West End shows with legs are famously of the song-and-dance variety.
The repertory system in ballet, whereby productions run for just a handful of performances at a stretch, tends to obscure their longevity. So it may surprise some that Giselle, in the handsome production by Sir Peter Wright, has clocked up almost 550 performances by the Royal Ballet over 25 years. More impressive still is that it's looking so fresh and potent – the best possible riposte to the festering dysfunctions presented in the week's cinema release Black Swan.
The appeal of Giselle lies in the strength of its contrasts – sunny peasant larks in the first half, culminating in the fatal discovery by a simple country girl that the love of her life is a cheat, followed by a second half of spectral, moonlit beauty, as she enters the ranks of the vengeful spirit maidens who force men to dance to their deaths.
Six casts appear in this revival, and the first led by Tamara Rojo and Carlos Acosta set the bar high. Giselle, more than any other old ballet, allows individuals to make their mark on the principal roles, and Rojo and Acosta, both separately and together, have given memorable readings in the past. But on Tuesday their performances seemed more finely nuanced than ever, with the result that everyone on stage, from Genesia Rosato as Giselle's doom-mongering mother, to the 24th wili in line, upped their game.
While jumps have never been a particular strength of Rojo, the detail of her dancing more than compensates, along with a quality, useful in a story about a shy girl who loves to dance, of seeming to invent the steps as she goes along. In the spirit world of Act II she brilliantly effaces all trace of human warmth to concentrate everything in Romantic purity of line, right down to the delicate little bounces of her wrists as Acosta masterfully skims her across the stage like a pebble on a lake in dreamy slo-mo.
Acosta, for his part, is a true nobleman in the plushness and clarity of his steps, and a past-master in the signalling of character through elegantly pared-down gesture. But it was only his dramatic timing that gave him the edge on the newcomer snapping at his heels in the second cast.
At just 21, Sergei Polunin, Ukraine-born but Royal Ballet-trained, was born to dance Albrecht. With his racehorse leanness, his column of neck and V-shaped torso, he is believably the fittest man Giselle has ever seen, if not the audience, too. He is, what's more, already a fearsome technician, whose beaten steps have the sharpness of glass, and the height of whose jump is frankly astonishing. I rather felt for his perfectly sweet Giselle, Roberta Marquez, who, for all Polunin's gallantry, found herself somewhat upstaged.
To 18 Feb in rep (020-7304 4000). Live relay to selected cinemas this Wed
Jenny Gilbert takes in the opening events of the Mime Festival
While Matthew Bourne's stirring, London-in-the-Blitz Cinderella enters its final week at Sadler's Wells, David Bintley's more traditional new production, with Prokofiev's luscious score played live, tours north to The Lowry in Salford (Wed to Sat) and south to Plymouth's Theatre Royal (25 to 29 Jan). The Royal Ballet, meanwhile, digs out its Swan Lake, opening with two performances at the Royal Opera House next Saturday.Reuse content