Bronte Kelly and Joseph Skelton as the Wedding Couple, 'Giselle', Royal New Zealand Ballet. Photo: Bill Cooper

‘Giselle’. Royal New Zealand Ballet

12 & 13 August 2016, St James Theatre, Wellington, New Zealand

There are a number of things to admire in Royal New Zealand Ballet’s current production of Giselle, choreographed and produced for the company by Ethan Stiefel and Johan Kobborg in 2012. As one enters the theatre a front curtain is down and it immediately promises something interesting. We see a finely drawn tree with a brown trunk and spreading brown branches with small, red, heart-shaped leaves attached. The colours set the season (the ballet traditionally takes place at harvest time), as well as giving a clue to the emotional story we will encounter. As the curtain rises, small white shapes, a little like tear drops, appear on the cloth, and dark twisted roots emerge and move mysteriously (lighting by Kendall Smith). It is a wonderful piece of scenic art by American designer Howard C Jones. It has a beautiful simplicity and yet prefigures so many of the ballet’s themes.

As Act I unfolded, I admired the way in which Stiefel and Kobborg had developed the male characters. The peasant men seemed a rough and tumble lot and at one stage engaged in a bout of light-hearted pushing and shoving. They were not the overly genteel peasants we so often see standing in perfect ballet poses. In fact we often saw them slouching around in the background.

The character of Hilarion was also nicely developed. He was given a solo in the first act, which drew more attention to his participation in the life of the village and his place in the story as Giselle’s long-term admirer. The role was strongly danced by Jacob Chown in one cast and Paul Mathews in another. Mathews in particular showed some exceptional elevation and seemed to relish every vigorous moment of the Act I solo. On the other hand, Chown was the one who put up a thrilling fight against the Wilis in Act II and in his dancing seemed to be buffeted back and forth by some supernatural power.

Jacob chown as Hilarion in 'Giselle'. Royal New Zealand Ballet. Photo: Bill Cooper

Jacob Chown as Hilarion in Giselle. Royal New Zealand Ballet. Photo: © Bill Cooper

Wilfred, aide to Albrecht (disguised as Lenz—not Loys!), was also encouraged to be a stronger character than usual. It was not that he was given anything extra to do, so bouquets to the dancers and to the coaching staff. I saw Jacob Chown and William Fitzgerald and enjoyed both interpretations, although Chown seemed to add a mature factor to his characterisation, which I thought particularly suitable.

I also was surprised, but pleased, to find, with the arrival of the titled landowners (usually on a hunting excursion, but in this production out riding), that the Duke and and his daughter Bathilde did not enter Giselle’s cottage to rest, as usually happens—I have often pondered why they would take a rest in such a rudimentary structure. Instead, in this production, they headed off to continue their ride. This of course meant that other arrangements had to be made to call them back to the village for the unmasking of Albrecht, of which more later.

I also enjoyed the inclusion of children and older people as extras in the village scenes of Act I. It made for a more natural look than what we are used to.

Choreographically Stiefel and Kobborg have kept some of the well-known sections, especially in Act II where the steps performed by Giselle and Albrecht (pas de deux and solos); some sections by Myrtha, Queen of the Wilis; and some of the corps de ballet work were familiar. But large sections of Act I, especially the dances for the corps de ballet, had been reworked and were more like character dances than the classically-based choreography we usually see. Some of the group dances for the Wilis in Act II had also been reworked and there seemed to be focus on circular patterns and movements.

I saw two casts in the leading roles of Giselle and Albrecht—Mayu Tanigaito partnered by Daniel Gaudiello and Lucy Green partnered by Qi Huan and all danced more than adequately. Gaudiello made something spectacular of Albrecht’s solo dances in Act II. His cabrioles were breathtaking in their precision and he soared into his jumps. A triple attitude turn was a thrill to see, and his set of entrechats was stunning. But he also brought many charming extras to his portrayal—a little brush of his hand along Tanigaito’s arm before taking her hand, a benign glance here and there. Such things have long been a feature of Gaudiello’s acting and it was a treat to see him once again.

Daniel Gaudiello and Mayu Tanigaito in rehearsal for 'Giselle', Royal New Zealand Ballet, 2016

Daniel Gaudiello and Mayu Tanigaito in rehearsal for Giselle. Royal New Zealand Ballet, 2016. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

But in this production of Giselle, there were also a number of things not to like. Much impact was lost in Act I when Berthe, who needs to recount the story of the Wilis and the effect they have on jilted young girls, had been allocated a much reduced story to tell. Neither of the dancers I saw as Berthe—Alayna Ng and Madeleine Graham—was able to impart a sense of impending doom. And not only that, Giselle’s friends took absolutely no notice of  Berthe’s story. They were busy upstage admiring a friend’s wedding outfit. And sadly, nothing in a mime or choreographic sense was made of the musical leitmotif for the Wilis, which we hear during Berthe’s mime scene. It is the musical link between the first and second acts and recurs during the mad scene and then at the beginning of Act II. Berthe needs to be clearly aware of this leitmotif in her mime, or with some kind of reaction, so she can begin a dramaturgical link.

Then there was the issue of the horn, usually hung outside the cottage by a member of the hunting party when the Duke and Bathilde retire to the cottage. Hilarion uses it to call the hunting party back after he has discovered Albrecht’s true identity. But since there was a change to the storyline in the Stiefel/Kobborg production, Albrecht arrives in the village with a sword at his side and the horn around his neck. Now why would he be carrying a horn? It didn’t make sense to me and looked like a clumsy addition and simply (as indeed it was) a way of sneaking the horn in so that Hilarion had something to use when he needs to summon the hunting/riding party.

I also wondered why there was a need to remove the grape harvest part of the original narrative, thus weakening the story. The grape harvest is a rationale for the Duke and his party to stop to quench their thirst at Giselle’s village. They drink the wine of the area, which is served with pride by Giselle and/or Berthe. Removing this aspect of the story also denies Giselle a place as the Harvest Queen and makes her, in many ways, a lesser person in the village. Replacing the Harvest Queen with a Wedding Couple, who also dance the peasant pas de deux, is interesting but to my mind is playing with the story for no apparent purpose.

I was also unimpressed by some of the costumes (designed by Natalia Stewart) especially that for Albrecht in Act II. His jacket had such a high collar that his neck all but disappeared and occasionally reduced the classical look of the choreography. And there were times when Albrecht seemed to have a hunchback due, I can only surmise, to the cut of the jacket. This happened more in the case of Gaudiello as the costume seemed to be a better fit on Qi. I wish too that Myrtha had been given the wreath of flowers she usually wears as a headdress. It would have given Clytie Campbell, whom I saw as Myrtha at both performances, added presence and would have distinguished her somewhat from the band of Wilis she leads. It may not have seemed so annoying had the role of Myrtha been given the same attention as the minor principal roles of Hilarion and Wilfred. As it was parts of the second act seemed a little underwhelming.

Stiefel and Kobborg have added a rather nice framework within which the story unfolds. When the ballet opens we see, through a scrim and seemingly within the swirling roots of the tree of the front curtain, the figure of a man, the Older Albrecht. He appears briefly at the beginning and end of both acts as an observer and relives, as a program note tells us, ‘the story that has possessed his being for nearly a decade.’ But for me this Giselle does not stand up to those productions that have brought tears to my eyes and sent me home from the theatre on a high.

Michelle Potter, 15 August 2016

Featured image: Bronte Kelly and Joseph Skelton as the Wedding Couple, Giselle. Royal New Zealand Ballet. Photo: © Bill Cooper

Bronte Kelly and Joseph Skelton as the Wedding Couple, 'Giselle', Royal New Zealand Ballet. Photo: Bill Cooper

Dance diary. July 2012

  • Moya Beaver (1918‒2012)

I was saddened to learn that Moya Beaver, whose dance links go back to Louise Lightfoot and Mischa Burlakov and the First Australian Ballet in the 1930s, had died on 13 June 2012. Beaver performed in many of the Lightfoot/Burlakov productions and was partnered often by Gordon Hamilton. She later travelled to Europe where she studied in Paris with Lubov Egorova. Beaver then performed with Egorova’s Les Ballets de la jeunesse, touring with them to Denmark. On her return to Australia she danced in the J. C. Williamson musical Funny side up before settling into family life and a long career as a teacher in Sydney.

Moya Beaver and Gordon Hamilton in 'Le Carnaval'. Photo Nikolai Ross, 1937

Moya Beaver and Gordon Hamilton in Le Carnaval, First Australian Ballet 1937. Photo Nikolai Ross. Courtesy National Library of Australia

Listen to Moya Beaver’s oral history interview, recorded for the National Library in 1994.

  • International Auto/Biography Association (IABA)

In July I presented a paper, ‘The desire to conceal: two case studies’, at the 2012 IABA conference, Framing Lives.  In this paper I looked at the problems encountered in writing a biography when a subject expresses, either directly or indirectly, a desire to conceal certain aspects of his/her life and career.

  • Kathryn Bennetts

I also had the great pleasure in July of recording an oral history interview with Australian expatriate Kathryn Bennetts who recently resigned from a seven year term as artistic director of the Royal Ballet of Flanders in Antwerp. Bennetts was in Sydney briefly before returning to Europe to continue work as a much sought after teacher and as a stager of ballets, especially those of William Forsythe, for companies across the world.

  • The Oracle and Meryl Tankard

Also during July The Canberra Times published my article on Meryl Tankard’s 2009 work The Oracle, which I was inspired to write after hearing that negotiations were underway for The Oracle to tour in the United States

  • Ethan Stiefel

News came through this month too of Ethan Stiefel’s final performance on 7 July as a dancer with American Ballet Theatre. Here is a selection of online news:

Interview in TimeOut about his retirement

Article in The New York Times about his retirement

The New York Times review of the final show

I loved Roslyn Sulcas’ comments in the review: ‘His performance was daring, explosive. Pirouettes, jumps and whole phrases started at what seemed to be full power and then amazingly turned up a notch. Risk was palpable, and yet classical form was never distorted’.

After reading the reports I looked back to a letter I had written to a friend following Stiefel’s performance as Solor in La Bayadère with ABT in 2007 (with Diana Vishneva as Nikiya). I wrote: ‘Those double cabrioles in his Act I solo! So exciting to see, partly of course because he has such amazing legs in terms of strength and in terms of the long lean look they have. Then I was watching his manège of grands jetés in the same solo and was absolutely taken by the way he stretched out the front leg. You could see its trajectory carving or pushing a line in the space ahead of him.’

What a performance that was and, to my absolute surprise as I am not normally a fan of La Bayadère, I found myself sitting on the edge of my seat for the entire performance.

Steifel and his partner Gillian Murphy are now back in Wellington with the Royal New Zealand Ballet where a new production of Giselle by Stiefel, in collaboration with Johan Kobborg, is something to anticipate later this year.

Michelle Potter, 31 July 2012

‘NYC’. Royal New Zealand Ballet

22 March 2012, St James Theate, Wellington

The first program by new artistic director of Royal New Zealand Ballet, Ethan Stiefel, opened in Wellington on 22 March. After a regional tour that began in Auckland in February the program, NYC: three short works from the Big Apple, had clearly worked itself into a very smooth operation by the time it reached Wellington. We saw a diverse, exuberant and beautifully danced show.

The program opened with 28 variations on a theme by Paganini, a work by Benjamin Millepied made originally in 2005. Danced to a piano score by Brahms, the choreography is as varied as the music. Under a single chandelier, and against a black background, five elegantly dressed couples whirl and swirl across the stage. Sometimes they dance in canon, often they execute fabulous lifts and move with unexpected changes of direction. They engage in a luscious performance of the classical vocabulary and occasionally there are subtle undercurrents that suggest relationships between them. I especially enjoyed the dancing of Bronte Kelly whose pleasure in being in this very dancerly work was patently clear. 28 variations on a theme by Paganini

Antonia Hewitt and Brendan Bradshaw in 28 Variations on a theme by Paganini, 2012. Photo Evan Li. Courtesy the Royal New Zealand Ballet

There were, however, a few moments when for me the choreography was jarring. At one point Gillian Murphy entered walking on pointe, stiff-legged and looking a little like a dancer-doll who had suddenly stepped off a music box. Not even Murphy’s strong onstage presence and expressive face could save this section from looking out of place.

Taking the middle spot on the program was Larry Keigwin’s Final dress, created especially for the Royal New Zealand Ballet and danced to a fast-paced score for violin, cello, clarinet and electric piano by Adam Crystal. On a stage stripped right back to basics, this work is full-on dancing from beginning to end. Mixing contemporary movement with more classical steps, the dancers explore the adrenalin rush associated with getting a show onstage. They run, throw themselves at each other and exude constant energy. I didn’t read into it what the program note told me it was about, ‘the boundaries between the public and the private, and the territories we guard’, but Final dress deservedly got a loud and enthusiastic reception as it came to an end.Scene from 'Final dress'

Dancers of the Royal New Zealand Ballet in Final dress, 2012. Photo Evan Li. Courtesy the Royal New Zealand Ballet

Closing the evening was a performance of the vintage Balanchine work Who cares? set to a Hershey Kay arrangement of songs by George Gershwin. This is sassy Balanchine in his Hollywood/Broadway mode and to a certain extent it is a little outdated in terms of the dance style and era it references: it is four decades old, compared with later works in a similar vein such as Twyla Tharp’s Nine Sinatra Songs (made a mere two decades ago). But that aside, the dancers of the Royal New Zealand Ballet did themselves proud. Gillian Murphy and Paul Mathews danced an as smooth as silk pas de deux and the two other soloists, Abigail Boyle and Lucy Green, shone like Hollywood stars. I also admired the lovely-limbed dancer, Maree White, who took the middle spot in the line-up of the five chorus ladies.

A small grumble about the printed program: why didn’t it contain costume design credits? There wasn’t much to worry about with sets as there weren’t really any to fuss about, other than the New York skyline (minus the Chrysler Building) for Who cares? But the costume designers did deserve a billing, even if some costumes were apparently hired from New York-based ballet companies. Someone must have designed them. And why were there no captions for photos in the program? For those who are not regulars at Royal New Zealand Ballet performances it would have been nice if the dancers in some lovely photographs had been identified. But NYC was a wonderful start for Stiefel’s directorship and the prospect of more is definitely something to anticipate.

Michelle Potter, 23 March 2012

Dance diary. September 2011

  • Publication news

In September The Canberra Times published my preview of the Australian Ballet’s 2012 season, a review of the recent book The Ballets Russes in Australia and Beyond under the title ‘Dancing round a few home truths’, and my review of Graeme Murphy’s new take on Romeo and Juliet. Romeo and Juliet has certainly sparked some discussion and the amount of traffic that the extended review has generated over this website has been quite astonishing. It has more than quadrupled the previous record of visits to any one post. The suggestion that this Romeo and Juliet is just not a profound work has been made, not only in published comments but also in other communications to me. But whatever we think, it appears to be selling remarkably well and it will be interesting to see what Sydney audiences make of it when it opens there in December.

Editing and design began in September on an article of mine to be published in the December issue of The National Library Magazine. This article looks at the ballet designs of Arthur Boyd for Robert Helpmann’s Elektra, and those of Sidney Nolan for Kenneth MacMillan’s Rite of Spring. Both ballets were given their premieres by the Royal Ballet in London in the early 1960s. We’ve never seen the MacMillan Rite of Spring here in Australia, but Elektra was staged by the Australian Ballet in 1966 when there were some interesting changes to Boyd’s designs, which in fact had already undergone changes before they even made it to the Covent Garden stage.

joseph-janusaitis

Joseph Janusaitis in make-up for Elektra, the Australian Ballet, 1966. Photo by Walter Stringer. National Library of Australia, permission pending

  • Nijinsky’s costume for Le Dieu bleu

While the Romeo and Juliet post has attracted instant interest, the post from late last year on Nijinsky’s costume for the Blue God quietly continues to generate visits. I was recently contacted by author Denise Heywood, whose book Cambodian dance: celebration of the gods was published in 2008 in Bangkok by River Books. The book is an interesting examination of the history of Cambodian dance and reproduces some remarkable photographs from across many decades. Denise suggests in her recent communication with me that it is not just the costume has links to the Khmer culture, as I suggested in the post, but the choreography for the ballet Le Dieu bleu must surely also have been influenced by Khmer dance, especially the ‘slow, statuesque movements’.

  • The Royal New Zealand Ballet

The Royal New Zealand Ballet has just announced its 2012 season, its first full year under the directorship of Ethan Stiefel. Stiefel will begin the year in February with a very American program entitled NYC, ‘New Young Classic’ (although the other meaning of that acronym is in there too). NYC will feature works by Larry Keigwin, Benjamin Millepied and George Balanchine. Keigwin has a big following in New York and he will create a new work on the dancers of RNZB. Millepied is now probably best known for his contribution to The Black Swan, but he has been making dances for several years for a range of high profile companies including New York City Ballet, American Ballet Theatre and the Paris Opera Ballet. RNZB will dance Millepied’s 28 Variations on a Theme by Paganini (2005).  The program will also include Who Cares?, Balanchine’s popular and beautifully polished work set to songs by George Gershwin.

Later in the year RNZB will restage its production of Christopher Hampson’s Cinderella and in November Gillian Murphy will take the lead role in a new staging of Giselle to be co-produced by Stiefel and that exceptional interpreter of the role of Albrecht, Johann Kobborg.

tonia-looker-2012-giselle-h-photo-ross-brown1

Tonia Looker in a study for Giselle 2012. Photo: © Ross Brown. Courtesy Royal New Zealand Ballet

  • Memory lane

Canberra is currently in the middle of Floriade, its annual celebration of spring (although the weather is decidedly cold). I have never forgotten a remarkable Floriade, the only one I have ever attended I have to admit, back in 1990. The Meryl Tankard Company was then Canberra’s resident dance company and Tankard staged Court of Flora outdoors against the backdrop of Commonwealth Gardens.

Inspired by the engravings in J. J. Grandville’s book, Les Fleurs animées first published in 1847, Court of Flora was given eleven performances in October 1990. Its spectacular costumes, designed by Sydney-based couturier Anthony Phillips, drew sighs of delight from audiences. So too did the ability of Tankard’s dancers to pose decoratively behind bushes and around trees while at the same time investing the flowers that they represented with clearly discernible human qualities, as indeed Grandville had done with his illustrations. In particular, an impish Paige Gordon as Thistle and an elegant Carmela Care as Rose still remain in the mind’s eye.

  • The Little Mermaid

I continue to be confounded by Rex Reid’s Little Mermaid, the version he made for Laurel Martyn’s Victorian Ballet Company in 1967. All sources seem to indicate that it opened as part of a mixed bill on 1 September 1967, but reviews seem to have appeared in Melbourne papers on the same day, 1 September. There is probably a simple explanation—perhaps there was a preview before 1 September to which reviewers were invited? But if anyone was there and can assure me that it did open on 1 September, despite reviews appearing on the same day, I would be thrilled to hear.

  • Site news

Traffic across the site during September increased by over 20% compared with August, due largely to the exceptional interest in Romeo and Juliet. The review attracted a large number of visits, more than any other post in the two year history of the site. Not surprisingly visits from Melbourne topped the list. Other Australian cities generating significant numbers of visits during September were, in order, Sydney, Canberra, Brisbane and Adelaide.

Some small updates will be made to the site in the next few weeks. On the home page I am having a link to the full tag cloud inserted under the list of top 20 tags. This will facilitate searching from the home page.

I am also having two new sub-pages added to the Resource page. One will be for National Library of Australia articles and will allow me to separate articles written for National Library of Australia News/The National Library Magazine from other online publications. The second will be for articles written for theatre programs.

Michelle Potter, 1 October 2011

Ethan Stiefel to direct the Royal New Zealand Ballet

In an astonishing coup, the Royal New Zealand Ballet has just announced that Ethan Stiefel, currently principal dancer with American Ballet Theatre and dean of the School of Dance at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, will be its next artistic director, taking up the position in the second half of 2011.  Stiefel will be joined by Gillian Murphy, his partner in life and also a principal with ABT.

stiefel

Ethan Stiefel in Swan Lake Act III, American Ballet Theatre. Photo Rosalie O’Connor

Stiefel’s comments on his appointment are: ‘I am enormously appreciative and enthusiastic about having been appointed the next Artistic Director of the Royal New Zealand Ballet. Becoming RNZB’s Artistic Director provides me with an exceptional opportunity to professionally and personally evolve and to contribute to the art form I truly love. It is very encouraging to see how much the company has already achieved, the potential it possesses and how the nation embraces its national ballet company. I look forward to building on the company’s fine reputation, while seeking to be a fresh, innovative and inspiring new leader for the RNZB in any way I can. Both myself and my partner in life; American Ballet Theatre Principal Dancer, Gillian Murphy, are ready for this new chapter in our lives and wholeheartedly make a commitment to the new adventures and prospects it holds. Finally, I also look forward to connecting with my relatives living in New Zealand today and, being a sports enthusiast with Kiwi blood, I’m also looking forward to supporting the All Blacks!’

I can see that ‘crossing the ditch’ will become more common for Australian dance folk. One of my fondest memories of living in New York between 2006 and 2008 was seeing an ABT production of La Bayadere in which Stiefel danced Solor, Murphy Gamzatti and Diana Vishneva Nikiya.

Michelle Potter, 30 October 2010