Giselle: Royal New Zealand Ballet

Isaac Theatre Royal, Christchurch, August 23

Every traditional Giselle is drawn in the same broad strokes; it’s the myriad finer details that distinguish one production from another, making yet another Giselle not just another Giselle, but a vivid and immediate experience.

At the end of the first act, for instance, Giselle lies dead, literally heartbroken by Albrecht’s betrayal. She is usually seen in her mother Berthe’s arms, although a director might let Albrecht cradle the girl. In anguish and with various degrees of violence, Albrecht and Hilarion, Giselle’s discarded rustic lover, accuse each other of causing Giselle’s death. Albrecht is customarily pulled away from the scene by his attendant Wilfred and may rush off in a panic, or may keep trying to return to Giselle’s body and has to be restrained.

In Maina Gielgud’s greatly admired staging, revived last year by The Australian Ballet, the very last seconds of the first act etch themselves on the memory. Berthe’s attention is not fully on her daughter but drawn somewhere into the beyond. She looks around in terror: the Wilis are coming. The connection has been made back to Berthe’s earlier description of this encroaching supernatural world and a bridge has explicitly been built to the world of the second act.

In Ethan Stiefel and Johan Kobborg’s 2012 production for Royal New Zealand Ballet, the connection made is that of love. The Giselle who saves Albrecht from the wrath of the Wilis is the girl who dies with Albrecht’s kiss on her lips, an intimate touch I don’t recall seeing in other stagings.

Lucy Green as Giselle. Photo: Bill Cooper

Lucy Green as Giselle. Photo: Bill Cooper

At every point in every production choices are made – choices that one hopes accumulate into a coherent, satisfying whole.

The Stiefel-Kobborg staging is astutely tailored for RNZB’s medium-sized forces (there are 34 unranked company members). Act II is essentially as danced by most companies, albeit with a reduced number of Wilis, but Act I is substantially and persuasively altered. We see more clearly how Hilarion fits in to this little community. He isn’t an outsider who skulks in and out and who is unregarded. He is present much of the time, watching from the edges as his love gives all her attention to another man. Giselle’s isn’t the only heart that’s broken.

Stiefel and Kobborg fruitfully abbreviate Bathilde’s visit to this neck of the woods, having the upper-crust party stop only briefly for a drink before going back to their outdoor pleasures. The salient point is made. Bathilde is engaged to be married, as she lets Giselle know; Giselle admits to being in love. We know they are both referring to Albrecht. Then Bathilde is gone. It’s a good call – one always wonders why she would stay inside Giselle’s little cottage as long as she does in most productions. With the haughty Bathilde not settling in, there’s no need to entertain her. The usual peasant pas becomes a dance for a Wedding Couple, their celebrations entered into by Albrecht, Giselle and Hilarion at various points. Hilarion, who usually doesn’t dance in the first act, is given his moment to shine as he tries to win Giselle’s attention. That Giselle caught the wedding bouquet makes him an even more poignant figure.

A downside is that Bathilde no longer gives Giselle the gift of her necklace, thus robbing us of the powerful moment when Albrecht sees it around Giselle’s neck and knows well ahead of time that his game is up. But there are other pleasures. Giselle’s admiration of Bathilde’s gorgeous gown – the style is Victorian – is enriched by our knowledge that she knows a thing or two about dressmaking: the wedding gown worn by the bride has been made in Giselle’s home. The more fluid approach to the peasant pas section (it rarely feels well-enough integrated dramatically) spills over into the group dance conventionally performed by the women. The Wedding Couple dances here too, as do Albrecht and Giselle.

I saw Giselle in Christchurch with the first cast, Lucy Green and Qi Huan. This production suits Green exceptionally well. She has the gift of appearing fresh and natural in a staging that puts a premium on storytelling. Whether it was an astonishingly swift set of backward bourrées in the second act, a beautifully simple floating half-turn in the first, or anything in between, every step added to one’s store of knowledge about Giselle. Qi is an elegant man of deep experience whose retirement from the stage in 2014 – he teaches at the New Zealand School of Dance – has happily proved to be negotiable. (There is Australian interest in this production too, with former Australian Ballet principal Daniel Gaudiello guesting as Albrecht at some performances with Mayu Tanigaito as his Giselle.)

Giselle

Qi Huan and Lucy Green in Giselle. Photo: Stephen A’Court

The experience of visiting Christchurch, the largest city on New Zealand’s South Island, was somewhat more sobering than I had expected on this first visit. The city centre is a forlorn place, with many buildings still needing restoration or complete rebuilding after the 2011 earthquake in which more than 100 people died. Recovery is a long process.

The city, however, was determined to save the Isaac Theatre Royal. Designed by Australian brothers Sydney and AE Luttrell, it opened in 1908 and had the not-uncommon history of being adapted for use as a cinema in the late 1920s and being in danger of demolition in the 1970s. Apparently this fate was fended off with only 48 hours to spare.

Then came the February 2011 quake and significant aftershocks in which the theatre was drastically damaged. The pragmatic – cheaper – choice would have been to build a modern replacement. It has instead been exquisitely restored (and strengthened), retaining its opulently decorated dome, marble staircase and ornate plasterwork. (You can read here about the extraordinary amount of work it took.) Not surprisingly, Giselle looked perfect there.

It was heartening to know that when it was devastated, the city understood the need to revive this beautiful place of art and community.

Giselle continues its national tour in Auckland, August 31-September 3; Rotorua, September 6; and Palmerston North, September 9.

Highland fling

Playhouse, Queensland Performing Arts Centre, Brisbane, May 20.

IN August Bournonville’s enduringly popular Romantic ballet, a young man dozes by a vast open fireplace and is woken by an apparition, a beautiful winged creature who kisses him. Immediately enraptured, he tries to catch her but she eludes his grasp and, in an effect that never fails to delight, disappears up the chimney but not from his thoughts.

It’s not a propitious start to his wedding day and the omens only get worse.

La Sylphide takes place in two worlds, that of the flesh and that of the spirit, although they are not entirely separate dimensions. While humans go about their cosy domesticity, supernatural forces hover, whisper and pounce. The safety of hearth and home can’t be taken for granted.

James flees the conventional future laid out for him and heads to the forest in search of his sylph and a passionate, magical life that he realises too late is unattainable. La Sylphide is a “be careful what you wish for” cautionary tale, pitting stay-at-home ordinariness against fatal attraction.

Qi Huan as James in La Sylphide. Photo: David Kelly

Qi Huan as James in La Sylphide. Photo: David Kelly

Queensland Ballet performs La Sylphide in Peter Schaufuss’s 1979 production, which is essentially faithful to the familiar Bournonville version with some additions and alterations. Schaufuss upgrades James’s home from a Scottish farmhouse to a manor house and gives him more dancing with an extra brooding solo in Act I and a kind of interior monologue expressed as a pas de trois for James, his bride-to-be Effie and the sylph.

The trio feels unnecessary but at the opening performance there was joy in every second spent on stage by Qi Huan, plucked out of retirement by QB artistic director Li Cunxin to dance James. Qi spent nearly a decade with Royal New Zealand Ballet and now teaches at New Zealand School of Dance.

The singular Bournonville dance language is notable for its intricate footwork and floating levitations. Qi’s astonishing elevation gave him all the time in the world for multiple razor-sharp beaten steps in the air, his double tours – to left as well as right – were landed with exceptional poise and precision and the deep, deep plies Schaufuss favours were plush. Purists would undoubtedly think the latter a distortion of Bournonville stylistic modesty but they were undeniably exciting. Qi acted superbly too. His retreat from the stage is a mystery.

Not all audiences will see Qi, of course, as there are five casts for this 10-performance run. If that seems a lot, it is proof of Li’s desire to stretch as many of his dancers as possible and to challenge them in this lovely, incredibly demanding style. Not that Li was able to cast James five times from within. There is another male guest artist for the season, Luke Schaufuss, a dancer with Birmingham Royal Ballet and Peter Schaufuss’s son. The family affair is taken further: Peter’s daughter Tara dances with Queensland Ballet and while on opening night she was a featured Sylph, she is also cast as the Sylphide.

The QB men cast as James are the company’s only male principal, Hao Bin, and soloists Shane Weurthner and Camilo Ramos, the latter in his first weeks with QB. He, like the company’s new principal artist Yanela Piñera, is from National Ballet of Cuba.

I assume Li would like to get his company to the size and level at which he could confidently cast all the major works from within but that’s not done quickly or easily. It is, however, fascinating to watch the process of company building.

The first performance introduced the glamorous Piñera, who seemed a rather flesh-and-blood Sylphide as did fellow principal Clare Morehen as the Lead Sylph. Both are still feeling their way with the spirit of this radiant style, as is Weurthner, who gave a bit too much as Gurn, the man who loves and finally wins Effie.

Sarah Thompson’s sweetly glowing Effie made a strong impression and it was wonderful to see Mary Li in her element as the witch Madge, engineering James’s downfall with scarily cheerful, robust malevolence.

Some muddy horns aside, Queensland Symphony Orchestra played the Herman Lovenskjold score with verve for conductor Andrew Mogrelia, whose pacing and shaping of the overture vividly established the ballet’s quicksilver mood and themes.

La Sylphide ends on March 31.

A version of this review appeared in The Australian on March 24.

Swan Lake, RNZB, change of cast

St James Theatre, Wellington, July 19

A SECOND viewing of Russell Kerr’s Swan Lake for Royal New Zealand Ballet introduced two new young leads and further illuminated its strengths and a few weaknesses.

Last night the mature, high-octane opening night pairing of Gillian Murphy and Pacific Northwest Ballet guest Karel Cruz gave way to the sweet anguish of youth with Lucy Green and Kohei Iwamoto, both members of RNZB since joining in 2010. Both were trained in Melbourne, Green at the Victorian College of the Arts and Iwamoto at the Australian Ballet School.

In the short time they have been at RNZB Green and Iwamoto have formed a fruitful partnership, dancing together in the lead roles in Giselle (by RNZB artistic director Ethan Stiefel and Johan Kobborg) and in Stiefel’s Bier Halle, and they are a good match. Their ease together shows up in many little details of timing that add so much to add texture and meaning to a moment. Take, for instance, the Act II mime in which Siegfried precipitately wants to tell Odette he will save her. Iwamoto has started to stretch his hand high above his head with fingers pointed, ballet speak for “I promise you”, but it’s too soon for Green’s fearful Odette, who understands the dangers much better than Siegfried does. Just at the right moment she pulls his arm back. It’s these split-second moments that make a gesture seem naturally impelled by the drama rather than dutifully learned.

Green is only 22 and her art is not one of grandeur but of touching emotional openness. There was anxiety and uncertainty at her first meeting with Siegfried, and deep anguish near the end when Siegfried returns to the lake after his betrayal of Odette. Green’s gestures and expression of forgiveness had a most affecting tenderness.

As Odile Green doesn’t have, or at least not yet, a way of being entirely convincing as a heartless and duplicitous siren although she handled the choreography with aplomb. And it was lovely to see her reaction when Rothbart gives her some whispered tips about how to reel Siegfried in. Odile starts to mimic some of Odette’s signature movements and Green’s face lit up. It was probably too big a gear shift, but also a reminder of just how many tiny choices, adjustments and decisions go in to making a seamless performance.

Iwamoto has a lovely clean line, impressive elevation and he partners nobly, although he can sometimes let the tension of performance show too clearly in his expression. His Siegfried is particularly young, the kind of man who really is extremely happy with his birthday gift of a crossbow and who is pretty easy game for Rothbart. One of the weaknesses of Kerr’s production, one I referred to in yesterday’s report, makes Siegfried look pretty hapless, and Iwamoto wasn’t able to overcome the inherent problems. The opening of Act III, in which various princesses present themselves as prospective brides, lacks a strong sense of shape and purpose. Who is presenting these women? Have they just turned up with their girlfriends? Do their predominantly black tutus mean they are somehow aligned with Odile and therefore Rothbart, who enters a little bit later? There are possibilities there simply not addressed.

The other problem is with the ending. If you miss the all too brief moment in which Odette indicates to Siegfried that they must kill themselves you might think the power of love had vanquished Rothbart and we were in for a Soviet-style happy ending. In the tussles with Rothbart there’s plenty of time for a more detailed and therefore affecting journey towards the lovers’ fate.

Elsewhere, the second cast pas de trois cast of Mayu Tanigaito, Ginny Gan and Jacob Chown was extremely attractive, with Tanigaito’s buoyancy and elevation a particular delight. Dimitri Kleioris made an impact as Rothbart, and again the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Nigel Gaynor added immeasurably to the occasion.

Next week RNZB adds another cast to the mix, with Abigail Boyle and Qi Huan. I regret I won’t be able to stay to see them.