Dance in 2013

THE Australian dance-lover had plenty to enjoy in 2013, as long as there was a decent travel budget to hand. Paris Opera Ballet returned to Sydney, the Bolshoi had a season in Brisbane, The Australian Ballet premiered a new version of Cinderella by Alexei Ratmansky (Melbourne and Sydney only, although Adelaide sees it in 2014), Queensland Ballet had extended sell-out seasons under new artistic director Li Cunxin, West Australian Ballet brought Onegin into its repertoire and Sydney Dance Company got even more glamorous.

Leanne Stojmenov and Daniel Gaudiello in Cinderella. Photo: Jeff Busby

Leanne Stojmenov and Daniel Gaudiello in Cinderella. Photo: Jeff Busby

Those were the big events of 2013. Unfortunately there were fewer small-scale gems, or at least few I was able to see. In the wide, brown land it’s not always possible to find oneself in the right city at the right time to catch up with the leading contemporary companies and independent artists, particularly when seasons can be cruelly short.

There was also a lot of déjà vu when it came to international visitors. Of course one would never knock back the chance to see Sylvie Guillem, or Akram Khan’s work, or Fabulous Beast Dance Theatre, but the names bob up again and again. I acknowledge, however, that I travel around the country to see dance more than most people do. Perhaps I just get out too much.

What follows, therefore, isn’t necessarily a reflection of what was best (although much was terrific), but what was memorable.

The dancers:

The AB nabbed Natalia Osipova and Ivan Vasiliev for performances of Don Quixote in Melbourne. Vasiliev roared on like a comet and didn’t let up from the get-go. He’s no text-book classicist, but gee he’s fun to watch. Dancing the lead gypsy, resident AB firecracker Chengwu Guo threw in a cheeky backwards somersault just to remind the audience there were other men on stage. Later in the year, after dancing Basilio with boyish charm, Guo was promoted to senior artist. By year’s end he was a principal artist, promoted onstage after a high-flying appearance as James in La Sylphide. A very wise call on the part of AB artistic director David McAllister.

Chengwu Guo. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Chengwu Guo. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Also at the AB, Daniel Gaudiello got more opening nights (Basilio, James, the Prince in Ratmansky’s Cinderella), and rightly so. QB’s Li Cunxin likes him too. Gaudiello was a guest artist in Brisbane for Giselle – making his role debut as Albrecht – and will appear in 2014’s Romeo and Juliet as Mercutio when QB stages the MacMillan production from late June.

Still with the AB, Leanne Stojmenov had the role of her career in Cinderella, and in The Four Temperaments and Dyad 1929 (part of the Vanguard program), evergreen principal Lucinda Dunn exuded wisdom and sensuousness in works that can look all too coolly intellectual. Also on that bill was Kylian’s Bella Figura, in which corps de ballet member Ingrid Gow had one of those break-out moments.

In Brisbane, it was adorable to see Alexander Idaszak, in his first year out of the Australian Ballet School, be given the chance to dance Albrecht and to do it with such composure (he’s already moving on, however, to Royal New Zealand Ballet, which also has a starry artistic director in Ethan Stiefel). Li showed faith in another newbie, Emilio Pavan, when he was cast as the Prince in The Nutcracker, an assignment he carried out with much promise. Li added Natasha Kusch to his already lustrous group of female principal artists, and she was astutely paired with former AB dancer and now Dutch National Ballet principal Remi Wortmeyer in Nutcracker. It was a sparkling partnership.

In Perth, new artistic director Aurelien Scannella has restructured the company, creating principal artist, soloist, demi-soloist and corps de ballet ranks. On the opening night of Onegin – secured for WAB by former artistic director Ivan Cavallari – WAB showed off its new principal, Jiri Jelinek, formerly with Stuttgart Ballet and National Ballet of Canada (he is now a guest principal with the latter). Senior women Jayne Smeulders and Fiona Evans, now principals, were completely different and very fine Tatianas, and Matthew Lehmann found himself promoted to the top rank after his Onegins.

POB’s Giselle performances gave us the luminous, diaphanous Dorothee Gilbert and the role debut of Myriam Ould-Braham, a dancer made for this role. Mathieu Ganio, aristocratic to the last molecule, partnered both but Ould-Braham’s sweet simplicity seemed to make him warmer and ever-so-slightly gentler. In the Bolshoi’s The Bright Stream, a delight from beginning to end, Maria Alexandrova was exceptionally vibrant, witty and warm.

The corps of Paris Opera Ballet, Giselle Act II. Photo: Sébastien Mathé

The corps of Paris Opera Ballet, Giselle Act II. Photo: Sébastien Mathé

The AB managed to insinuate itself into David Hallberg’s very full diary for three performances of Cinderella in Sydney. The refinement, grace and noble partnering of the American Ballet Theatre and Bolshoi principal artist were a perfect fit for Ratmansky’s ballet, and Hallberg even managed to make something of the Prince’s travels, one of the slightly less successful parts of Cinderella. Hallberg’s Cinderella was Amber Scott, whose other-worldly delicacy made her a lovely match for this prince among princes.

A special mention goes to Sydney Dance Company as a whole. It’s a spectacularly good-looking ensemble.

The dances:

As you’ll see from the above, there wasn’t a lot of surprising work on offer. From the tourists, the Bolshoi’s The Bright Stream and Fabulous Beast Dance Theatre’s down-and-dirty The Rite of Spring were outstanding. Locally, SDC’s Cacti, the exceptionally amusing work by Alexander Ekman, and the AB’s Surrealist Cinderella made most impact. Well, Cinders looked much better in Melbourne, but what can you do? I also was extremely taken by Dance Clan 3, Bangarra Dance Theatre’s studio showing of new work. This time four of the company’s women – Deborah Brown, Yolande Brown, Tara Gower, Jasmin Sheppard – took up the challenge, and did so most movingly. One of those terrific evenings when you have no idea what’s ahead. I didn’t get a lot of that this year.

The ideas:

I’ve said this quite a lot elsewhere, but I love the way SDC’s Rafael Bonachela is engaged with other artists from other forms. Les Illuminations brought together SDC, string players from the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, conductor Roland Peelman, singer Katie Noonan and fashion designer Toni Maticevski to celebrate the centenary of Benjamin Britten. It was a standout, and a pity there were so few performances.

In Brisbane Queensland Ballet has taken advantage of the state government’s new Superstar Fund to lock in big-name guest artists for its mid-year Romeo and Juliet. Carlos Acosta, Tamara Rojo and Sydney-born Royal Ballet luminary Steven McRae come to town. Gaudiello will be back too – it’s so good to see this wonderful dancer getting more recognition.

Another big idea for QB is the institution of The Nutcracker as an annual Christmas event. Time will tell whether it will catch on indefinitely, but this year’s season did boffo box-office.

The Australian Ballet’s 2014 season announcement showed a small but potentially important programming shift. Instead of the usual and unvarying number of performances given to each program, regardless of audience appeal, the AB will now give shorter seasons of the contemporary rep. This is most noticeable in Sydney, where there will be nine performances of  the Ballet Imperial/Suite en Blanc double bill (May 2-17) and 10 of the Chroma/Sechs Tanze/Petite Mort/ New Baynes work bill (April 29-May 17). Note the overlapping dates – yes, programs in repertory!

As mentioned, WAB has introduced the kind of ranking system most usually seen in larger companies. Aurelien Scannella has forcefully talked about having more dancers (predecessor Cavallari got WAB a huge boost during his time). Can Scannella manage a further upwards trajectory in a city that has a huge appetite for big stuff but not so much for throwing money at the arts? And at a difficult time for the state’s finances? Worth keeping an eye on. As is QB’s obvious ambition to provide not just an alternative, but a competitor, to the AB.

The dance that turned into a play but was still full of dance:

One of the sweetest pleasures of 2013 was Gideon Obarzanek‘s Dance Better at Parties for Sydney Theatre Company, a play based on his dance work for Chunky Move that had its genesis nearly a decade ago when Obarzanek interviewed men about movement. The play, a two-hander for Steve Rodgers and Elizabeth Nabben, was simplicity itself. A bereaved man comes to a dance studio to learn how to dance, which may help him fit in socially, but really he is in desperate need of contact. To be touched. And the audience was touched too, very deeply.

Elizabeth Nabben and Steve Rodgers in Dance Better at Parties. Photo: Brett Boardman

Elizabeth Nabben and Steve Rodgers in Dance Better at Parties. Photo: Brett Boardman

The disappointments:

The big, big loss this year was the cancellation of Spring Dance, the festival inaugurated by the Sydney Opera House and now pulled out of the calendar. Yes, it was costly, but gave contemporary dance a highly visible platform from which to entice audiences. Fragments of it remained – Les Illuminations (see above) and Akram Khan’s iTMOi – “In the Mind of Igor” – which did not entirely convince me.

Freeze Frame, the collaboration between the Brisbane Festival and Debbie Allen, was well-meaning but lacked coherence in just about every department. Allen wrote, choreographed and directed. And appeared in it. There’s a hint right there.

His Majesty’s Theatre, Perth, is entirely inadequate for ballet of any scale. The sets for Onegin had to be cut back and squashed in and the sightlines are terrible from many seats. Tough cheese though. It’s unlikely there will be another new theatre in Perth for a decade or more – the State Theatre Centre of Western Australia, home to Black Swan State Theatre Company and Perth Theatre Company, was opened in 2011. Poor old WAB is not well served at all.

What a shame that Australia’s smaller centres aren’t able to see the AB, QB and WAB regularly. Instead the gap is filled by touring Russian companies of extremely variable quality. This year I saw a Nutcracker from an outfit called Russian National Ballet Theatre, whose provenance is a little difficult to work out, although companies under that name have toured before. I paid nearly 100 bucks (no, let’s be fair, my sister paid) for no orchestra, a severely truncated story, classroom choreography and production values that were modest. I do understand that local companies wouldn’t be seen dead putting on productions of such a low standard and that it costs a great deal to do better, and that they already have full schedules. But if I had a magic wand …

The year’s most graceful tribute:

In July Alastair Macaulay, dance critic for The New York Times, set out to describe the attributes of an American ballerina, and was even prepared to say how many women in US companies currently deserve to bear the title of ballerina. The number is not great: “at least 10” is what Macaulay was prepared to say. In reply, in the December/January edition of Pointe magazine, Gillian Murphy – a principal dancer with American Ballet Theatre and principal guest artist with Royal New Zealand Ballet – gave her perspective. Along the way she had this to say about RNZB’s Lucy Green, a young Australian being given important roles with the company: “I am excited to watch a young dancer with extraordinary promise grow into a star.” Murphy praises Green’s dance attributes, then continues: “However, for me, it is her work ethic, her imagination and her sensitivity to others that really classify her as a ballerina in the making.” Murphy admires dancers who “encourage greatness in everyone around them”. Beautiful.

Lucy Green as Odette. Photo: Evan Li

Lucy Green as Odette. Photo: Evan Li

 The Trans-Tasman Prize for Sang-Froid:

I’m including RNZB here again because I can. The month is July, a performance of Swan Lake, featuring Lucy Green as Odette-Odile, has not long finished, and RNZB staff and dancers past and present have gathered for a late-afternoon party to celebrate the company’s 60th anniversary. Wellington is shaken by an earthquake – a big one. Everyone dives to the floor, which is moving alarmingly. The tremors stop, we all get up and the party continues. Well, that’s one way to cut the speeches short.


Many thanks to London-based writer and critic Ismene Brown, who gave unparalleled, necessary insight into the dance world’s biggest story in 2013, the Bolshoi crisis and its fallout. And moving right along, there’s Nikolai Tsiskaridze in St Petersburg. Follow her @ismeneb;

Next up, what’s of interest in 2014?

2013: a retrospective

Here’s my take on the year’s high points. As many have noted before me, “best” is a useless word when applied to the cornucopia available in the arts. Here are the people and productions that most inspired me.

Showgirls usher the gods to Valhalla in Opera Australia's Das Rheingold. Photo: Jeff Busby

Showgirls usher the gods to Valhalla in Opera Australia’s Das Rheingold. Photo: Jeff Busby

“A SHORT show is a good show,” we all carol (me and my fellow critics) as we enter the auditorium for yet another 70- to 90-minute piece of theatre, but put a 10-hour marathon before us and we can’t get enough. So I have lists for big things, small things, individuals, a few words on musical theatre and a couple of miscellaneous thoughts.

It was a strong year, particularly in Sydney theatre, so it was hard to keep the lists tight. Please don’t take anything I say here as an indication of who has taken out honours in the Sydney Theatre Awards, of which I am but one judge on a panel of nine. Argument was fierce and the passions diverse, let me tell you! But here goes from me, in alphabetical order …


Angels in America, Parts One and Two, Belvoir, Sydney: I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. This is the best play to have been written in English in my lifetime. Belvoir’s production was very fine.

Cinderella, The Australian Ballet, choreography by Alexei Ratmansky. The amazing Surrealist-inspired set looked waaaay better in Melbourne than in Sydney, but this version of the beloved fairytale to the bittersweet music of Prokofiev as choreographed by the world’s leading classicist is a keeper. (Also wonderful to see Ratmansky’s The Bright Stream with the Bolshoi in Brisbane mid-year – amazing how that company managed to block out the hideous backstage dramas that still dog it.)

Life and Times, Nature Theater of Oklahoma, Melbourne Festival: The ums, ahs and pauses of an ordinary life rendered first as a dippy musical, then as a drawing-room mystery. You had to be there (for 10 hours indeed). Sublime, transcendent.

Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam: Scintillating Stravinsky Firebird suite and glorious Tchaikovsky fifth symphony. Magic.

The Ring, Opera Australia, Melbourne: not a flawless production, but one that felt right for this place and this time. Director Neil Armfield’s strength is finding the humanity in situations where it may seem to be missing in action and he did it here. Under last-minute mini-maestro Pietari Inkinen (only 33!!) the Melbourne Ring Orchestra put in a blinder. Bravi.

The Threepenny Opera, Berliner Ensemble, Perth International Arts Festival: Not a huge company, but a Robert Wilson production simply cannot be put into any category other than outsized. Stupendously performed, gorgeous to the eye, a knockout band in the pit, witty, sardonic … you get the idea.


The Floating World, Griffin, Sydney: A devastating production (Sam Strong directed) of John Romeril’s devastating play. I saw the last scene with tears pouring down my face. A rare occurrence.

Giasone, Pinchgut Opera: Apparently the most popular opera of 1649. Worked pretty damn well in 2013.

Independent theatre x 3: I have to mention this trio of splendid plays and productions thereof. I was thrilled to have been able to see Jez Butterworth’s brilliant Jerusalem in Sydney, and done so persuasively by the New Theatre. Workhorse Theatre Company’s The Motherf**ker with the Hat was hold-on-to-your-hats exhilarating, and is getting a re-run in 2014 at the new Eternity Playhouse. Hooray. And in Siren Theatre Company’s Penelope (by Enda Walsh), all sorts of trouble arises when Odysseus’s arrival back home is imminent. As with Workhorse, Siren did a superb job in the tiny confines of the theatre at TAP Gallery.

Owen Wingrave, Sydney Chamber Opera: This young, tiny outfit did Benjamin Britten proud in his centenary year. Really memorable music-making.

Sydney Chamber Opera's Owen Wingrave

Sydney Chamber Opera’s Owen Wingrave

The Rite of Spring, Fabulous Beast Dance Theatre, Brisbane and Melbourne festivals: In the Rite of Spring centenary year, Michael Keegan-Dolan’s setting in a harsh, cold village was, not surprisingly, dark and threatening. His ending, however, stressed the renewal and healing that is to come. The score was played in Stravinsky’s four-hand version (on one piano); earlier in the year, in Sacre – The Rite of Spring (Raimund Hoghe for the Sydney Festival), we heard the score also played ravishingly by four hands, but on two pianos. Sacre was a difficult dance work for many; I admired it greatly.

School Dance, Windmill Theatre (seen at Sydney Theatre Company in association with the Sydney Festival): loved, loved, loved.

Jonathon Oxlade, Luke Smiles and Matthew Whittet in School Dance. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Jonathon Oxlade, Luke Smiles and Matthew Whittet in School Dance. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Super Discount, Back to Back Theatre: Deeply provocative on all sorts of levels. Can’t wait for Ganesh versus the Third Reich to come to Sydney – finally – next year.

Waiting for Godot, Sydney Theatre Company: Luke Mullins, Philip Quast, Richard Roxburgh and Hugo Weaving were an immaculate quartet of players in one of the year’s most heart-piercing productions.

Individuals (performers):

David Hallberg (American Ballet Theatre and Bolshoi Ballet principal): Luminous in Alexei Ratmansky’s Cinderella for The Australian Ballet in Sydney. Prince of princes.

Peter Kowitz: Les in The Floating World (see above).

Ewen Leslie: A huge year on the Sydney stage as a desolate Brick in Belvoir’s contentious Australian-accented Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, The Player in Sydney Theatre Company’s terrific Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, and most powerfully – and impressively – as Hamlet for Belvoir, stepping in at short notice when original Dane Toby Schmitz was called overseas for filming duty. A rare change to compare and contrast in one of the roles by which men are judged. Closely.

Catherine McClements, Phedre, Bell Shakespeare: A scarifying performance in a production that was, in my opinion, sorely underrated. Not by me though.

Catherine McClements and Edmund Lembke-Hogan in Phedre. Photo: Rush

Catherine McClements and Edmund Lembke-Hogan in Phedre. Photo: Rush

Amber McMahon: Harper in Angels in America for Belvoir, various roles in School Dance for Windmill, special in everything.

Sharon Millerchip, Bombshells, Ensemble Theatre: Dazzling in Joanna Murray-Smith’s ode to the many faces of womanhood.

Tim Minchin: Lucky old us to see him not once but twice on stage, as a show-stealing Judas in the arena Jesus Christ Superstar and Rosencrantz in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and Dead. Or is that Guildenstern? Don’t ask Claudius or Gertrude to help you out.

Luke Mullins: Prior Walter in Angels in America, the quiet centre of Kit Brookman’s Small and Tired, Lucky in Waiting for Godot. Fantastic in all of them. What a year!

Bojana Novakovic, The Blind Date Project, Sydney Festival: I adored this little improvised show. Wish I could have seen Novakovic with many more of her blind dates.

Myriam Ould-Braham, Paris Opera Ballet: Made her debut as Giselle in Sydney in February, making us here the envy of many a Paris balletomane. She was divine, as was fellow etoile Dorothee Gilbert. Both were partnered by the supremely elegant Mathieu Ganio. A joy to see the company here again.

Steve Rodgers: Rodgers has long been one of my favourite actors – so simpatico, even when taking on a difficult subject matter in Griffin’s Dreams in White. And especially in Gideon Obarzanek’s Dance Better at Parties for STC.

Individuals (behind the scenes):

Rafael Bonachela, artistic director, Sydney Dance Company: He’s here, he’s there, he’s everywhere. Bonachela sees everything and is bringing lots of strong artistic collaborations back for his astoundingly beautiful dancers.

Li Cunxin, artistic director, Queensland Ballet: He’s taken the company back to the classics and people have voted with their wallets. All shows have been sold out and all shows have been extended. I think Brisbane likes him.

Lyndon Terracini, Opera Australia: Got the Ring up. Respect.

Musical theatre:

It was an exceptionally patchy year for musical theatre in Sydney, although Dirty Rotten Scoundrels was really, really entertaining and super-well cast, and the arena version of Jesus Christ Superstar was a blast. The new consortium of music-theatre people, Independent Music Theatre, holds out promise for better things next year, and the feisty little Squabbalogic Independent Music Theatre continues to impress.


Best new (only new) theatre in Sydney in 2013: Best is a word that certainly applies here. All hail Sydney City Council for getting the Eternity Playhouse happening. It is a truly beautiful 200-seat house, and an adornment to the city.

Best seat in the house: A11 at Belvoir. The lucky incumbent – male or female, it didn’t matter- got a kiss from Toby Schmitz or Ewen Leslie during Hamlet. Alas I was not one of them.

Clearest indication that critics don’t matter much: Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, which got the kind of reviews cast members’ mothers would write, did poor business in Sydney. Those of us who wrote about it adored it. We had very little effect.

Doesn’t stop us though.

Dorothee Gilbert, Ludmila Pagliero, Myriam Ould-Braham: three Giselles

Paris Opera Ballet, Capitol Theatre, Sydney: January 29, February 4, February 5

IT’S always something of an occasion when a dancer takes on a big role for the first time, particularly in one of the small handful of works in which ballerinas cement their reputation.  I remember being thrilled to discover that Alina Cojocaru, then just 21, would tackle her first Odette-Odile in Sydney in 2002 when the Royal Ballet was visiting. That performance at the Capitol Theatre remains fresh in my mind. As will two debuts in Giselle this week, also on the stage of the Capitol Theatre – that of Paris Opera Ballet etoiles Ludmila Pagliero (February 4) and Myriam Ould-Braham (February 5).

The corps de ballet of Paris Opera Ballet in Giselle. Photo: Sebastien Mathe

The corps de ballet of Paris Opera Ballet in Giselle. Photo: Sebastien Mathe

POB doesn’t just bring a production to town; it brings history. It’s worth noting that this year is the 300th anniversary of what would become POB’s school, the place at which most of its company members have trained to become not just dancers, but Paris Opera Ballet dancers with in a very specific tradition and style.  A glance at the program for Giselle shows that all POB’s etoiles trained at the school, with the exception of Argentinian-born Pagliero. Is this why her Giselle was so different in texture from that of Ould-Braham and the etoile who entranced on opening night, Dorothee Gilbert? (My review of the first performance can be seen below.)

The aura of the spirit world hovered over Gilbert from the first. She was modest in manner, quietly radiant in the sweep and romance of her upper body and uncannily quiet in landing from swift, high entrechats and pillowy jetes. Her audience acknowledgement in Act II, after her solo, will stay with me for a very long time. Gilbert came onstage only a short way, curving in on herself and giving the impression of something already disintegrating. In her performance there was the clearest line of action, leading to distraction and death at the end of the first act and diaphanous immateriality in the second.

On Monday Pagliero gave a dramatically different reading. She was large in gesture, flirtatious, wilful, mature. It seemed as if this Giselle was creating an invisible perimeter around her with swooping bends that looked exaggerated when set against the way in which others used their upper bodies. It appeared of little significance to her when her lover Loys – Albrecht in smart peasant-wear – presented her with the daisy from which he has surreptitiously pulled a petal so the message now is, yes, he loves me. Well of course he does. And when Giselle and Albrecht went through their little game of pulling hands away, Giselle was teasingly in charge, quite the forward one. When her exuberant dancing brought on a heart scare, Pagliero made it a moment of high impact, contracting extravagantly with a shudder.

I found it difficult to believe this Giselle would go mad from grief. But rage – that’s possible. She has been mightily humiliated. I got the compelling impression Giselle would be a formidable presence in the woods at night: Myrtha might have to watch her back. I could even believe she saves Albrecht as a demonstration of her abilities.

Pagliero covered the ground voraciously and astonished with super-high entrechats. As with Gilbert and, the following night with Ould-Braham, the audience gasped at the blurringly fast bourrees that zoomed her backwards offstage in Act II. The performance was marred for me by overly noisy footwork and because the Albrecht, Stephane Bullion, had a fairly ordinary night. He didn’t impose himself strongly on the piece and his substitution of double sauts de basque for part of the series of entrechats that represent Albrecht’s forced dance in Act II wasn’t particularly effective. Pagliero didn’t look terribly happy at the curtain call – or is that just a projection of mine? Perhaps things will gel better in the performances tonight (Wednesday February 6) and Friday (February 8).

It was lovely to see Pagliero and Bullion acknowledge the corps, whose contribution is so central to Giselle. They are superlative in their unity of style and purpose and the formations are exceptionally trenchant for this group of “zombie virgins”, as British critic Richard Buckle memorably called the Wilis in a 1962 review. The manner of their final exit in two tightly bunched groups is chilling.

Another relevant Buckle witticism I’d like to share: “Have you noticed, by the way, that the heroine … in French ballets always has eight Friends? That in itself is not so remarkable as the fact of their all being in town on the same day.” The eight Friends in POB’s Giselle are delightful, by the way, making one notice just how good for dance and for this ballet the often maligned Giselle score is.

And now to Ould-Braham, whose natural, girlish appearance – she looks about 16 – and sweet (never saccharine) manner could not be more perfect. You could see she would be putty in the hands of an experienced man, and he would be likely to find her utterly adorable. Buoyant jetes, melting turns, delicate epaulement and the kind of security that banishes any sense of artifice were at Ould-Braham’s command. She was ravishing, carrying into the second act some of the gentle life force that illuminated the first half. This Giselle isn’t really dead until she has saved Albrecht.

Mathieu Ganio partnered both Gilbert and Ould-Braham, and it was fascinating to see him make similar dramatic choices with each, and how they took on a different hue. With both he asserted himself firmly, controlling – albeit most courteously – some of their movements. But he seemed warmer with Ould-Braham; less remote. He danced divinely of course – that exquisite line, magnificent elevation and whisper-quiet control! – and is scheduled to appear again with Ould-Braham tomorrow (February 7) and Saturday evening (February 9). If I were not in Perth for the festival I’d be there again. (Saturday’s matinee is danced by Melanie Hurel – lovely, if her peasant pas is any guide – with fellow premier danseur Florian Magnenet.)

A few final thoughts:

POB’s Giselle has the most brilliant ending to Act I. Usually a bit of a melee forms around Giselle’s body. Here Berthe, Giselle’s mother, simply sees Albrecht off with a long, penetrating stare. Perfect.

No one can really match Marie-Agnes Gillot for command of the stage. Second-cast Emilie Cozette is fine as Myrtha if you haven’t seen Gillot, but doesn’t have her grandeur, nor her ability to come down from a jete without a sound. Nolwenn Daniel made her debut as Myrtha alongside Ould-Braham, and impressed with serious balances on pointe and the way she used the air – the wind beneath her wings, if you like – to convey weightlessness.

Sydney Lyric Orchestra played well for conductor Koen Kessels, who liked to set a lively pace. The brass didn’t have a great night on Monday.

The Capitol Theatre is excellent for large-scale ballet. It would be very pleasant to see more big companies there more often.

A bouquet for premier danseur Audric Bezard, who has danced Hilarion every night so far and did get one thinking seriously about whether Giselle was an extremely silly girl to knock him back.

And many bouquets to Leo Schofield and Ian McRae for bringing POB back to Sydney. In a world in which ballet commentators are forever banging on about the internationalisation of companies and the consequent dilution of national style, POB remains sui generis.

Giselle, Paris Opera Ballet

Capitol Theatre, Sydney, January 29

The corps of Paris Opera Ballet, Giselle Act II. Photo: Sébastien Mathé

The corps of Paris Opera Ballet, Giselle Act II. Photo: Sébastien Mathé

GISELLE may be seen as a ballet of two contrasting halves, the world of the living giving way to the realm of the spirit. It is usually played in that manner, with Giselle’s death at the end of Act I the bridge from reality to the fantastical world of the Wilis, wronged women who wreak revenge on any man foolish enough to enter their ghostly domain.

Paris Opera Ballet’s exquisite production fruitfully blurs that distinction. The curtain rises on Alexandre Benois’s 1924 design for the ballet, one in which castles perch on peaks in the background and the foreground is a leafy, autumnal glade. The idealised, romanticised peasant village of the first act is already a place of the imagination. For once it’s meaningful rather than puzzling that all the young women – jolly girls celebrating the harvest – are dressed identically, as they will be in the second act.

The mime for Giselle’s mother, often reduced or smudged elsewhere, is absolutely central. Berthe (Amelie Lamoureux on opening night) describes in detail what lies beyond the village confines for young women whose hearts are broken. Not only that, she is warning of very present danger in the person of Albrecht, the disguised nobleman who has won Giselle’s heart but fails to fool Berthe. The veil separating this world from the next is almost transparent.

All this is embedded in the bodies of the POB dancers, who capture an essence rather than carve out character. On opening night Mathieu Ganio’s glamorous Albrecht was nobility encapsulated, Audric Bezard’s gamekeeper Hilarion the equal in looks and bearing to Albrecht, Dorothee Gilbert’s meltingly beautiful  Giselle almost a creature of the air from the beginning, Marie-Agnes Gillot’s Myrtha, Queen of the Wilis, a figure of implacable control.

Interestingly and tellingly the non-dancing royals who stop by Berthe’s cottage for mid-hunt refreshment are the most recognisably human, but they are important only as a way of precipitating the tearing of the veil.

The choreography has many hands on it, as do all productions of Giselle, which had its premiere in Paris in 1841. The 1991 adaptation by Patrice Bart and Eugene Polyakov adds individual grace notes to the generally known framework that add to the high level of sophistication. Particularly lovely is the way in which feet sparkle with the clarity and brilliance of diamonds – the speed and articulation are extraordinary – while the upper body curves with languorous sensuality.

Best of all is the quality of restraint. At no time is the work stretched out of shape in a hunt for the big bang. The dancing is superb because it refuses to glitter emptily, and because there is that unanimity of style and purpose for which POB is famed.  All is underpinned by a wonderful reading of the Adam score by the Sydney Lyric Orchestra under the alertly responsive conducting of Koen Kessels.

The women of the corps are breathtaking in Act II as is Gillot – a dancer with enormous presence. The stage is hers to control and she does it superhumanly, landing as silently as a cat. There is a striking moment when the Wilis, kneeling to Myrtha, turn what you might expect to be a legato sweep of the arms into two definite movements. The automaton-like effect further imprints the idea of the Wilis’ subjugation to their queen and their existence as a regiment rather than as individuals – something that is possible only because of the immaculate corps.

And above all there is Gilbert. Shyly and quietly radiant in the first act, almost transparent thistledown in the second, and entirely unforgettable.

Four other casts are scheduled to appear during the season. Gilbert appears only twice more, on Thursday evening (January 31) and Saturday’s matinee (February 2). Also dancing the title role are etoiles Isabelle Ciaravola, Ludmila Pagliero and Myriam Ould-Braham. Premiere danseuse Melanie Hurel, who was charming and vibrant in the opening night peasant pas de deux with delightful Emmanuel Thibault, is given one performance at the matinee on February 9.

Veteran POB star Nicolas Le Riche was a last-minute scratching so Ganio – who joined the POB corps in 2001 at the age of 17 and was named etoile an astonishingly swift three years later – steps into the breach to partner Ould-Braham when his performances with Gilbert are done. Ganio’s elevation, the speed and precision of his beaten footwork and his aristocratic lines make him a wonder to behold – a man who could never be mistaken for one of the people, to be sure, but really, when did we ever believe that when watching Giselle?

This review first appeared in The Australian online on January 30. An edited version appeared in The Australian on January 31.