Dance Review: GISELLE (Royal New Zealand Ballet)

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by Tony Frankel on February 1, 2014

in Dance,Theater-Los Angeles,Tours


First staged in 1841, Giselle is one of the oldest surviving ballets still in the international repertory, especially because the lead role is a showcase for the world’s leading prima ballerinas. Since its inception, the Romantic story ballet had several revisions, but most companies follow Marius Petipa’s fin de siècle version.

Abigail Boyle as Myrtha and Jacob Chown as Hilarion with the corps de ballet in Royal New Zealand Ballet’s “Giselle.” Photo by Maarten Holl.

The North American debut of Royal New Zealand Ballet’s production which limped into the Chandler last night arrives fresh on the heels of London’s Royal Ballet version, which transmitted to 1,382 theaters in 30 countries last Monday. At the center of Peter Wright’s world-class RB production was ex-Bolshoi principal Natalia Osipova, whose every weightless elevation was fraught with character and emotion.

Both companies may have “Royal” in their name, but one is a king and the other is nobility. Even those who did not witness RB’s production will notice the opaque storytelling and mostly underwhelming dancing in RNZB’s first act. Although the second act highlighted some stunning work from the principals and corps de ballet, it felt like we got the “B” company. If the Royal Ballet were Broadway, then the Royal New Zealand Ballet is a C-city bus-and-truck crew.

Gillian Murphy and Qi Huan in Royal New Zealand Ballet’s “Giselle.” Photo by Maarten Holl.

The first act takes place in a tiny village where Albrecht, a nobleman pretending to be a country-dweller, romances the fetching Giselle, a peasant girl whose mother is wary of the stranger making advances on her daughter. Giselle spurns the gamekeeper Hilarion, who is in love with her. After a day of cajoling and celebration, Hilarion discovers Albrecht’s deceit and informs the villagers. The nobility, who had already stopped by for refreshments, reappear with Albrecht’s fiancée in tow. Giselle falls to the ground, dead of a broken heart.

If a ballet company stages a story ballet well enough, we shouldn’t have to look at the lengthy synopsis in the program. As staged by Johan Kobborg and RNZB artistic director Ethan Stiefel, it’s often unclear what is happening; swooping arm gestures are banal and old-fashioned and indicate nothing more than the sweeping of air. I know the story well, and I was confused. For example, when Albrecht arrives at the start, we have no indication that he has already been there before. A fellow nobleman who is in on the ruse points out Albrecht’s horn dangling about his waist, which is taken off and hidden. Later, when Hilarion challenges the fraudulent suitor, Albrecht reaches down for what is supposed to be his sword, but we haven’t seen it yet. I thought, “What was he going to do? Beat Hilarion up with his little horn?” It is incongruent moments such as this which separate world-class from acceptable.

Gillian Murphy and Qi Huan with the corps de ballet in Royal New Zealand Ballet’s “Giselle.” Photo by Evan Li.

The second act finds Hilarion grieving at Giselle’s grave. Lying-in-wait are Wilis (pronounced Willies), vengeful supernatural beings who are summoned by their Queen, Myrtha. They have been wronged by men, and their goal is to make men dance to their death, which is precisely what happens to Hilarion. When Albrecht arrives, Giselle’s spirit materializes and repels the Wilis until daybreak, saving Albrecht from death but not a broken heart.

Stiefel’s wife and ABT Principal Gillian Murphy is a guest artist as Giselle. She may not have the buoyancy and brittle sweetness of Osipova, but she is certainly capable with a sturdy limber body, expressive, willowy arms, and steady pointe work. Qi Huan, who joined RNZB in 2005, is oddly unremarkable as Albrecht in the first act, but he dazzles in the second literally with extraordinary leaps and bounds. The solo work here — height, tension, beautiful lines, emotion, acrobatics, spins — only served to elucidate what was missing up until then. The all-female corps de ballet is central to Act II; they were amazingly synchronized in movement, and then perfectly still when standing in preparatory position as the principal’s soloed. Jacob Chown was a persuasively ardent Hilarion, and Abigail Boyle was perfectly implacable and steely as Myrtha.

It’s a shame that Act I was so earthbound, but as with Giselle herself, my spirits were raised in the second act.

GISELLE - Royal New Zealand Ballet - Poster

photos by Maarten Holl and Evan Li

Royal New Zealand Ballet
Glorya Kaufman Presents Dance at The Music Center
Dorothy Chandler Pavilion
scheduled to end on February 2, 2014
for tickets, call (213) 972-0711 or visit here

RNZB continues its North American Tour through February 16, 2014
for more info, click this link

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