English National Ballet in Akram Khan's 'Giselle', Act I, 2016. Photo: © Laurent Liotardo

Akram Khan’s ‘Giselle’. English National Ballet

15 November 2016, Sadler’s Wells, London

Akram Khan’s Giselle begins in gloom. A grey wall confronts us and the figures onstage are shadowy. Greyness and gloom in fact pervade much of the production. But it is a truly fascinating work in which we are given enough clues, choreographically (a version of the famous ‘cow hop’ crossing of the stage by the Wilis appears in Act II) and musically, to remind us that we are indeed watching a version of Giselle. All the main characters are there and they have the same relationships with each other as they do in traditional productions. But they inhabit a very different world from the peasants and gentry of the Rhineland.

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English National Ballet in Akram Khan’s Giselle, 2016. Photo: © Laurent Liotardo

Khan’s Giselle is set in a community of migrant workers, workers marginalised by factory landlords. Albrecht is a member of the wealthy class. Hilarion is an outcast but a ‘foxy’ person who is able to cross boundaries and broker exchanges. Giselle is a former garment factory worker exiled from her home and family. And so the story goes. Act II takes place behind the wall, in a kind of ghost factory where female factory workers have laboured and where many have died. And so the story goes.

But the fascination is in the choreography as much as in the reimagining of the story and the relocation of it in a world in which globalisation and its effects are powerful forces. The factory workers dance in an orderly fashion, even in a militaristic manner somewhat like factory machines. Hilarion, wonderfully danced by Cesar Corrales, is often animal-like as he insinuates himself into the lives of others. He throws himself acrobatically around the stage. He is everywhere. The music, by Vincenzo Lamagna after Adolphe Adam, is relentless, the dancing compulsive.

Cesar Corrales as Hilarion in Akram Khan's 'Giselle', English National Ballet, 2016. Photo: © Laurent Liotardo

Cesar Corrales as Hilarion in Akram Khan’s Giselle, Act I. English National Ballet, 2016. Photo: © Laurent Liotardo

When Albrecht (James Streeter) arrives on the scene the music stops and he has a solo in silence. A duet between Albrecht and Giselle (Tamara Rojo) takes place in the shadows. Then at the wailing sound of a siren (referencing the horn of Adam’s score) the wall lifts and the landlords arrive. The party includes a cold and distant Bathilde (Begoña Cao) to whom Albrecht is engaged. The landlords wear outlandish clothes and pose decoratively, or move in a highly stylised fashion. Giselle recognises the dress Bathilde is wearing. It is a dress she has sewn. Eventually Albrecht leaves with Bathilde and chaos ensues. The dancing becomes frenzied, the grey wall turns red, the music gathers in volume and then stops. Curtain.

Act II is sometimes quite balletic by comparison. The Willis dance on pointe for one thing. Myrtha, strongly and impressively performed by Stina Quagebeur, drags Giselle’s body centre stage and reanimates it. The Wilis wield sticks like giant needles—references perhaps to a former life the Wilis have spent in a garment factory. The Wilis are relentless in their dancing and in their torment of Hilarion. They often crouch like witches, hair streaming down.

Stina Quagebeur as Myrtha in Akram Khan's 'Giselle', English National Ballet, 2016. Photo: Lauren Liotardo

Stina Quagebeur as Myrtha in Akram Khan’s Giselle, Act II. English National Ballet, 2016. Photo: © Laurent Liotardo

Giselle and Albrecht have a pas de deux of swirling lifts, of sweeping proportions and of reconciliation. Eventually Albrecht finds himself alone. Final curtain.

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James Streeter as Albrecht and Tamara Rojo as Giselle in Akram Khan’s Giselle, Act II. English National Ballet, 2016. Photo: © Laurent Liotardo

There have been many different productions of Giselle over the many years I have been involved with dance. I have my favourites. But the Akram Khan version is perhaps the most startling I have seen. It has a deeply searching quality to it that questions life in our time. And yet it also addresses the themes of the traditional Giselle: love, life, betrayal and reconciliation. I guess, however, I would have liked the characters of Giselle and Albrecht to have been more clearly articulated in the narrative, or in the choreography. I’m not sure it was all that clear just who they were, or where they fitted into the world we were seeing. They have a very clear societal position in the traditional ballet but not so much in Khan’s. Or perhaps this is because I have seen so many traditional productions of Giselle that there is no doubt in my mind where they fit into the story?

But I have nothing but praise for the dancers of English National Ballet. They performed Khan’s choreography with stunning success. A ballet to be seen again and again I think.

Michelle Potter, 16 November 2016

Featured image: Akram Khan’s Giselle, Act II. English National Ballet, 2016. Photo: © Laurent Liotardo

Akram Khan's 'Giselle', Act II, English National Ballet. Photo: © Laurent Liotardo

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

‘Giselle’. The Royal Ballet

28 March 2016, Royal Opera House, Covent Garden

I have been a fan of Peter Wright’s production of Giselle, which dates back to 1985, ever since I saw it in Australia in 2002 during the Royal Ballet’s tour that year. I like that Wright’s research into the historical background of the ballet has informed the work, especially in relation to character development. The current season by the Royal Ballet confirms my conviction that Wright’s production is an exceptional one.

Sarah Lamb as Giselle and Ryoichi Hirano as Albrecht perhaps don’t reach the emotional heights of others I have seen in these roles, but technically they danced beautifully: their Act II pas de deux in particular was quite breathtaking. Hirano’s partnering skills were remarkable and he made those beautiful high lifts looked effortless—Giselle became the weightless sylph she is meant to be. And the pair’s final parting in Act II, as Giselle disappeared into her grave, was as moving as one could hope for.

In addition, and thankfully, there was no emphasis on the execution of steps for the sake of steps in the course of Albrecht having to dance on and on. The choreography was used to convey the dramatic line, although of course the steps were beautifully performed. In fact I found it mightily impressive that the whole of Albrecht’s ‘dance until you drop’ section flowed on so smoothly and logically from the earlier sequence when Hilarion was sentenced to die, something that I can’t remember ever seeing so clearly before.

Being used to seeing a peasant pas de deux in other productions, the pas de six in Act I was something of a curiosity for me, which I can’t remember from 2002. But it was nicely danced and I especially admired a gentleman with dark curly hair who seemed to be someone other than those mentioned on the cast sheet. Whoever he was, he performed with wonderful attack.

The Royal Ballet’s corps danced strongly throughout. As peasants in Act I they were boisterously beautiful, as Wilis in Act II they were both mysteriously supernatural in their movements and heartlessly cold in their damnation of Hilarion and Albrecht.

John Macfarlane’s design does not pretend to be prettily peasant. The cottages in Act I are rough, the forest in Act II is wild, and it makes for just the right visual effect. And to my surprise and pleasure (I had forgotten it from previous viewings), the village folk in Act I didn’t all wear exactly the same costume.

The one thing that bothered me was that the long Act I mime scene from Berthe (Elizabeth McGorian) focused on explaining the legend of the Wilis without, to my mind, relating it enough to Giselle in particular. Berthe seemed to be talking to everyone except Giselle. On the other hand, it was interesting to see how class distinctions between the village folk and the Duke and his entourage were developed. I have never seen such a Bathilde as that of Sian Murphy who seemed positively dismissive of the peasants. And, as ever, the printed program was full of extra information including an excellent interview with Peter Wright and an explanation of the mime scene mentioned above.

All in all a very satisfying production with so much of interest that I could see it again and again.

Michelle Potter, 29 March 2016

Also as ever, this review is not accompanied by images as no one at the Royal Ballet seems inclined even to acknowledge my requests over the years for images, let alone agree to supply any.

Dance diary. May 2015

  • Oral history

I recently had the pleasure of recording an oral history interview for the National Library with Marilyn Jones. I first interviewed Jones in 1990 as part of the Esso Performing Arts and Oral History Archive Project, so this 2015 interview was a follow-up after 25 years. The image below captures, I think, the essence of Les Sylphides and Jones’ ability to dance that elusiveness.

The interview requires written permission for use so will not be available online, but in many respects oral history is for the future. I certainly have become more and more aware of its intrinsic value as time passes. The full story of the Australian Ballet strike of 1981, for example, which took place during the artistic directorship of Jones, is yet to be told. Several interviews in the National Library’s collection give a variety of perspectives and await the historian.

Marilyn Jones and Jonathan Watts in 'Les Sylphides'. The Australian Ballet 1963. Photo Walter Stringer, National Library of Australia

Marilyn Jones and Jonathan Watts in Les Sylphides. The Australian Ballet, 1963. Photo: Walter Stringer, National Library of Australia

Other dance interviews I have recorded in the past six months have been with Peter Bahen, Lisa Pavane and David Deverelle-Hill.

On the subject of the Esso Performing Arts material, there are 41 interviews, not all of which are dance-related, in that collection and a list can be accessed via the National Library catalogue. Many are available online.

  • Juliet Burnett

It came as something of a shock to learn that Juliet Burnett is leaving (has already left I think) the Australian Ballet. She has given me, and I’m sure many others, such a lot of pleasure over the past few years. Just recently, her performances in the leading roles in Graeme Murphy’s Swan Lake and Maina Gielgud’s production of Giselle have suggested wonderful things to come. But let’s hope that wherever the future takes her she will find much happiness. My posts mentioning Burnett are at this link.

  • Press for May

‘Visiting dance troupe’s double bill a triumph.’ Review of Quintett and  Frame of Mind, Sydney Dance Company. The Canberra Times, 2 May 2015, p. 19. Online version.

‘Circus acts unmissable.’ Review of ‘Le Noir: the dark side of Circque.’ The Canberra Times, 8 May 2015, ARTS p. 6. Online version.

‘Magical production of a great Giselle.’ Review of the Australian Ballet’s Canberra season of Giselle, The Canberra Times, 25 May 2015, ARTS p. 6. Online version.

 

‘Giselle’. The Australian Ballet (2015 third viewing)

21 May 2015, Canberra Theatre Centre

This is an expanded version of a review published by Fairfax Media online on 22 May and which will appear shortly in print in The Canberra Times [published 25 May].

Giselle is one of the great works of the balletic repertoire. Its story of love, betrayal and forgiveness needs powerful acting as well as exceptional dancing, and its Romantic heritage (it was first performed in Paris in 1841) requires that its two acts be very different from each other. The first act, showing village life at harvest time, is grounded in reality; the second, set in a ghostly forest clearing at midnight, is just the opposite. The opening night of the Australian Ballet’s Canberra season of Giselle, the Maina Gielgud production, ticked all the boxes and was nothing short of stunning.

In the leading roles of the peasant girl Giselle, and Albrecht, the man Giselle loves, Lana Jones and Adam Bull danced exceptionally well, both together and in their respective solos. I have never seen Jones dance with such lightness and elevation and her held arabesques lingered beautifully every time. The relationship between Jones and Bull unfolded carefully throughout Act I as a result of their expressive faces and their constant eye contact. Then, when Albrecht’s true identity was revealed—he is not the peasant he seems to be but a Count in disguise—Jones brought compelling dramatic force to her mental collapse. Bull played Albrecht as a man genuinely in love and, although he could not deny his aristocratic lineage when confronted with it, we felt his anguish as he faced Giselle’s onstage death.

By Act II Giselle, as prefigured in Act I, has become a Wili and rises from the grave to join others like her who have been betrayed in love. They prey upon men who enter their domain at night and, at the command of Myrtha, their Queen, condemn them to dance until they die. Jones and Bull again showed their exceptional technical skills but also consistently stayed in character. Their first encounter, after Albrecht had entered the forest to mourn at Giselle’s grave, was a moving one. Jones drifted past Bull as an apparition whom he could not catch. As the act progressed we felt Bull’s desperation as he obeyed the command to keep dancing, and we felt Jones’ all-consuming love as she pleaded that he be saved. None of this was at the expense of their dancing in a technical sense, but neither did they allow their dancing to intrude on the development of the story.

As Myrtha, Ako Kondo was superb. She was, as ever, technically assured. But she also brought just the right imperious quality to her performance. No one could escape her cold-heartedness.

Ako Kondo as Myrtha in 'Giselle'. The Australian Ballet, 2015. Photo: Jeff Busby

Ako Kondo as Myrtha in Giselle. The Australian Ballet, 2015. Photo: © Jeff Busby

Hilarion, the rough and untutored gamekeeper also in love with Giselle, was strongly danced by Andrew Killian. His role in unmasking Albrecht in Act I is crucial and Killian made his every move and thought unmistakably clear. As Wilfred, Albrecht’s right hand man, Andrew Wright also gave a strong performance. He was forever anxious as he tried again and again to persuade Albrecht not to pursue his deception of Giselle, and then was in the right place at the right time to usher him out of the village following Giselle’s death.

The peasant pas de deux, a highlight of Act I, was danced by Miwako Kubota and Christopher Rodgers-Wilson. They made a charming couple, both in their dancing and in the way they engaged with each other, and with us in the auditorium. What I especially admired was that they maintained their roles as two people from the village community. While technically they certainly matched others I have seen perform this pas de deux, they were the first who didn’t look as though they belonged elsewhere.

Natasha Kusen and Robyn Hendricks also caught my eye for their lyrical performance as the leading Wilis in Act II. Kusen in particular had a wonderfully fluid upper body and arms and continues to stand out as a dancer to watch.

Although the size of the Canberra stage caused one or two difficult moments, the dancers of the Australian Ballet performed as the true professionals they are. It was a wonderful Giselle, beautifully danced, thoroughly engaging, and dramatically convincing throughout.

Michelle Potter, 23 May 2015

 

Postscript

On the question of the size of the Canberra Theatre and its relation to the Australian Ballet’s abilities to stage its current repertoire in the present theatre, at the post-performance event, John Hindmarsh, current chair of the ACT Cultural Facilities Corporation announced that he had had some success in his ongoing initiative to develop a new Canberra Theatre. While there is, apparently, still much to achieve Hindmarsh was in a relatively buoyant mood about possibilities.

I am also curious that the name Loys, the pseudonym that used to be given to Albrecht while he assumes a village identity, seems to be disappearing. It didn’t appear in this production. And is he a Count as the Australian Ballet program says, or is he the Duke of Silesia as others note? Pedantic points perhaps, but interesting nevertheless.

And one disappointment, no media images were available of Jones and Bull, which seems a missed opportunity to me.

‘Giselle’. A second look

4 April 2015 (matinee), Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House

Seeing an artist make his or her debut in a principal role is always an exciting prospect, especially when it is in one of the important classics of the ballet repertoire. It was a double thrill for the audience at the Sydney Opera House on 4 April when two Australian Ballet dancers, senior artist Juliet Burnett and coryphée Jared Wright, appeared for the first time in the leading roles of Giselle and Albrecht in Maina Gielgud’s Giselle.

In rehearsal for Giselle.  (l-r)  Juliet Burnett and Jared Wright; Jared Wright; Juliet Burnett and Robyn Hendricks. All photos © Lynette Wills, 2015

Perhaps what stood out more than anything for me was the way in which both Burnett and Wright looked unhurried. There was time to savour each moment of their dancing and their interpretation of the roles. They were strongest in Act II. Burnett was as light as a feather, a frail wisp, as she moved across the stage. Wright was filled with the right amount of sorrow and desperation to atone for his betrayal of Giselle. Their first encounter was sweepingly poetic. Then Burnett pleaded for mercy from Myrtha and did her best to protect her love. Wright pleaded too and did his best to keep dancing. While each danced well technically, to the credit of these two dancers I wasn’t looking so much at execution of steps, I was swept up in the mood.

In Act I Wright struggled a little I thought with the duality of Albrecht and I was never quite sure how he saw himself at any one time, peasant or royalty? There are moments of each for Albrecht in Act I and it is not easy to work between the two. Burnett was quite frightening in the mad scene as her limbs shook and her blank expression removed her from the real world. It lacked a certain theatricality, however, which would have lifted the scene to another level. Sometimes too real isn’t quite enough.

Of the minor principals, Olga Tamara gave an interesting interpretation of Berthe, Giselle’s mother. She set herself apart as a matter-of-fact lady, and her apprehension that the Wilis were present in the village and waiting for her daughter was conveyed strongly. Amanda McGuigan made a commanding Myrtha, cold and haughty.

I hope it is not as long between Australian Ballet seasons of Giselle as it has been recently. Both Burnett and Wright showed great promise of things to come and they deserve the opportunity to hone their interpretations, to polish their technique and to grow as artists. There are few ballets that offer such a great opportunity to reach new heights in one’s career as Giselle gives to those who are entrusted to carry on its beauty, its demands and its legacy.

Michelle Potter, 5 April 2015

My review of another performance of Giselle with Natasha Kusch and Chengwu Guo is at this link.

‘Giselle’. The Australian Ballet (2015)

My review of Giselle with the Australian Ballet is now available on DanceTabs at this link.

Artists of the Australian Ballet in 'Giselle'. Photo: Jeff Busby, 2015

Artists of the Australian Ballet in Giselle. Photo: Jeff Busby, 2015

I am disappointed that I was not able to be more positive in this review. But the experience did set me thinking about the importance of every character in a narrative ballet having a strong vision of where their character fits within the overall story. When it happens audiences are the beneficiaries, but the experience also reflects back really well on the dancers and the company. In the performance of Giselle I saw there were occasions when there seemed to be a lack of understanding of why certain things were happening, and a consequent lack of reaction between characters. Ballet companies are time-poor these days, I know, and it struck me that perhaps a dramaturg is needed occasionally?

I look forward to seeing other casts in Sydney and Canberra.

Michelle Potter, 16 March 2015

Update (7 April 2015): My review of another Giselle cast, featuring Juliet Burnett and Jared Wright, is at this link.

‘Giselle’ in the news

It seems that the Australian Ballet will be bringing back Maina Gielgud’s production of Giselle in 2015. Gielgud’s web page indicates that she will be in Australia from late 2014, firstly teaching in Perth, Brisbane and Melbourne and then working on staging Giselle for the Australian Ballet.

This news sent me looking at some of my favourite, easily available online images from Giselle. I didn’t have the opportunity to see Natalia Makarova and Mikhail Baryshnikov in the Ballet Victoria production of 1975. But some of my favourite Giselle photos come from that production, an amazing event when one considers that Makarova defected in 1970 and Baryshnikov did so in 1974 and here they were in Australia in 1975 so early in their careers in the West. Walter Stringer’s photos are often slightly blurry but I think he has captured something of the quality of the performance.

Mikhail Baryshnikov as Albrecht in 'Giselle', Ballet Victoria 1975. Photo: Walter Stringer

Mikhail Baryshnikov and Natalia Makarova in Giselle, Ballet Victoria  1975. Photos: Walter Stringer. National Library of Australia

In the meantime, Graeme Murphy has been in South Korea workshopping a new version of Giselle. It seems that we won’t see this production in Australia, at least not in the short term. The idea of a Murphy reworking is tantalising and I can’t help wondering why a ballet company in South Korea had the prescience to commission it rather than the Australian Ballet.

I love to see a high quality ‘traditional’ version and still sigh over the Paris Opera Ballet’s production we saw in Australia in 2012. But the most moving production I have ever seen was created by Sylvie Guillem in 1998 for the Finnish National Ballet, which I saw in 2001. On the surface it certainly wasn’t a traditional Giselle, as the photo below indicates, although anyone familiar in the slightest degree with the ballet will recognise the dance sequence from Act I shown here. Below the surface though, I found that not only did it pull at the heart strings but it was deeply and intellectually satisfying as well.

Artists of Finnish National Ballet in 'Giselle', 1998. Photo: © Kari Hakli

Artists of Finnish National Ballet in Giselle, 1998. Photo: © Kari Hakli

I wrote about the Guillem Giselle in 2001 for Brolga, then an old-fashioned print journal. I declined to give permission for it to be digitised by Ausdance when they began digitising back issues, but here is a section from it.

Guillem as producer and choreographer (after Coralli-Perrot-Petipa according to the program), reconceived the ballet according to her wish for it to be a work that would evoke both the past and the present, and that would be meaningful to contemporary audiences. In program notes she stated:

‘Giselle’s story is a timeless one. To die of love, not so much for a man as for loss of love. Naturally the texts by Théophile Gautier and Heinrich Heine clearly laid down the basic intentions. Over the years, these intentions have been buried beneath set choreographic habits, mainly with regard to gesture, thereby becoming a sort of incoherent language expected to “speak” the story … I wanted to rediscover Giselle and make the blood flow again in the veins of the various protagonists’.*

And elsewhere she is quoted as saying: ‘Even if Giselle hadn’t had a heart attack, the ballet was dying by itself. It was becoming more and more stupid, without any sense’.**

Strong words from Guillem. We know the Gielgud production. As for the Murphy version … we will have to wait.

Michelle Potter, 15 June 2014

NOTES:

* Sylvie Guillem, ‘Waiting for curtain-up’. Program for Giselle, Théâtre du Chatelet, Paris 2000–2001, p. 12.

**Debra Crane, ‘Made for fame’. Dance Now, vol. 9 (No. 4, Winter 2000–2001), p. 16.

I am working on making available in full my article from Brolga and will include it in my dance diary for June.

‘G’: Australian Dance Theatre

13 June 2013, Canberra Theatre

Dancers of Australian Dance Theatre in 'G'. Photo: Chris herzfeld, Camlight Productions
Dancers of Australian Dance Theatre in G. Photo: Chris Herzfeld, Camlight Productions

Garry Stewart’s G had a short run in Canberra last week. Although it first had a showing in 2008, this was my first opportunity to see it and once again I was impressed by Stewart’s exceptional approach, which combines his unique intellect with his emphasis on the physical. Here is a link to my review published in The Canberra Times on 15 June. It also contains a gallery of photos by Rohan Thomson.

I had previously spoken briefly to Stewart about his interest in an article entitled ‘Giselle, madness and death’ published in the journal Medical Humanities in 2004, which has some bearing on the approach Stewart took. For anyone interested in this background here is a link to the article.

Michelle Potter, 17 June 2013

‘Giselle’. Paris Opera Ballet (2013)

29 January 2013, Capitol Theatre, Sydney

The Paris Opera Ballet’s production of Giselle is breathtaking, poetic and immensely moving. It is steeped in the two nineteenth century traditions from which it emerged: ballet-pantomime and romanticism. And it is danced by artists whose technical expertise is a benchmark for today.

The production is so clear in its story-telling. The dancers appear to live rather than act out their parts and the evening just sweeps along. Giselle, danced by Dorothée Gilbert, draws us into her peasant world and shares her inconsolable sorrow at being betrayed in Act I, and in Act II she almost seems to melt away at times so fragile and vaporous is her reading of her role as a Wili. Her mimed tears as she tells us how much she had loved Albrecht simply melt the heart.

But, while it is clear, the production is also subtle, beautifully so. Nothing screams out, everything is harmonious as the story moves to an inevitable conclusion.

As for the dancing, well there’s just nothing like the Paris Opera Ballet. The corps de ballet is so beautifully rehearsed and they danced to perfection in both acts; Mathieu Ganio as Albrecht performed the most exquisite series of entrechats in Act II; Marie-Agnès Gillot was a commanding Myrthe and the Act I Peasant pas de deux, danced by Mélanie Hurel and Emmanuel Thibault, was joyously captivating.

But although there were some (or many) outstanding moments of performance, the evening was about the entire company. What makes this company so outstanding is the way in which the dancers perform in the classical mode. Every movement is a complete one. The dancers are able to take a bend of the body, a circular movement, a lift of the arms, anything really, and one can see where the movements starts, how it moves along its trajectory and how it finishes and moves into the next movement. This kind of dancing, so smooth and fluid, so sweeping, having such clarity, is rare and it is such a huge pleasure to see.

The Sydney Lyric Orchestra, consisting of musicians drawn together from a variety of organisations and directed by concertmaster Adrian Keating, was conducted by Belgian, Koen Kessels. The music never intrudes but is always clearly and strongly present, moving the story along. Perfect. It also presents a new perspective on Adolphe Adam’s music, reinstating some of the passages that have long been removed from the score as a result of the ballet having been whittled away over the decades from its original ballet-pantomime intentions. And the cello solo in Act II was as moving as the dance it accompanied.

Much has been made of this production being the ‘most authentic’ production of Giselle, and I began this review by mentioning the two traditions from which the first Giselle emerged. It is true that the ballet-pantomime tradition has been given a focus to a certain extent with the mime scenes, such as Giselle’s mother Berthe, danced by Amélie Lamoureux, telling in an extended way the story of the Wilis and prophesying the death of Giselle; the insertion of the men playing dice in the forest as Act II begins; and so on. The romanticism is well and truly there in the qualities the Paris Opera Ballet brings to Act II—that feeling, explored through technical means as much as anything else, of the Wilis drifting in and out of a real world and a world beyond the real.

But I have seen both these traditions explored in several other productions of Giselle—that of Sylvie Guillem for the Finnish National Ballet, the Royal Ballet’s production where the Act I mime is extensive, and even parts of Peggy van Praagh’s production for the Australian Ballet. So for me it is not so much a ‘return to authenticity’ that marks this production as remarkable, as interesting as this is. It is the skill and beauty of the dancers of the Paris Opera Ballet, who are transcendent artists, and the direction of the company that understands that the classical technique can accomplish so much when exploited to its limits and used as an expressive vocabulary.

As a side issue, I admired the program cover for Giselle, reproduced below.

POB program coverIt captures so much of the essence of Act II, the fragility of the world of the Wili and the overwhelming presence of the forces of nature and the night. And, best of all, it isn’t a fashion shot that has nothing to do with what happens in the ballet. The cover photo is by © Jacques Moatti.

Michelle Potter, 30 January 2013

Update (3 February 2013): I have it on reliable authority that the sublime cello solo was, on opening night, played by Peter Morrison.

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