The Royal NZ Ballet's season of Giselle is wowing audiences with its revitalised version of the classic story of love, betrayal and revenge. Raewyn Whyte reports.
There's nothing quite like a romantic classical ballet when it's time for a story of love, betrayal, heartbreak, forgiveness and redemption, involving a handsome prince, an innocent maiden, a jealous suitor, and ghostly avenging spirits who dance men to death.
Giselle has all those, plus a memorable symphonic score, beautiful sets and costumes, evocative lighting, and some of the most demanding dancing ever created.
Opening next week in Auckland, the Royal New Zealand Ballet's Giselle has been acclaimed by audiences and critics throughout the first half of its New Zealand tour. Staged by the company's artistic director Ethan Stiefel, in collaboration with world-leading ballet dancer and producer Sir Johan Kobborg, it is a richly revitalised version of the classic tale, and a glorious production.
Comments posted to social media websites have called it: "Superb", "Outstanding","One of the finest Giselles I've ever seen," "Exceptionally intelligent story-telling." An Australian critic declared it to be, "unmissable".
And it's not just the production they are raving about - it's the dancing too.
"This production is a great showcase for the company ... and they have never looked better. They are technically poised and polished, lyrically perfect and expressively convincing," says Dance Tabs. Kobborg agrees. "They are dancing as well as any company in the world right now - the standard is as good as you would see in New York or London. I am very impressed by the company."
Giselle was first performed in Paris in 1841 as a morality tale warning young men and women of marriageable age of dire consequences if they crossed class boundaries for love. One hundred and seventy years later, the hallmark dances of this much-loved and respected work set the gold standards by which principal dancers and corps de ballet are judged.
The story is told through the dancing, which includes some famous solos and duets involving Giselle and Albrecht, and the disciplined dancing of the corps de ballet as the Wilis - ghostly maidens who inhabit the forest near the village graveyard with the right to dance to death any man who strays into their territory after dark.
The roles of Giselle and Albrecht are often danced by guest stars who bring their own special qualities to their characters. In the Royal New Zealand Ballet's Giselle, leading American ballerina Gillian Murphy, the company's guest principal, dances Giselle in Cast A with Qi Huan as Albrecht, while expat Kiwi dancer Andrew Bowman, for the past decade a principal dancer with the Royal Danish Ballet, dances Albrecht in Cast B, with Antonia Hewitt as Giselle. Cast C are rising stars Lucy Green and Kohei Iwamoto.
Murphy is internationally recognised for the brilliance of her technique, her rich musicality and finely nuanced interpretations of many roles. She has danced the role of Myrtha, Queen of the Wilis, many times, but never Giselle.
Myrtha is a somewhat nasty character, implacable in her judgment that Albrecht must dance till his death, and Murphy is finding dancing Giselle an enjoyable contrast.
"Giselle is an innocent young woman, very honest and open and trusting. She fools herself into believing what Albrecht tells her, and his betrayal is such an intense experience that it shatters her world. But she is also extremely compassionate, and her generosity of spirit overcomes everything else, and forgiving Albrecht is a selfless act of love, pure and simple. I'm not so sure I could be quite so selfless."
Bowman brings to the role of Albrecht a reputation for passionate acting, excellent technique and buoyancy, fleet feet and responsive partnering; he is also making his debut as Albrecht. He notes that the last time he was due to dance the role, he was undergoing experimental surgery to restore cartilage in his knees.
"I had the same injury on both knees - a centimetre of cartilage on the outside of each knee worn away by dancing on my knees, especially in works by Bejart and Neumeier. Ballet dancers don't wear knee pads, of course, so there is nothing to protect the knees in such manoeuvres, and for at least five years I had to dance with my knees strapped, and work through the pain. It was either that or stop dancing.
"Then I heard about this experimental surgery that had been done with success, that could provoke the cartilage into regenerating. The surgeon thought his technique would work on me, so he did one knee, waited eight months to be sure the surgery had been successful, then the other. So now I have the knees I had as a 20-year-old - and no pain. It is quite magical.
"I am loving dancing Albrecht, especially as a more down-to-earth fellow with the instincts of this day and age, the way Ethan and Johan want it to be played. He's a bit of a playboy at first, but he later realises how foolish he has been. It is clever the way they have made it into Albrecht's story, showing that he did, in the end, suffer the consequences of treating Giselle so badly."
Stiefel and Kobborg have very much enjoyed working on this production together. Good friends who have known each other for many years, they have both danced the role of Albrecht many times and have had many opportunities to figure out how to improve Giselle. This is their first collaboration on producing a classical ballet, and they set out to make the narrative more relevant to today's audiences, to intensify the dramatic realism so the characters would be credible, and to give the dancers material they can bring to life and make their own. Ultimately, it had to be a version they would both want to dance in, something that would respect and honour tradition while revitalising the work.
Both have very much enjoyed the experience and are delighted with the result.
"We've had a great team to work with," says Stiefel. "The designers have done an exceptional job using translucent backdrops lit from behind, which is a first for a New Zealand production. Amanda McKerrow has been a marvellous coach, and Johan and I have been able to work separately with the dancers in different studios at the same time, as well as bouncing ideas between us. The dancers have risen to all the challenges and have made us very proud."
"It seems that many people like this production we have created," adds Kobborg, "and we certainly have lots of ideas for other projects. Hopefully there will be more to come."
The Royal NZ Ballet's Giselle will tour five centres in China next April as part of its 60th birthday celebrations. A triple bill of new short works by Ethan Stiefel, Andrew Simmons and Javier de Frutos will be seen during the Auckland Arts Festival in March.
What: Giselle, with the Royal NZ Ballet
Where and when: Aotea Centre, November 29-December 2; for other venues, see nzballet.org.nz