Once it was traditional to pair Giselle, one of the shorter ballet classics, with a curtain-raiser.
It's better value for audiences, but also for the dancers: a contrast in styles, and roles for dancers left out of Giselle's cast of peasants, nobles and vengeful ghosts.
Reviving this custom, Wayne Eagling, English National Ballet's artistic director, has created Men Y Men for the company's male dancers. Set to Rachmaninoff, it gives nine men a chance to strut through signature jumps and turns. It also features some unusual partnering. The men can lift each other in turn, where male-female duets tend to stress the contrast in strength.
It makes an inventive opener, danced with gusto but dampened by the production. Eagling and Wizzy Shawyer dress the cast in black trousers, so their legs vanish against the dark backdrop. The disembodied torsos are clearly high off the ground, but you have to peer to see how they got up there.
ENB's Giselle, by Mary Skeaping, emphasises the ballet's Romantic roots. She follows the traditional choreography (originally by Perrot and Coralli, revised by Petipa), while stressing supernatural elements.
Elena Glurdjidze's Giselle is delicate. Her phrasing is vivid, with springy footwork and clear line. This village heroine goes mad when betrayed by her lover Albrecht, a duke in disguise. Her mad scene is full of echoes of past happiness – but Glurdjidze also makes you remember the warning signs.
Comforted by her mother, she stares at her in fear. A thrill in the music recalls the mother's warning of what happens to girls who dance too much. The second act, with its ghostly Wilis, beckons. It's no surprise that Giselle can already see spirits crossing the stage.
Glurdjidze is driven in her first Wili dances. Her darting speed has a puppet quality, convulsively fast. When she dances with her lover, her line softens, becoming ethereal. Arionel Vargas is a miscast and underpowered Albrecht. There's stronger support from Begoña Cao as his aristocratic fiancée, and from Laura Hussey as Giselle's mother.
The company performance is strongest in the second act. The corps, well-drilled as peasants, show new scale and force as ghosts. Jenna Lee is a frosty Queen of the Wilis, with a hungry thrust to her leaps.
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