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Photo: Evan Li
Photo: Evan Li
Production - Johan Kobborg and Ethan Stiefel
Choreography - Johan Kobborg and Ethan Stiefel (after Marius Petipa)
Set Design - Howard Jones
Costume Design - Natalia Stewart
Lighting Design - Kendall Smith
Conductor - Michael Lloyd
The Telstra Clear Season

at St James Theatre, Wellington
From 7 Nov 2012 to 11 Nov 2012
[2.5 hours]

Reviewed by Virginia Kennard, 8 Nov 2012

Giselle is lavish and wistful in this production from superstars Johan Kobborg and Ethan Stiefel, a clever and fun collaboration.

Giselle has always felt a little anti-feminist to me in its sympathetic portrayal of male heartbreakers, and its presentation of heartbroken women as vengeful Wilis who have the right to dance to death any man who strays into their forest realm between midnight and dawn. The underlying story comes out of an era of Western civilisation that cultivated the woman as a fantastical figure of mystical and fearful emotional capabilities, and the spectre of the Willi's as exacting the ultimate revenge is part of Giselle's moral tale – Giselle recognizes her own wrongdoing  and forgives Albrecht, allows him to live.

What is surprising is that Stiefel and Kobborg have put the narrative into a context of nightmarish flashbacks for Albrecht, ultimately (and satisfyingly) leading to what would appear to be his ultimate death by Wili.

Albrecht's older self relives his younger self's actions: the deception of his flirtation with Giselle, her death by heartbreak and the ensuing scenes of melancholic love as her spirit protects him from the Wilis. The elder Albrecht comes full circle, as prostrates himself before Giselle's grave, the Wilis descend in the best hinted-at death scene ever.

In addition, this particular cast has lead males and a Corps de Ballet that are refreshing and wonderful, yet there is a very traditional invocation of the old-fashioned awe and fear of women as ultimate arbiters of fate, firmly fixing Giselle and Mytrtha in the mould of fearful, mystical creatures.

The stage is set with a tilted back fore-drop – a feminine, pink, towering arboreal like Enid Blyton's Faraway Tree, looming its hearts-as-leaves over the audience. Gillian Murphy opens this production as Giselle, dutiful daughter with a hint of coquettishness in response to the brash pursuit by Albrecht. Her duet with Albrecht after catching the coveted bouquet at a local wedding is beautifully romantic, technically impeccable. Her zoned-out episode once she finds out Albrecht has duped her is freakier than a crazed frenzy.

Qi Huan as Albrecht is the refreshing, earnest younger man pursuing a (slightly) older woman, all youthful bustle and eager to convince her of her wondrousness. His solo for Giselle at the villagers' wedding is triumphant and buoyant – he knows he is already her choice. Jacob Chown as Hilarion is wonderful as the local dude who loves Giselle first. Flat-footed on entrance to affirm his status as gamekeeper, he pieces together the identity of the mystery man to reveal Albrecht in disguise. He dances to prove his worth in his solo for Giselle, but despite sturdy legs and a powerful allegro, he is gutted at being second choice.

The nobility are decadently garbed as if off to the Races in Edwardian England, at odds with the peasants' costumes, which are more of a nod to Bavaria of an earlier time, with coloured skirts, and trousers, contrasting cummerbunds and vests. The lush maroon of Wilfred's jacket is worth a mention, and the romantic tutus of the Wilis during Act II are a sublime choice by costume designer Natalia Stewart.

The Corps de Ballet performance, once the nobility leave, is as villagers performing a uplifting maypole sequence, dynamic in its arm lines and the under-and-overs, certainly more so than their earlier attempts at partner dancing, which is little more than step-touch and smiling. There is quite a cool piece of staging during the wedding for the Corps. They join the jubilant married couple one couple at a time, twirling and leaping. Maree White, Harry Skinner and Dimitri Kleioris establish wonderful characters during the female and male ensembles respectively, Dimitri especially as the cocky and supportive mate to the groom.

Act II opens with the blackened roots of the aforementioned tree. Now we feel the power and fear of the jilted women build, with misty green lighting making the roots eerily sway. The gravestone of Giselle is visible behind it. As the fore-drop is lifted away, a very ornate, tangled forest is revealed, diminishing the mystical emptiness the simple gravestone implies and imbuing claustrophobic smothering to the grieving friends.

The Corps de Ballet become Wilis, romantic and mystical women to be feared. They are tight-knit, executing military precision in their placement, under veiled eyes. Moyna, played by Lucy Green, is pitch-perfect in her opening solo though a little heavy in her landings in the third solo. Mayu Tanigaito introduces the grimly determined Wili character in the second solo. The Queen of the Wilis (Myrtha) of my youth was more Lady Macbeth, manic in her desire for revenge on behalf of her jilted Wilis. Myrtha here is played by Abigail Boyle as a more restrained, imperious guardian. The epic sequence of arabesques for the Corps is always a tense moment of movement execution and these women are grimly focused and almost zombie-like. This in fact appropriately enhances the accusatory and determined quality of their arabesques and performance.

The whirlwind of Wilis around Hilarion is awesome to watch, crafted as a maelstrom of movement accusation and death sentence. The musical score of Act II is a welcome and superb partner to these moments of whirlwind and marching arabesque conducted with vivacity by Michael Lloyd.

And then it's Albrecht's turn.  The spirit of Giselle tensely shadows his moves, textbook demure and seldom lifting her gaze, apparently sleepwalking at times - her authority residing in her incredible ballon and letter perfect movement execution. The relationship between the spirit Giselle and the grieving Albrecht is at its best here – the sustained nature of their duet is melancholic and mesmerizing. A satisfying sigh escapes when she nestles her arabesque into his back as he kneels at her grave. Albrecht's earlier youthful manner gives way to anguish on the revelation of his deception, Qi Huan visibly matures as he dances with her spirit, and as her image fades in and out his sight; he realizes he is lost without her and seems surprised at the depth of his emotion. 

For more production details, click on the title above. Go to Home page to see other Reviews, recent Comments and Forum postings (under Chat Back), and News.

See also reviews by:
 Jennifer Shennan (The Dominion Post);
 Toby Behan
 Kasey Dewar
 Hannah Molloy
 Rosemary Martin


James Levy posted 8 Nov 2012, 09:33 PM

Well, the above review certainly tells us the plot if we didn't know it. What I saw? A much improved technique  from the dancers with more clarity  in movement than previous years. The acting was as half -hearted as usual, almost emotionally void, but with the enhanced skill that can be forgiven. The design of the set and costumes was dull though, it seems that the new RNZB director likes to use friends from New York over NZ designers and we have now drab academic designs over the more imaginative concepts that local designers had. It was more a triumph of technique over art which though, in ballet, is not always a bad thing...perhaps.