Li Cunxin first programmed Giselle a decade ago in his first year as artistic director of Queensland Ballet. He had three leading casts – enough, you would think. Then a spate of injuries, including one on opening night that led to replacement leads dancing the second act, found Li having to scramble to save another performance at the 11th hour. Eleanor Freeman, who was Queen of the Wilis at some performances, was hastily coached in the title role and went on as two of the injured Giselles prompted from the wings.
It’s certainly not ideal but it does happen in ballet. Li, however, is on much safer ground this time around as QB revives the Ai-Gul Gaisina production first seen in Brisbane in 2013. QB is now about twice the size it was then and has six leading couples ready to go. Three of them could be seen on the opening weekend: Mia Heathcote with Patricio Revé, Neneka Yoshida with Victor Estévez and Yanela Piñera with Alexander Idaszak. Each was pleasingly and distinctively different in the ghost story from 1841 that, if you’ll forgive me, refuses to die. Giselle’s delicate web of love, betrayal, spectral beings and forgiveness from beyond the grave is catnip to dancers and audiences alike.
In the opening performance Heathcote and Revé looked ravishing as peasant girl Giselle and Albrecht, the spoken-for aristocrat who disguises himself as a commoner to woo her. They were innocent and ethereal; she soft and restrained and he gentle and attentive. The effect was a little too unvarying and soft-grained until the mad scene that ends Act I, in which Heathcote was magnificently off the leash. And in Act II, Revé thrilled with an immaculate set of 32 entrechats six. He is supposed to be dancing himself to death but to be honest looked as if he was never going to stop.
At the Saturday matinee Yoshida and Estévez were the romantics, Yoshida with an enchanting sparkle in her eyes and Estévez exquisitely alert to the impossibility of his position. In the mad scene the joy drained from Yoshida’s face as she replayed the “he loves me, he loves me not” game Giselle and Albrecht play. (Confession time: this was the pair that brought a tear to my eye.)
On Saturday evening Piñera was wilder at that moment, plucking at the imagined daisy petals as if they could somehow be punished for lying to her. It was a strong, dramatically effective choice for Piñera. She has a forceful stage presence and she and Idaszak were the flesh-and-blood couple, locking eyes sexily and flirting with practised ease until it all went very wrong.
Each principal pair was well matched with their Hilarion (Vito Bernasconi, Kohei Iwamoto and Dylan Lackey respectively), the gamekeeper who is sweet on Giselle and reveals Albrecht’s secret. He precipitates the tragedy that rips Giselle from home and loved ones into the supernatural sisterhood of the Wilis, ruled by the icy Myrtha. As the dead Giselle is cradled by her mother, Hilarion and Albrecht fling accusations at each other. You – no, you! – are responsible. Both are right. It’s a heart-stopping few seconds of high drama that worked each time.
The crucial role of Myrtha was taken creditably but not entirely persuasively by Piñera on opening night and Laura Tosar and Serena Green at the Saturday performances. For different reasons each lacked something of Myrtha’s chilly, awe-inspiring authority. Tosar’s airiness, also on gorgeous display when she danced a Lead Wili on opening night (Li gets his money’s worth), will make her Giselle one to pay attention to later in the season. Libby-Rose Neiderer was another Lead Wili who stood out for her feather-light embrace of Romantic style.
Gaisina’s tried-and-true production has the familiar appearance and outline of most traditional stagings and is based on several of Petipa’s revivals of the original ballet created by Jules Perrot and Jean Cavalli. There aren’t any visual surprises; the differences are in nuance and detail. Gaisina chooses, for instance, a villagers’ pas de huit in Act I rather than the well-known pas de deux. It makes the long set of dances seem to go more quickly, which is good, and stops one wondering how come this tiny place has such vibrant stars in its midst. With eight dancers sharing the load, albeit the men a bit untidily, there’s more of an air of general community celebration.
Less successful is the heavy-handed indication that Giselle’s mother and the Prince of Courland, whose hunting party drops by to take some refreshment, know one another. In some productions that instant of recognition is taken to mean the Prince is Giselle’s father. Here one might think the Prince has merely dabbled in a bit of meaningless, to him, droit de seigneur. It’s certainly possible, but would that not mean Giselle’s mother would be even more suspicious about the aristocratic-looking stranger who has captivated her daughter? After an initial meaningful stare she doesn’t seem all that bothered. Hilarion knows right from the get-go that Albrecht is no ordinary fellow. An early mime makes absolutely clear he sees nobility in Albrecht’s face. If Giselle’s mother has had her brush with the quality, wouldn’t she be alert to that?
Or – and I think this really is the thing – is that a red herring surplus to requirements? It’s a rabbit hole we don’t need to go down, particularly when there’s something more important to attend to. This isn’t Days of Our Lives. It’s a ghost story.
It was disappointing to see the role of Giselle’s mother, Bertha, assigned to young women of the company. They included, on opening night, principal artist Lucy Green, who will dance Giselle at some performances with Iwamoto as her Albrecht. But this is a character role, usually performed by women with many decades of dance behind them. They bring to the part the gravitas that comes from years of knowledge and experience. Bertha’s mime describes the unearthly world Giselle will soon join. The Wilis are close by. You can’t see them but they are there and they are real. The audience needs that bridge between village and graveyard.
Adolphe Adam’s score (with interpolations from others) doesn’t have anything like the sophistication of Tchaikovsky’s great ballet music but it’s atmospheric and dramatically effective. It was delivered stirringly by conductor Nigel Gaynor and Camerata – Queensland’s Chamber Orchestra, albeit at a glacial pace in parts of the second act. There were times, particularly on opening night, when the audience seemed encouraged to value technical facility – of which there was abundant evidence – over what the movement had to say about love and loss.
Despite some reservations about the production, the three performances make a fine addition to the many seen over the past decade or so from The Australian Ballet, American Ballet Theatre, Paris Opera Ballet, West Australian Ballet and, of course, from QB in 2013. Reviews of all these are on the blog. Just look for Giselle.
Giselle runs at the Playhouse, Queensland Performing Arts Centre, until April 29.