There are many versions of “Giselle” on film and now the Royal New Zealand Ballet has one, too. What film can do that often a stage version can’t is deliver emotional content via faces and small actions that often are lost on stage. It is especially helpful in a classic like Giselle, where so much of the interior drama is traditionally encoded in steps, mime, and body position that true, believable content often takes a back seat. In the La Scala version Giselle slips slowly down into her grave, beyond the frame of the camera during the final scene in Act II, leaving Albrecht alone with the pain of his double dealing. In this version Hilarion, Giselle’s village suitor disappears beneath an engulfing fog commanded by the Wilis enchantress, Myrtha.
Ethan Stiefel and Johan Kobborg who have designed and choreographed the New Zealand Ballet production stick mostly to the standard Giselle script. In their version the story takes place in flashback. They are both non-experimental dancers with a history of mostly dancing the classics, Stiefel with American Ballet Theatre, and Kobborg with the Royal Danish Ballet. The dancing and mime parts for Hilarion–the role on Friday was played by Jacob Chown–have been enlarged. We see more of him in solo mime sequences in Act I trying to work out who exactly Albrecht is. I found his acting in Act I the most believable of the three main characters, though at times the wheels of thought seemed to turn a little too obviously.
The addition of the Wilis advancing across the stage which concludes this version was moving. They parade in profile with only a bell chiming as accompaniment. It left us with something more profound than the abandoned Albrecht, the usual, final visual symbol of the ballet. It also helped to dress down the often unremitting, chipper musical accompaniment (Adam and others via Petipa) of Act II. Here, at least, was something that fit the tragedy of the story and a taste of a dark underworld. It proved a good match for the scene design, with its tangled structure of tree roots, and a generous helping of the despair of the grave.
Dancing the title roles on Friday were ABT’s Gillian Murphy, and Qi Huan. The role is a new one for Murphy who also appears in the film version. They were both better and deeper in Act II than in the village scene. She was particularly poignant as the unhinged Giselle retracing her steps from her earlier dancing with Albrecht. Her demented whirling turns in Act II also made for a convincing characterization beyond a recapitulation of traditional steps. Most impressive was the discipline, remoteness and absolute rock solid unity of the corps de ballet and the imposing Abigail Boyle as Myrtha. New Zealand is a small company and you could have wished for a larger compliment of Wilis, but what they had, they delivered in spades with chilling effect. Slightly less authentic in scale in this production were the folk dances of village scenes which felt overly gotten up.
While some of the large touring companies have come to the Music Center with canned music this weekend’s four performances came with a generously sized pit orchestra contracted from local players and conducted cleanly by the company’s Music Director, Nigel Gaynor. He made the most of music that at times is overly transparent and attached to clumsy, clichéd idioms better suited, perhaps, to nineteenth century audieneces than us. The folksy, realistic sets were designed by Howard C. Jones. The darkened, tangled web of roots and branches for Act II were particularly effective. Lighting was by Kendall Smith.
(The reviewed performance took place on January 31, 2014. Ethan Stiefel is the current Artistic Director for Royal New Zealand Ballet. This production replaces a recent 2006 company production of “Giselle”. The filmed version directed by Toa Fraser was released last year. You can keep up with information about the film on “Giselle the Movie” on Facebook. The company moves on to Santa Barbara for performances later this week.)