Giselle: The Australian Ballet Regional Tour

Concourse Theatre, Chatswood, Sydney, October 4

The Australian Ballet’s regional touring program has undergone a quiet change. It was created about 35 years ago as The Dancers Company but since earlier this year has gone by an even more prosaic name: The Australian Ballet Regional Tour. Why the change? Presumably so the AB’s ownership is stressed. The new name bluntly asserts that the national company isn’t just performing in the capital cities.

The Dancers Company was designed to give performance opportunities to advanced students from the Australian Ballet School. They would be seen alongside a couple of guests from the AB but focus was essentially on the students. If Giselle is any guide that focus is shifting a little.

tab_regionaltour_giselle_karen-nanasca-andrew-killian-photo-jeff-busby-1074

Karen Nanasca and Andrew Killian in Giselle with Edward Smith (at rear). Photo: Jeff Busby

Those with long memories will remember an attempt by the AB in 2002 to extend its reach and live up to its national-company status by taking a contemporary program to the regions. The triple bill – The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude, Other Dances and Por vos muero – didn’t catch fire with that audience and some performances had to be cancelled. Responsibility for performing ballet outside the capital cities went back to The Dancers Company. (Responsibility for Australian ballet, that is – there are several Russian companies who undertake regular, extensive regional tours, primarily with Swan Lake and Nutcracker.)

Staging of this touring Giselle, which is on entirely traditional lines, is attributed rather anonymously to “The Australian Ballet”. It’s danced to a recording that isn’t directly credited but is, I assume, the version advertised on the cast sheet as a new CD of Adolphe Adams’s score with AB music director Nicolette Fraillon at the helm of the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra. It’s never ideal to be without a live orchestra but it’s also an economic impossibility in these circumstances and the recording is a vibrant one with some lively tempi to challenge the dancers.

At the early October performance I saw in the Sydney suburb of Chatswood, Karen Nanasca, an AB coryphée, was an enchanting Giselle with her wonderfully expressive face and eyes. Nanasca told her story with clarity and admirable simplicity. The elements weren’t surprising but they felt fresh and cohered into a convincing and touching whole, the dancer at one with the character. When Giselle’s heart broke, the ground had been prepared. Everything led up to an emotional, involving mad scene. Nanasca’s second act was less individual although again it was noticeable how she used her gaze eloquently.

Andrew Killian’s elegantly danced Albrecht was less fully fleshed. There was something of the detached, amused playboy about him so Albrecht’s repeated lunges towards Giselle’s dead body at the end of Act I appeared to come from nowhere. Nevertheless, Killian did give the evening leading-man sheen. (At some performances during this short tour Albrecht will be danced by another AB principal artist, Ty King-Wall, so the AB isn’t stinting on its stars.)

The aristocratic Bathilde, who is engaged to Albrecht, was in the very sure hands of AB soloist Dana Stephenson (she dances Giselle at some performances) and Giselle’s spurned admirer Hilarion was beautifully danced by ABS student Jackson Fisch. His Hilarion, so young and hopeful, was no match for Albrecht’s mature confidence.

AB corps member Aya Watanabe gave a neat account of the peasant pas alongside former AB member Simon Plant, whose duties were pleasingly shared with two unnamed men from The Dancers Company. (Confused yet? That’s what the ABS dancers are billed as, a kind of subset within the cast.)

Watanabe doubled up as a Lead Wili in the second act with fellow AB corps member Ella Havelka, both under the command of Isobelle Dashwood’s Myrtha, Queen of the Wilis. Dashwood joined the AB as a corps de ballet member only this year (as did Watanabe) so it’s a big role for her. She acquitted herself exceptionally well, not only technically – impressively fast, tight bourées; a majestically deep arabesque penchée – but with her poise in the face of the role’s intense demands.

Giselle is to be performed again on the Regional Tour next year, providing more chances to see up-and-coming AB dancers in roles they would be unlikely to assume in capital city performances.

A final point though. The AB is foolishly using, on its website, a quote about Giselle from The New York Times: “Phenomenal dramatic impact.” That phrase is from a 1990 review by Anna Kisselgoff of Maina Gielgud’s production when it was performed by the AB in New York. There are some details (and set elements and costumes by Peter Farmer) from Gielgud’s production used in these current performances but, as I noted above, Gielgud is not credited as the stager and some of her most telling dramatic touches are not present (nor should they be if she has not produced this version).

This current production is pleasing but it does not feature the full resources of The Australian Ballet performing Maina Gielgud’s internationally admired staging of Giselle. It is careless to imply it.

Remaining performances of Giselle: Griffith, October 12; Wagga Wagga, October 14 and 15; Newcastle, October 19 and 20.

An earlier version of this review had an incorrect caption. It is Edward Smith in the rear of the photo with Nanasca and Killian. My apologies.

4 thoughts on “Giselle: The Australian Ballet Regional Tour

  1. Deborah, I managed to catch Nanasca with RNZB guest artist Joseph Skelton in Wagga Wagga, and completely agree with your positive feelings about her. Queen Cygnet (all TAB’s best cygnet combos in both Murphy and Baynes have her as their anchor) has become an individual of whom to take note.

    Isobelle Dashwood’s presence was so emphatic, and her bourrées were so gorgeous to watch, I found myself wishing she’d been a mainstage Myrtha last year in preference to at least one I saw!

    Skelton (marvellously strong entrechats six) I enjoyed, although I wish I’d seen Killian as well.

    Perhaps even more remarkable, the corps of ten Wilis plus two “Lead Wilis” all had their legs at the same angle in my favourite benchmark, the hops in arabesque! Not quite all the arms, but the legs are what do it for me 😉

    • I’m glad you enjoyed Karen as much as I did, and yes, Dashwood made a very strong impression. I enjoyed seeing these more junior dancers stepping up. Certainly regional audiences weren’t shortchanged – there was plenty of talent in the chief roles. Touring Giselle in this way is an interesting development in the AB’s scheduling as well. I would have liked to see Skelton. I’ve seen him with RNZB and he’s a fine dancer. They were very chuffed at RNZB that he’d been invited to guest.

  2. Deborah, I managed to catch Nanasca with RNZB guest artist Joseph Skelton in Wagga Wagga, and completely agree with your positive feelings about her. Queen Cygnet (all TAB’s best cygnet combos in both Murphy and Baynes have her as their anchor) has become an individual of whom to take note.

    Isobelle Dashwood’s presence was so emphatic, and her bourrées were so gorgeous to watch, I found myself wishing she’d been a mainstage Myrtha last year in preference to at least one I saw!

    Skelton (marvellously strong entrechats six) I enjoyed, although I wish I’d seen Killian as well.

    Perhaps even more remarkable, the corps of ten Wilis plus two “Lead Wilis” all had their legs at the same angle in my favourite benchmark, the hops in arabesque! Not quite all the arms, but the legs are what do it for me 😉

    The Wagga theatre was sold out for the matinée I went to, and I understand the entire tour had sold very well.

    Very awkward listings of TAB corps and ABS students in the programme – large group photo of students as per usual, tiny list of TAB company members involved buried at the back.

    • I take your point about TAB versus ABS – not easy for people to understand precisely what is being presented to them. The AB has been too unclear about this I think. (As you can tell from my point re the Kisselgoff quote used to spruik the show. Not good.)

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