Giselle is a beautiful, naive peasant girl who loves to dance. Sadly, these four elements conspire to bring about her untimely death. In a new, luminous production of Giselle, Royal New Zealand Ballet artistic director Ethan Stiefel and Royal Ballet principal dancer Johan Kobborg have reworked the classic “white ballet” to appeal to 21st-century audiences.
In this version – Stiefel’s first full-length work for the RNZB since being appointed last year – the fussiness and long dance sequences of the original 19th-century ballet have been cut, replaced by clean lines, pared-back choreography and an intense emotional landscape. Stiefel and Kobborg focus on dramatic tension and accessible characterisation. The roles of the male protagonists, Albrecht and Hilarion, are deepened; their personalities made more complex. Similarly, the role of Giselle has been given a greater psychological range, blending nuanced emotion and dramatic dancing.
The result is a skilful integration of the original, with its delicate balance between dance and drama, and a contemporary focus on tragedy, built around actions and consequences. The role of Giselle is demanding and principal guest artist Gillian Murphy gives an inspired performance. The challenging choreography requires perfect technique, stamina, control and artistry, and Murphy masters these elements. She dances with great empathy, encompassing Giselle’s youth in Act I and her tenderness in Act II.
She is partnered by Qi Huan as Albrecht, who journeys from confident cad, astounding all with his prowess, to a stricken and remorseful man, supporting Murphy with great sensitivity and pathos. The connection between the pair is poetic, their final leave-taking measured and laden with sadness. Despite the vivacity of Act I, and supernatural beauty in Act II, Giselle is ultimately elegiac. The consequences of disregarding the norms of class-based society are key elements in the ballet. The image of a cloaked, haunted man standing among the burnt-out giant tree roots embodies the destructive force of intemperate actions.
The sets by Howard C Jones are elemental: Act I a rustic cottage and wooden hut, the backdrop an imposing cliff-top castle; Act II a stark graveyard in a forest. Count Albrecht is enraptured with Giselle, and artfully courts her in a peasant disguise. A forester, Hilarion, also enamoured of Giselle, demonstrates his prowess with commanding jumps and turns. But he is no match for the elegant Albrecht, whose feet flash with dazzling beats, flying turns and astounding jumps. Giselle falls in love, but is ultimately betrayed by Albrecht and dies broken-hearted.
The celebration of the grape harvest has been enlivened by an expressive reworking of the folk dance sequences and the inclusion of joyful duets by a wedding party, which serves to heighten the dislocation of Giselle and Albrecht’s romance. Act I is bitter-sweet, Act II mysterious, vengeful. As mourners leave Giselle’s graveside, the night-time forest becomes haunted by wilis – spirit maidens, jilted before their wedding day, whose goal is to entrap men who have betrayed a woman’s true love.
The second night cast has Antonia Hewitt as a more fragile Giselle; even when courted she is tentative. Guest artist Andrew Bowman is a noble Albrecht with magnificent elevation and a commanding stage presence, yet despite beautiful partnering their connection is more distant. The role of Hilarion has inspired different interpretations: Jacob Chown brings passion and musicality, his charm endearing him to the audience; Dimitri Kleioris adds dramatic flair and a sharper, less sympathetic tone. Both Myrthas, Queen of the Wilis, are superb. Abigail Boyle, with chilling characterisation, marks out her authority; Lucy Balfour, equally commanding, cruelly spurns Giselle’s pleas. Both dance magically across the stage, their feet a whirr of tiny beats. Outstanding performances by the entire cast fully realise this beautiful ballet.
GISELLE, Royal New Zealand Ballet, touring until December 12.