Giselle (Royal New Zealand Ballet) Festival Theatre

A rare chance to see the Royal New Zealand Ballet was not to be missed, particularly when they are performing one of the great romantic ballets, Theophile Gautier’s Giselle. But while I am about to shower this production with the praise it so richly deserves, let me take a moment to mention the one drawback: the pre-recorded soundtrack. While the expense, not to mention the logistical nightmare that bringing an orchestra with them, would be prohibitive, this does no-one any favours. Over loud from the start, there is a not quite tangible but nevertheless lurking feeling that it does not provide the empathy with the dancers that is so badly needed.

Enough of that, though. This is ballet, the dance is the thing, and there is more than enough in this performance to captivate and enchant. Conceived as a romantic fairy tale designed to show off the talents of Gautier’s muse, Carlotta Grisi, Giselle is the story of a peasant girl wooed by the disguised nobleman, Count Albrecht. Taken with this handsome stranger, she spurns the advances of the gamekeeper, Hilarion (Paul Mathews). Albrecht loves and leaves Giselle, and marries into the aristocracy. Giselle dies of a broken heart, and her spirit joins the ranks of the Wilis, an army of the vengeful spirits of wronged women who bring about the death of any man who ventures into their territory.

This breaks the story into two distinct acts; the first, a joyous harvest time when Albrecht (Carlo Di Lanno) romances Giselle (Mayu Tanigaito) at the wedding party of two of the villagers. A special mention here for Tonia Looker and Shaun James Kelly as the bride and groom, shining performances from both. Amid this jollity, Albrecht’s cover is blown and Giselle dies of a broken heart. This is a weakness of the plot; it is hard to believe, however well the leads perform – and they do – that she will suddenly succumb in this way. (A lady in the row in front of me confided that she had to suppress the urge to shout “Oh, grow up, girl!” at that point.)

Act II, set by Giselle’s grave at night, sees the emergence of the quietly menacing Wilis, led by their Queen Myrtha (a show-stealing performance from Abigail Boyle) who set upon the grieving Hilarion and dance him to his death. They intend that Albrecht should suffer a similar fate, but Giselle protects him until dawn breaks and the Wilis fade away.

Why Giselle should protect the unfaithful Albrecht, who brought about her death, while leaving the lovelorn Hilarion to his fate is yet another hole in the plot, but hey, this is ballet, not Shakespeare. And what does it matter, really, when we have a chance to witness the remarkable talents of Tanigaito, Di Lanno, Mathews and the near perfection of the choreography from the entire company.

Jim Welsh