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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 CBS Canterbury Arena, Christchurch
From 15 Nov 2012 to 17 Nov 2012
[2.5 hours]

Reviewed by Toby Behan, 16 Nov 2012

It was a very large audience that poured into the CBS Arena last night (the temporary home of large dance events in Christchurch) to attend Giselle, the latest interpretation of this quintessential ballet from choreographers Johan Kobborg and Ethan Stiefel. To sum the evening up in short (and to assist those who need to extract short quotes from critical reviews), the following is a pleasure to say:

Giselle is breathtaking - a harrowing tale of love that is lost; it is a tale of forgiveness that transcends the most horrific of wounds. This production of Giselle, through wonderful dancing and arrangement, propels these emotional weapons outward from the stage - holding the audience in a grasp that chills and burns.

The Royal New Zealand Ballet is changing before our eyes. With the 2011 appointment of Ethan Stiefel into the Artistic Director chair, no fewer than seven new dancers (five of whom appear to have followed Mr. Stiefel from North Carolina, where he was Dean of the School of Dance immediately prior to his appointment here) have recently joined the company, and we warmly welcome them to the country and to our stages. We also continue to cherish the other stars of this company (as well as those who are rightly headlined in the media), whom we have known for some years now and who continue to share their talent with this country.

Choreographers Kobborg and Stiefel have clearly thought through their approach to this production of Giselle, which is a mix of the new and the traditional.

A clever touch opens the ballet with the central character of Albrecht as an old man (whereas we would normally see him cheerfully entering the village as the opening scene). Evolutions such as this are brave, and the right direction for ballet. As audiences now (having witnessed cinema and film developments over the last 50 years, none of which were available to original audiences of this ballet) – we are ready to have this story told to us using different devices. It enriches our understanding of the story and our connection to it.

As this vision dissolves, we meet the hero (arguably villain) of the evening, as Albrecht arrives onstage, played on opening night by Denmark based New Zealand dancer Andrew Bowman – and the tragedy of events begins to unfold. We witness the beautiful, innocent and gentle Giselle (Antonia Hewitt) shyly receiving the advances of Albrecht, gradually becoming more involved and in love as they join in the village revelry of the first act. Hilarion, a local woodsman, also makes clear his rival affections for Giselle – and when in anger he reveals that Albrecht is actually a lord (engaged to be married to another), and not the single peasant he is pretending to be, the fair maiden dies from madness and grief.

Hewitt exudes the innocence and shyness required from the part, and is technically strong. She will grow further into the incredibly demanding scene where she descends into madness, but this is an accomplished debut in a very challenging role. Bowman himself, as the suitor and cause of her death, is an excellent technician and a joy to watch soaring through the air – although his expression needs work to enhance the believability of his part in this story. As Hilarion, Dimitri Kleioris positively shines – combining vigour, honest passion, and sharply honed dance technique to underline it all. For the ensemble dancers within the company, Yang Liu, Rory Fairweather-Neylan, Kohei Iwamoto and Bronte Kelly consistently draw the eye.

The first act has had some revisions and movements – there is no longer the traditional peasant pas-de-deux, and much of the group dance movement has been choreographed. There is mixed success here – the narrative certainly seems to hang together more smoothly and proceed in a logical way, but some of the ensemble choreography is perhaps over-simplistic and does not allow the dancers to display a fuller array of talents.

The second act however, is where this production truly excels. As Albrecht and Hilarion mourn at Giselle's graveside, they are tormented by the Willis – the spirits of young and vengeful women who exact horrific punishment on the men they capture. Although Hilarion meets his (undeserved?) fate in this way, Giselle herself, in an extraordinary and tender act of forgiveness, defends and pleads for the man who caused her ruin.

Hewitt and Bowman both seem to be more at home within this act and their partnership throughout the act is superb. As Myrtha, Queen of the Willis, Lucy Balfour gives the performance of a lifetime – not portraying evil, but instead portraying pure cold contempt and unflinching cruelty. The Willis themselves, danced by the female corps de ballet members, are simply superb – framing and anchoring the act with tremendous technique and discipline. The overall effect of the second act is simply stunning. Without giving too much away, surely this revised ending is how the ballet of Giselle should always have culminated.

Giselle is indeed a marvellous production and one that everyone who has the opportunity must see. This production is being lauded as a ‘new' version of Giselle, although we need to bear this term in perspective. The majority of the choreography is traditional – sequences that we would see replicated in many companies who perform this work worldwide. The star of this ballet is surely the original synopsis and choreography itself – which the tweaks and revisions performed by Kobborg and Stiefel allow to shine through to great effect.

Although the device of the older Albrecht is welcome – it does not feel complete. He is there – and suddenly gone, and thereby his presence is nearly somewhat of an afterthought. His sequences could be extended more, crossing over with the onstage action perhaps (such as nearly happens at the beginning of Act II).

One final word – when is somebody (dancer or choreographer) going to answer the big question of Giselle, which is “Why Albrecht?”. Particularly in a production like this, which so superbly extends the role of Hilarion to a passionate and principled young man, handsome and full of fire – what is the appeal of the somewhat insipid character of Albrecht, who seemingly offers nothing more than tall and handsome? We need to understand more, perhaps, as to why Giselle chooses as she does. We need to like Albrecht more to experience a fuller tragedy.

Bravo the Ballet. 

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.

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 Jennifer Shennan (The Dominion Post);
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