Flying false colours

Giselle Lyceum Theatre, Sheffield Champs-Elysees, Paris

Rewriting the classics is all the craze in ballet just now, with Christopher Gable's Giselle, premiered by Northern Ballet Theatre in Sheffield on Monday, the latest example. His big idea is to set it in a mid-20th-century city under military occupation, with the heroine courted not by a prince in disguise but by an enemy officer having removed his uniform in favour of a ragged sweater.

This works surprisingly well in the first half, with one especially chilling moment when the game is given away by children who find and dress up in the black greatcoat and cap that Albrecht has hidden. Lez Brotherston's designs, brilliant as ever, hem in the action to a barricaded street, cluttered with bikes, prams, even a lopsided old piano, yet leave room to see everything in clear focus.

But Act 2 brings a problem. Go for realism, and the supernatural corps de ballet of vengeful ghosts in long white dresses has to be omitted. Instead, Gable and his associate choreographer Michael Pink offer Albrecht's nightmare vision of Giselle's resentful community as dull, grey figures, all shot for his crime. Frankly, this is not a patch on the original poetic concept that has kept this ballet alive for 155 years.

The two principals both keep most of their usual dances, and in the opening cast Jayne Regan and Denis Malinkine make much of the roles: she convincingly frail but determined, he tough but tortured in spirit. Among the other characters, Albrecht's neglected fiancee, Bathilde (Charlotte Talbot), becomes a marvellously condescending bitch, tormenting the prisoners, and Giselle's mother (Charlotte Broom) is more than the usual cipher.

But why change an established success? Gable claims it is necessary to make the story "relevant to today's audience". That exactly the opposite approach still works was proved by the wild applause at the Champs-Elysees Theatre in Paris this past weekend when the ballet from Nancy danced Pierre Lacotte's production of Giselle which tries, in some respects, to get back nearer to the original 1842 version, with evidence from contemporary notes, accounts and design sketches.

The story moves quickly and clearly, the scenery by Pierre Ciceri is more apt and atmospheric than almost all its many successors, and the two principals have their roles built up by a big duet and solos in Act 1, of which we generally see only the coda.

I only wish Lacotte had restored the ballet's original ending, with Albrecht having to return to unhappy matrimony with Bathilde: a harsher and less sentimental punishment than his now customary lonely remorse or the execution that Gable substitutes. There's life in the old ballet yet, without needing wholesale revision.

Christopher Gable's `Giselle' is at the Lyceum Theatre, Sheffield to Saturday (0114-276 9922) and then tours to Plymouth, Nottingham, Canterbury and Hull

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