Image for Giselle - Queensland Ballet

Giselle - Queensland Ballet

It must be hard to hit on a good ballet plot.

On the one hand you want maximum spectacle, a display of dance so accomplished it can launch the audience into an almost supernatural realm of beauty.

But you also want the human. You want passion and vulnerability played out in movement.

How’s this then? Old legends from eastern Europe tell of forests haunted by bands of nocturnal spectres. These unquiet souls are all of women who have died from the despair of being abandoned in love. Coldly vengeful, they enact a grim parody of courtship, compelling any man they meet to dance through the night until he dies of exhaustion.

But as with all good stories there’s a twist. One of the ghosts, the newest, is horrified to find that among tonight’s victims is her own lover. He’s been found distraught and repentant at her graveside. Defying her sinister sisters, Giselle bravely steps forward to dance with him herself. Love trumps death as she inspires the strength he needs to endure till first light, when all ghosts must vanish into air.

It’s a heady concoction – one of the purest distillations of romantic mythology ever. And with dance itself at the centre of the story, Giselle seems to have been destined to become one of the archetypes of ballet ever since its blockbuster Paris première back in 1841.

This new local production, staged in the Russian tradition by choreographer Ai-Gul Gaisina, features some superb ensemble dancing. Especially impressive is the all-girl synchronisation of the dread spirits. The liquid flow and gravity-defying lift of the high romantic style give an impression that is truly otherworldly.

As the leader of the pack, company soloist Lisa Edwards commands the stage, sculpting a portrait of icy wrath out of dazzling dexterity and poise.

Sets, lighting and costume are equally transportive, and all beautiful in their own right. A shadowy night-time glade looks like a landscape by Caspar Friedrich, eerily setting off the luminous white of the spirit world.

The ballet’s introductory act is bathed in a deep autumnal glow: there’s even a burnished sheen to a lot of the costumes. It’s like the golden haze of nostalgia as we witness the backstory of the living Giselle.

She’s a trusting peasant girl, lively but with a physically weak heart. Too weak to survive the revelation that her handsome young knight, Albrecht, has apparently only been playing at love with her while all the time engaged to a noblewoman.

As Giselle, Rachael Walsh brings a long-honed prowess to a role regarded as one of the greatest tests of a ballerina’s technique. She conquers it exquisitely, with nothing at all routine about her performance.

Merry and spontaneous early on, she’s also painfully moving in the mental crumble the heroine suffers when her lover’s faithlessness is unmasked.

Daniel Gaudiello is also excellent as Albrecht. An Australian Ballet principal rejoining his hometown company for a pair of performances, his extraordinary athletic grace is matched by acting of considerable depth.

He’s not afraid to make his character a bit smugly in love with his own charms as well as Giselle’s at the beginning. But her death transforms him: here’s a man violently awakened to the real world of pain. At the drama’s climax, when he’s dancing for his life, he gives a display that is nothing short of astounding, especially in the famous marathon of entrechats – those leaps nearly a metre into the air while the feet beat away at machine-gun rate.

The remaining host of smaller roles, both dancing and non-dancing, are well-acquitted by company and associated artists. Especially satisfying is the performance of ballet mistress Janette Mulligan, who portrays the heroine’s aging mother with simple dignity, at the same time managing to suggest a wealth of life experience.

Also eye-catching is Vito Bernasconi as the gamekeeper Hilarion, Albrecht’s earthy rival for Giselle. His portrayal of strong, plain-dealing love is bound to appeal if you like a bit of thickness in a man, whether that be in his general physique, his beard or even the leather of his boots.

Queensland Ballet’s recent management changes seem to be paying off in a number of ways, not least in securing Giselle ’s live music. Budget considerations had originally slated this Brisbane run to use pre-recorded playback. Kudos to those who managed to engage the St John’s Camerata instead. They have settled very stylishly into the classic musical score by Adolphe Adam in this tailor-made reduction for small orchestra by conductor Andrew Mogrelia.

Mogrelia draws some delightful phrasing from his band, keeping the music fresh and vivid. (This is no mean feat: the light and simple style used for ballet in Adam’s time can sometimes, to contemporary ears, sound a bit too tumty-tumty.) Certain details are even enhanced by the slimming down of forces in the pit: the characterful hues of the woodwinds gleaming through the transparent strings, the spidery trills of the violins as Giselle starts to unravel at her betrayal by Albrecht. To hear these performed in real time gives a frisson to proceedings that more than makes up for any lack of heft in the brass.

Perhaps most crucially, the intimate aural scale suits Giselle ’s ending, the parting of the lovers at dawn. She’s saved his life, but he can’t give her back her own. In the world of pure romantic mythology, if longing is to last forever, it must be forever unfulfilled.

Giselle plays at QPAC until July 6. Click here for tickets.

(Note: The performance reviewed was on June 27. Giselle is triple cast, with role rotation among the dancers. The need for multiple covers was demonstrated on opening night, when principal Meng Ningning sustained injury in Act 1. In Act 2, Rachael Walsh and fellow principal Matthew Lawrence stepped into the lead roles. Lawrence is shown as Albrecht in the above production images. Daniel Gaudiello dances Albrecht again on Thursday 4 July.)

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