworked, without offending against the original Coralli and Perrot. And the movement itself is performed with such devoted accuracy and commitment that you would be lucky to see so many beautifully placed arms and heads on a dance stage anywhere else.

The irony is that the life of the ballet is so elusive and that its moments of animation and dramatic bite seem so frequently stifled by the production's intelligence and polish. Part of the reason, though, is the portrayal of the two central lovers - Bart De Block as Albrecht and Lisa Cullum as Giselle.

Schaufuss has some very clear ideas about Albrecht, the two- timing aristocrat who breaks Giselle's heart. He is a very young man, too callow to understand exactly what risks he is running with Giselle's affections, yet her death is also a crisis for him. During the whole of Act 2 he is living for the first time with an unsatisfied desire, in love with the spirit who is about to return to her grave. And in Schaufuss's unusual ending (a reversion to Gautier's 1841 libretto), though Albrecht's original fiancee comes to collect him from Giselle's grave, Albrecht slips out of her consoling embrace to show us he has been touched, altered by the experience forever.

As a reading this is all very clear and consistent, but De Block still doesn't get under the skin of his character. His dancing, like Albrecht's manners, is perfect: all open assured grace in his upper body, all immaculate placing and vigour in his legs and feet. Yet he never charms or dazzles in Act 1, nor does he move us with his predicament in Act 2.

The same is true for Cullum's Giselle. Physically she is as right as De Block, very fragile with a long delicate line that belies the force and speed of some of her dancing. Giselle's euphoric bounding jumps in Act 1 seem buoyed up by an almost inhuman rapture, a sense of her impossible luck in landing the lovely Albrecht. And when, as a spirit, she whirls into life at the command of the Queen of the Wilis, Cullum rotates with a reckless speed that makes her look like a demon out of hell.

Yet this is dancing that lives in the studio, not on the stage; it has a fatal reserve that fails to touch any of your nerve-endings. A similar air of disengagement also hangs over the Wilis in Act 2 (with the exception of Christine Camillo as Myrtha) who dance with impeccable neatness and timing yet whose clipped formality fails to communicate the appropriate evil and grandeur. These women look as if they have died while cleaning their kitchens rather than having risked everything for unrequited love.

But much of the crowd dancing in Act 1 is witty and captivating. In place of the usual peasant pas de six Schaufuss gives us four couples dancing informally for fun. They chat and hang around like anyone at a party, but when they dance the movement is as perfectly articulate as you could wish to see. All this production needs is a few more dancers willing to let their feet take care of themselves and to lose themselves more heartily in the ballet's emotional life.

At the Royalty, Rambert Dance Company rounded off its summer season with a new work by the Dutch choreographer Guido Severien, Phillidor's Defence. This too is a production immaculately thought through, to the point where all its three elements - Severien's movement, Carolien Scholtes's design and Glyn Perrin's music - seem to exist simultaneously as the main focus and the frame of the piece.

It is a piece without a story but it inhabits several dramatically different worlds. At the beginning a lone dancer lit in a clinical white light moves in front of an enlarged page of medical illustrations. His movement is strict and diagrammatic, as is the music which is like a single thrust of peremptory brass and woodwind. When the front- cloth rises the stage is a cavern lit by a harsh line of light. Under this, to a growling percussion, four men crawl and tumble and roll.

Then the stage opens to its full width and depth, a green baize frill and some measuring instruments giving it the look of an old- fashioned operating theatre. The dancers dip in and out of neat, angled solos and duets, making bright forays of jumps into the distant corners as the music evolves into a complex funk, instrumental lines weaving freely and urgently in and out of each other. Somewhere in here is a string of ideas about anatomy and medicine; and somehow it makes for a dramatic combination of the hyperlogical and dark, dangerous magic.

Berlin Ballet continues until Saturday at the London Coliseum, WC2 (071-836 3161).