By Jane Rosenberg
Whether it’s Wilis, bird, sylph, or sprite, nineteenth century ballet is replete with woman as enchanted creature. And it’s no wonder. Place a willowy beauty on point and earth’s gravity faded as the imagination of such choreographic giants as Petipa, Perrot, and Bournonville soared.
Even in the twenty-first century, the fate of jilted girls and bewitched princesses created in the long-ago age of romantic idealism still resonates. In a production of “Giselle” from the Royal New Zealand Ballet performed in Los Angeles last night, we were given a poetic window into the minds and hearts of that romantic age. Fashioned by Johan Kobborg and RNZB artistic director, Ethan Stiefel, after Marius Petipa, this “Giselle,” though produced on a smaller scale, was a deeply felt and intelligently executed addition to the pantheon of world-class productions.
Led by a superb Gillian Murphy (guest artist from American Ballet Theater) as Giselle and partnered by Qi Huan, the company met the challenges of both acts, from the exuberance of Act One to the solemnity of Act Two. Whether dancing with the youthful abandon of peasant girls or the controlled power of the Wilis (ghostly maidens who punish wayward suitors), the female corps, in particular, impressed with their timing, precision, and musicality. This was no small feat – at only fourteen Wilis instead of the approximately thirty dancers of larger productions, they somehow managed to create the feel of a full ensemble.
There were carefully considered modifications by Stiefel and Kobborg to the “Giselle” first imagined by Perrot and Coralli and later revised by Petipa. The first was a wraparound to the plot supplied by an older Albrecht, who is first seen behind a scrim of painted tree roots, mourning the tragedy of his youth. Thus we see the action unfold in flashback. Though an interesting notion, it was not necessary for comprehension. Albrecht’s maturation and understanding of his folly is inherent in the structure of the role and was poignantly conveyed in Qi Huan’s excellent performance. The replacement of a harvest festival by a peasant wedding celebration was, however, an interesting change of pace, adding another layer to the story. Witnessing a happy, young bridal couple at the festivities contrasted eerily to Giselle’s fate – the rejection of an appropriate suitor, Hilarion, for the love of a man who, unknown to our heroine, is beyond her station and engaged to another.
Gillian Murphy, often seen in the role of the Queen of the Wilis with ABT, here portrayed a fully realized Giselle – transforming from shy, fragile village maiden to ennobled spirit in the course of the two acts. As in the dual role of Odette/Odile of “Swan Lake,” “Giselle” requires the same high level of acting and performance so critical to both ballets. From Romantic arabesques, to pirouettes in attitude, to ronds de jambe en l’air, Murphy supplied us with the technical mastery, the musicality, and the acting chops to give us a convincing Giselle. Only in the mad scene, did I wish for more fluidity and pathos. Without Bathilde’s locket around Giselle’s neck, which functions to unhinge her hair, there were distracting manipulations with the hairdo by Murphy and Maree White, playing her mother, Berthe. Though an adequate portrayal of the onset of madness, Murphy never surpassed adequate here. One longed for a hint of the confusion so poignantly realized in Natalia Makarova’s portrayal: unhinged limbs moving like a marionette, voices unheard by others, and deep physical pain – all contributing to a defining moment in the history of the role.
As Albrecht, Qi Huan shone as the elegant count in disguise as a peasant. From youthful rake to tragic, remorseful lover, Huan seamlessly handled the transitions. In the push and pull of their partnership, Murphy and Huan created suspense and an exquisite tension, particularly in Act Two, when Albrecht dances with Giselle, not yet realizing that the ghost of his beloved is really there. As for Murphy, her fragility in Act One gives way to the heroic in Act Two, as she saves her beloved Albrecht from the fury of Myrtha, Queen of the Wilis. Abigail Boyle proved an able queen, negotiating the demands of the role with a commanding presence. The role of Myrtha presents a difficult challenge: how to act the part of an ethereal specter and at the same time, convey the authority of a queen and executioner. Though more commanding than ethereal, she still convinced.
As Hilarion, Jacob Chown had the right blend of earthiness, swagger, and helplessness. He was able to meld technical proficiency with a loose and easy portrayal of the jealous gamekeeper. As Giselle’s mother, Maree White was unfortunately cast, since she was too young for a role usually reserved for an older, character dancer. Clytie Campbell as Bathilde and Martin Vedel as her father, the duke, were appropriately aristocratic; and MacLean Hopper as Albrecht’s faithful subject, Wilfred, cut a fine figure. Lucy Green and Rory Fairweather-Neylan were delightful as the wedding couple of Act One, and as Myrtha’s two handmaidens, Green and Mayu Tanigaito danced with both strength and refinement.
The large orchestra of local musicians, many from the LA Opera, under the baton of Nigel Gaynor, brought out both the piquancy and turbulence of Adolphe Adam’s score. Traditional sets by Howard Jones and nineteenth century style costumes by Natalia Stewart were enhanced by the lighting design of Kendall Smith.
When finally, Albrecht was forced by the Wilis to dance to his death, we witnessed a series of entrechats that startled and amazed. Huan took to the air with his standing jumps, throwing himself into the act with utter abandon. In this moment, the reality of his deed and its aftermath hit. When dawn broke and he was saved from annihilation by his constant Giselle, we felt, with a sharp pang, the power and pathos of this iconic ballet. His later return, as an aged Albrecht seeking death, added emphasis to an already fully realized production.
Photos by Evan Li courtesty of the Royal New Zealand Ballet.
To read more dance and music reviews by Jane Rosenberg click HERE.
Jane Rosenberg is the author and illustrator of DANCE ME A STORY: Twelve Tales of the Classic Ballets. Jane is also the author and illustrator of SING ME A STORY: The Metropolitan Opera’s Book of Opera Stories for Children.