To each her own

Sydney Opera House, April 2, 4 and 7

TWO and bit years ago, when Paris Opera Ballet came to Sydney with its production of Giselle, I was able to see three excitingly different readings of the title role, two of them from debutantes. We seem to get our fair share of important firsts in Australia. Apart from POB’s Ludmila Pagliero and Myriam Ould-Braham in Giselle, many years ago Sydney saw Alina Cojocaru’s first Odette-Odile (for the Royal Ballet) and Brisbane was graced with the historic debut of Misty Copeland as the Swan Queen when American Ballet Theatre visited last year. (Copeland has just made her US debut as Odette-Odile with Washington Ballet and in June finally makes her first O/O appearances in New York. It’s big news.

Natasha Kusen and Madeleine Eastoe. Photo: Jeff Busby

Natasha Kusen and Madeleine Eastoe. Photo: Jeff Busby

The Australian Ballet’s Sydney season of Giselle gave me the opportunity of seeing another notable title-role debut, that of Juliet Burnett at the first Saturday matinee. The opening night Giselle was, not surprisingly, principal artist Madeleine Eastoe, who makes this role her last with the company when she retires mid-year. There’s some symmetry here, as it was after her 2006 performance in Maina Gielgud’s production of Giselle that Eastoe was elevated to the highest rank at The Australian Ballet. Adelaide has the privilege of the farewell performance on July 6 and I will be there to close a circle for myself – Eastoe joined the AB in 1997 and I have watched her entire career. And on April 7 I saw the Sydney debut of Ako Kondo, whose first performances as Giselle were in the Melbourne season last month. After Kondo’s third Sydney performance, on April 14, the senior artist was promoted to principal, an event that has been expected for some time.

Eastoe’s Giselle was a gentle, open-hearted girl with the bloom and fragrance of an easily bruised rose. Every thought and feeling was exposed without barrier or reservation, her inner world made visible as if her skin were transparent. Eastoe’s lighter than light dancing and aura of fragility in the first act prefigured her absorption into the spirit world of the second act.

Burnett made a memorable debut at the April 4 matinee. Here was an enchantingly radiant lass whose joy and excitement were vibrantly captured in sparkling eyes and a glowing face. Burnett’s Giselle was a little bit flirty with Albrecht and sweetly starstruck by Princess Bathilde. When she stroked the fabric of Bathilde’s lavish gown she was enjoying its beauty rather than being overawed by such splendour. And I loved the way Burnett scrunched up the side of her simple yellow skirt when walking beside Bathilde so it wouldn’t touch the Princess’s costly attire. She made these details and many others fresh and individual.

Juliet Burnett rehearses with Robyn Hendricks. Photo: Lynette Wills

Juliet Burnett rehearses with Robyn Hendricks. Photo: Lynette Wills

Depite warnings from her frail heart and her foreboding mother, Burnett’s Giselle was alert and full of life. In the weightless curve of her arms and poised balances that reached upwards Burnett was not so much a spirit in waiting but a young woman buoyed by love. Then, when she learned of Albrecht’s perfidy, the light was switched off. White-faced and stricken, Burnett’s Giselle was crushed beyond endurance. The mad scene was frantic and incredibly moving. Burnett’s second act was beautifully composed and she looked wonderful in the soft, forward-leaning stretches and airborne beaten steps that show Giselle scarcely tethered to the ground.

Kondo was a skittish Giselle, at first glancing back to the cottage often as if to see whether her mother might suddenly appear, or perhaps thinking she should go back inside. But along with the skittishness there was more than a hint of sensuality, amplified by her expansive dancing. In the second act Kondo had something of an avenging angel quality as she protected Albrecht from the icy commands of Robyn Hendricks’s Myrtha in a thrilling battle of wills.

Ako Kondo, The Australian Ballet's newest principal. Photo: James Braund

Ako Kondo, The Australian Ballet’s newest principal. Photo: James Braund

I would have liked to see Kondo with an Albrecht who provided greater contrasts. Her pairing with the exciting Chengwu Guo is a public-relations dream as they are partners offstage, but the plush physicality of his dancing was, for me, too similar to hers for this ballet. Albrecht and Giselle are not from the same world. On Eastoe’s opening night, when they were cast in the Peasant Pas, they looked just perfect together. Guo also partners the very different Natasha Kusch as Giselle this season; I’m sorry I won’t be able to see them.

Eastoe was given a Rolls-Royce ride with the deeply felt, superbly danced Albrecht of Kevin Jackson. His intentions and reactions were natural, meaningful and expressed clearly through gesture and movement. The snap and height of his Act II entrechats had the audience gasping (Nicolette Fraillon, conducting the Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra, had to really slow things down in the pit) but more telling was the weight of sorrow he conveyed as he entered to mourn Giselle. This level of connection with character is as yet unavailable to the much less experienced Jared Wright, who partnered Burnett. His lines are noble, his looks princely, and at this point he is a leading man in development.

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.