Giselle, Royal Opera House, London

A perfectly formed, two-act jewel
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The Independent Culture

After the 150th viewing, there are some ballets that pall for even the most committed spectator, but Giselle isn't one of them. This perfectly formed, two-act jewel has held audiences in its imaginative grip ever since its creation in 1841. It must be the emotional punch – transcending the quaint Rhineland setting, bouncy peasantry and Romantic stylisation – that gives it its timeless power.

Giselle's shock and hurt, when she discovers that Albrecht is a nobleman engaged to the luxurious Bathilde, are gut-wrenching feelings we can all recognise; her violent impulsiveness as she breaks in between the couple may be ill-mannered, but many of us would have done the same. And even if the second act's graveyard mysticism is pure fantasy, it resonates with anyone who has ached to talk to a dead friend or relative. Albrecht's encounter with the ghostly homicidal Wilis is therefore not just terrifying, but emotionally devastating because Giselle is one of them. Ultimately, it becomes cathartic, leaving him with her forgiveness so he can carry on.

Giselle depends on dance-actors able to cope with exceptionally difficult choreography, while illuminating the narrative's contrasting components. In the Royal Ballet's present run of Peter Wright's production, Giselle's mad scene seems to have acquired extra, set details, removing the customary leeway for improvisation in performance, yet also failing to resolve the inherent ambiguity of whether Giselle dies from a sword wound or a broken heart.

This, though, did not prevent Alina Cojocaru from making a wonderfully tragic impact, her hysterically febrile movements contrasting with sudden swoons, her body almost imploding bonelessly. She acts not through her pale face, which doesn't really project, but her body, her extraordinary technique able to modulate every movement effortlessly. Because she doesn't signal her effects, you take for granted the smooth developés and elastic arabesques. This makes her a perfect match for Johan Kobborg, whose clean, airy dancing and subtle acting don't need flamboyance either.

Alina Cojocaru's childlike body contributed to a melting Giselle, shyly gentle yet vital, but as a Wili, she lacked a spectral dimension and her skin looked as warm and pulsing as before. With Leanne Benjamin two nights later, it was the other way round. Benjamin has a vivid face and gleaming smile, she doesn't do shy and her Giselle seemed rather too knowing. Her second act, however, was something else, helped by a truly outstanding Ethan Stiefel (guesting from American Ballet Theatre) who danced his solos with elegant softness and sensational fluttering beats. While Benjamin etched her arms eerily against the moonlit night, Stiefel lifted her so that she skimmed across the stage like a fast-flying demon and drifted in a series of arcing jumps so soundless the hush was palpable.

Albrecht retains his aristocratic grace before the implacable Wilis, contrary to rough Hilarion, his rival, who dies flailing like a wild animal. But when confronted by Bathilde, even Albrecht can, as Stiefel showed, yield to stiff awkwardness. Is Albrecht a calculating philanderer or just a thoughtless young man? Wright's version casts a modern perspective on Albrecht's motivation by portraying Bathilde as the kind of petulant minx any man would want to escape. But Angel Corella in the third cast (also from ABT) interestingly made Albrecht a grandly assured cad who greets Bathilde with suave smiles. He is the kind of physically pushy, proprietorial lecher a girl wouldn't want to meet in a palace outhouse, so it's an irony that he ends up falling in love.

His Giselle was an attractive, joyous peasant-girl as portrayed by the intelligent Tamara Rojo. Unfortunately, Corella's distracting demeanour overshadowed her. The antithesis of Cojocaru, he underlines his virtuosity with grandiloquent gestures, self-consciously perfect positions and tense outlines that could be seen as attention-seeking, except that maybe it's just that he tries too hard, too visibly. This is hyperactive dancing that wins applause, but gets in the way of the drama.

In the first act, Wright's long-lasting production thrives on the naturalistic acting that is a Royal Ballet forte. The second act, though, could do with more cold inhumanity from the Wilis. Is it the style of their dancing? Or do they need ghostlier make-up? Otherwise, Zenaida Yanowsky is an effective air-devouring and man-crunching Queen.

To 20 April, 020-7304 4000

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