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This review is from: Chopin / Adam: Les Sylphides/ Giselle [DVD] [NTSC]  (DVD)
*** THIS REVIEW WAS ORIGINALLY POSTED ON THE BALLETCO WEBSITE AND IS WRITTEN BY JANE SIMPSON ***
It’s long been known that the BBC has a unique store of dance treasures locked up in its archives: film after film of the great dancers of the last 60 years, in famous and fascinating productions, all of them unavailable to the general public. We were allowed occasional glimpses, usually during Jane Pritchard’s unmissable NFT seasons, but it seemed that the problems of copyright, performance rights and expense, which presumably prevented a general release, would never be satisfactorily resolved. Now, however, the ICA Classics company has apparently discovered the needful ‘open sesame’ and is publishing a whole series of these past glories on DVD: this one is shortly to be followed by Pineapple Poll and The Lady and the Fool, and then there’s a disc of Margot Fonteyn and Michael Somes in extracts from the three Tchaikowsky classics – and after that, who knows?: we could finally get to see Margaret Dale’s brilliant Petrushka, or even the Haydee/Doyle/Seymour mini-Onegin.
There’s a caveat, though: these performances were filmed more than half a century ago and we are seeing not only the dancing but also the television technology of the time. Before you can form any opinion about the dancers you need to discount the effect of tiny studios, live performance after too little rehearsal time, still-experimental camera work, and minimal scenery. On this disc,the Sylphides – dating from 1953 and the fourth oldest film in the whole archive – actually gets a more straightforward presentation than the Giselle from 5 years later. From contemporary reports it sounds as if in between, the experiments had got rather out of hand: E.C.Mason, writing in Dance & Dancers (1/59), is not entirely happy with the handling of Giselle, but sees it as a huge improvement on recent showings, whose “trick-effects – dissolves, slow motion, double-exposures, superimpositions, strange angles” had caused most viewers to despair about ballet on television. To our eyes it still looks a bit fidgety and the special effects – ghostly Wilis, mainly – are fairly rudimentary, but it’s far less gimmicky and irritating than, say, the Fracci/Bruhn recording, made a decade later.
Although most of the soloists in Giselle come from the Royal Ballet organisation, it’s not an RB production, and it’s been cut down to just over an hour in total. So there is no peasant pas de deux, no long mime scene for Giselle’s mother, and the dances for the villagers are much reduced – partly, perhaps, as there are apparently no young men in the whole of this village. The lack of studio space is most badly felt in the dances for the Wilis and especially for Myrthe. The music was pre-recorded, by the Covent Garden Orchestra under Hugo Rignold, and as is often the case, some of the numbers were taken noticeably faster than we’re used to these days: the famous crossover for the Wilis, for instance, is very brisk and looks much the better for it – far more dramatic.
It’s the casting, I guess, which will attract most people to this Giselle. Nadia Nerina was not the obvious choice for the lead: she’d been dancing it for two or three years at Covent Garden, but from the reviews I’ve read I don’t think it would have been considered one of her best roles. She wasn’t, at the time, a famously great actress, and when I saw her live a couple of times, several years later, I don’t remember being particularly impressed by her characterisation. But here, she’s lovely. Her technique was always strong, of course – you could sneak her into a Royal Ballet Giselle today and apart from her lack of extreme extension (welcome, anyway, in this ballet), no-one would notice she’d come from another age. What really surprised me was how affecting her mad scene is. She plays Giselle in the first act as a very simple, unsophisticated and trusting girl, and when she discovers Albrecht’s duplicity it’s as if her whole world has shatterd and her mind simply can’t cope. It’s a plain, unornamented reading and I found it really quite moving.
Her Albrecht is the great Soviet star Nikolai Fadeyechev, and it’s maybe his presence that brought Nerina’s perormance to life. Unlike her, though, he really is from another ballet age – a much gentler, softer, danseur noble than we’re accustomed to now, an ideal already on its way out in this country by then. The softness of his dancing, on the other hand is very attractive, and he’s such a strong partner – Nerina flies up in arms in the big lifts in Act 2 as if she were indeed weightless. It’s good also to see Niels Bjørn Larsen as a serious and concerned Hilarion, Lydia Sokolova as Giselle’s mother, and Margaret Hill as a beautiful, baleful Myrthe. The corps de ballet is made up of dancers from various other British companies of the time – the only one I recognise is Brenda Last, then of Western Theatre Ballet.
I’ve concentrated on Giselle here as we reviewed the Sylphides film quite recently, when Jane Pritchard showed it as part of her Diaghilev season last year. I can only repeat that it’s a must-see, both for the dancing of three legendary ballerinas and for the extraordinary introduction by the uniquely extraordinary Tamara Karsavina.