Turning around the fortunes of a large, poorly funded ballet company is a slow and uncertain business, but Wayne Eagling, the latest incumbent at English National Ballet, shows every sign of knowing how to do it. For every expensive new project (like the Snow Queen he's commissioned for next autumn) he sees he must balance the books with something pulled from the bottom of the trunk. Where previous directors have resisted this simple logic, Eagling has rummaged with a will and unearthed the family silver. The Giselle devised for ENB in 1971 is the best Giselle you are ever likely to see.
It was staged by Mary Skeaping, a scholar in Romantic ballet style who devoted decades of her life to researching the 1841 original. She herself had danced in Anna Pavlova's 1925 version, and persuaded Tamara Karsavina to teach her the mime sequences as performed in 19th-century Russia. She restored the musical text, too, which makes the ballet 10 minutes longer and gives it better narrative logic. The story has never been clearer, its impact never more dramatic. I've lost count of the Giselles I've seen, but this is the first that has moved me to tears.
The bottom line for an audience is that - in the course of the first half - we must be persuaded of two things: that a simple country girl has given her heart to a man who is not what she thinks, and that he, a toff trying to pass as a yokel, has given his heart fully in return. He may be a cad in denial of the outcome, but for tragedy to kick in, we have to believe in the love. On Wednesday, the Estonians Agnes Oaks and Thomas Edur manipulated this tremulous balance of innocence and deception more subtly than I had imagined possible within the frame of a stage packed with dancing. Because Giselle is also a ballet about dance itself, about how that physical exertion can make a person giddy, lose inhibition, lower their guard. No one knew about endorphins in the 1840s but everyone knew their effect.
Skeaping's choreography for Act I charts the progression, step by sunlit step, of Giselle's surrender and Albrecht's moral error. And although many of the sequences are unfamiliar, the material feels thoroughly authentic in style and feeling, and gives the main couple plenty of dramatic scope. I loved the way one section had them almost marking their matching steps without fully dancing them, as if they had become so comfortable in each other's arms that effort was unnecessary.
The dream is shattered, fatally, when Albrecht is unmasked, and the horrifying scene when the girl loses her mind with grief creates a bridge to the sterner drama of Act II, when lovers' grief turns to lovers' nightmare.
It's impossible, in 2007, to recapture the frisson of Act II of the 1840s, a time when new technology such as gas lamps and smoke machines combined with the novelty of dancing on point created a genuine supernatural. Yet David Walker's painted wooded glade under David Mohr's gorgeously filtered lighting drew audible gasps on Wednesday night. ENB's corps - beautifully schooled - move with a ferocious unity, and Sarah McIlroy's Queen of the Wilis is almost monstrous in her cruel indifference. And still the dynamic bond between Oaks and Edur keeps its force: her love creating an almost tangible shield between Albrecht and his destruction. As a premonition of feminism, the idea of the spirits of jilted girls taking vengeance on all mankind has remarkable potency today. As a punishment, the hero being made to dance to death suits audiences very well.
I wonder how many of the 114 wannabes showing their dance creations in the Resolution! season have ever thought about the clarity of idea and action embodied by the old ballets. I'd guess none of the three who showed work on the night I picked at random. I don't think I've ever seen such tosh. All of them added speech to the mix of movement and music, presumably with a view to spelling things out. Yet in neither Mirjam Gurtner's ensemble nor Kerstin Schellander's solo did I have a clue what was going on. The first was "a laboratory of text and movement", according to the blurb. The second, "an experience of being seen and hidden". For myself, my experience alternated between abject boredom and mild concern for what these young people, presumably full-time dance students or graduates, will do with the rest of their lives. But I was glad I stayed on for Hilary Wrack-Lartey's odd but touching account of her feeling for the dance culture of West Africa, and more particularly for her Ghanaian boyfriend, who perked up my evening no end with his and a colleague's vibrant tribal stomps. Wrack-Lartey also talked and danced - sluggishly, by contrast. But she had something to say, and she said it, engagingly.
'Resolution' continues at The Place, WC1 (020 7121 1100) to 17 Feb.Reuse content