Edinburgh: A gripping tale of the asylum

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The Independent Culture


MYTHS AND fairy-tales live on as allegorical figments of human experience and longing, and so, especially, does Giselle, coloured by the emotional truth of 19th-century romanticism. It has at its core a darkly fascinating and timeless argument about love, infidelity, class divisions and madness that each new generation can explore.

Rather than indulge in fatal tinkering about the edges, like other choreographers, Mats Ek goes for a total overhaul. His Giselle for the Cullberg Ballet is a radical new interpretation with an absolute narrative logic that holds you in its fist. So Giselle's mental breakdown here is replaced by a psychological continuum, an eccentricity which distorts her demeanour from the very beginning then tips into the madness that takes her to an asylum.

Gunilla Hammar, with her eloquently supple body, deftly draws all the alarming strangeness and unpredictability that sets Giselle apart from the other villagers and prompts her brutish lover Hilarion (Rafi Sadi) to tie her to a rope like a dog. A gawky figure in a beret, she shows a primitive, immoderate joy in her physicality; she has the uninhibited simplicity of the people of her class, but in excess.

These people are rooted in nature. You see this in Marie-Louise Ekman's naive backdrop of hills, suggesting the mounds of an enlarged female nude. You notice it in the giant eggs that the peasants roll on like ritual symbols of fertility. So, when Giselle finishes up in the asylum, the setting becomes more a negation of nature with dead body parts - a finger, an ear - littering the floor like grave stones while a woman simulates a pregnant belly with a cushion.

Where bad dance is mere decoration and a weak substitute for words, Ek's choreography is concise and arresting, speaking directly to the heart, beyond words. The shapes seem to emerge from deep within the body, bold, generous curves and lines that cleave the air as if it were solid and leave an imprint in the mind's eye.

Blended within his movement is a folk-dance strand which he emphasises in Act 1 for the villagers and especially Giselle, contrasting it with the balletic elegance of George Elkin's Albrecht and his friends.

He depicts character and story through resonant imagery that sometimes echoes the original Giselle, sometimes not. In Act 1 he gives Giselle a childish slumped stance that suggests rebellion as well as fear. In Act 2, when the inmates mouths gape open in repeatedly and in unison, he evokes the hunger of man-devouring predators, or a howl of pain, or mere lunatic senselessness.

If an asylum-Giselle sounds grim, it's not. It is permeated with compassion and hope, in which Hilarion and Albrecht emerge as greater human beings. Through frugal means Ek creates a complex and compelling world, powerfully animated by the discipline and clarity of his small cast. The only pity was in the music, not because Adam's score has been chopped somewhat and has undergone re-allocation, but because on tape it seemed to stream by like patterned wallpaper.

Last performance tonight (0131-473 2000)