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The Independent Culture
DANCE Giselle Royal Ballet/Opera House Whatever you may think of Peter Wright's productions of the classics; or his hit-and-miss approach to revivals; or his inability to populate Birmingham Royal Ballet with the kind of real men who currently grace BRB's sister company at Covent Garden, there is much to be grateful for in his choice of John Macfarlane as the designer for two of his ballets.

Macfarlane, whose predeliction for large-scale sets found its perfect outlet in Wright's Nutcracker, opts for fewer special effects in his 1995 production of Giselle. But, having supplied the obligatory cottage and hut, he dresses the stage from top to bottom with a dramatic forest of autumn foliage, illuminated by Jennifer Tipton's lighting.

In a tribute to Wright, who retires at the end of this season, the Royal Ballet is giving 13 performances of his Giselle between now and March. The first two marked the debuts of, respectively, Errol Pickford as Albrecht and Leanne Benjamin as the title role's peasant girl. Pickford doesn't look totally at ease as a noble cad. Yet he warmed instantly to Nicola Roberts's mettlesome Giselle and, together, they succeeded in accentuating all the delightful mime of the initial scene d'amour.

Benjamin's Giselle, as sturdy and innocent as Roberts's, is well-served by Bruce Sansom's playful yet aristocratic Albrecht. Benjamin's is a Giselle who, early in Act I, hints at her own imminent tragedy and entry to the unearthly realm of the wilis. If Sansom carries off the final scene more convincingly than Pickford, it was not for any lack of effort on the latter's part. But his intensity of feeling does remain partially trapped behind a bland facade. However, next to Luke Heydon's Hilario n - imagine Rowan Atkinson as a 19th-century gamekeeper - Pickford's acting deserved an Oscar.

In the pas de six, William Trevitt, who has matured into one of the Royal's finest assets, partnered Sara Gallie and (in the evening) Belinda Hatley with his customary attentiveness, but it was through the gracious amplitude of his own dancing that he crowned this challenging set of divertissements. And in Davor Krnjak the company has a guest conductor whose appreciation of the nuances of Adam's score enable him to lead us through the corresponding leitmotifs of music and dance, his baton sharpening, softening and polishing as required.

n The Royal Ballet perform `Giselle' on 27 Jan, 9, 14, 18 Feb, 7, 8, 17, 21 and 25 Mar (Box office 071-304 4000)

Sophie Constanti