Madeleine Eastoe followed Maina Gielgud’s advice and made the role of Giselle “entirely her own”

Every ballerina lucky enough to dance Giselle portrays the role in her own particular way. Of course she’s directed and coached by others, and must stay within the constraints of the narrative and the choreography. But there’s more scope for interpretation and subtlety than one can find in most classical ballet roles for female principals.

There’s not much they can change as Aurora, for instance, or the Sugar Plum Fairy, or most of the fairy tale characters.

Darcey Bussell was an English rose of a Giselle, while Alina Cojocaru was so fragile and damaged when she learnt of her betrayal that she broke your heart no matter how many times you’ve watched the ballet. So did Carla Fracci, in the mad scene, dancing with Erik Bruhn as Albrecht.

The etoiles of the Paris Opera Ballet are all impeccable in their interpretation – after all, Giselle was born on the Paris stage – but their very perfection can make them appear slightly remote in the ballet’s first act.

If only we could turn the clock backwards, we would be able to see one of the finest 20th century interpretations of Giselle, danced by Olga Spessivtseva.

Her technique can’t compare with the dancers of today but her immersion in the tragedy of Giselle is still clear in two spine-chilling minutes on film when Spessivitseva dances in the mad scene. She stumbles across the stage, her legs buckling under her, a performance made more compelling when we know that she visited mental hospitals to help her understand the role and in later life spent many years in a mental hospital herself.

Footage of that scene was shown in Anton Dolin’s film, A Portrait of Giselle in which he interviewed some of the great Giselles of the past, among them Galina Ulanova, Tamara Karsavina, Alicia Alonso, Yvette Chauvire, Natalia Makarova and Fracci.

Giselle is a multi-dimensional role, first the innocent young girl, bewitched by a charming aristocrat in disguise, then collapsing into despair when she discovers the truth, and finally emerging from her grave to dance as an airborne phantom.

It’s common for Giselles to excel either in Act I or Act 2. But in the Australian Ballet’s opening night of Maina Gielgud’s production of Giselle in Sydney, Madeleine Eastoe, was equally impressive in both acts, completely believable in every aspect as she made the transition from the natural to the supernatural world.

Eastoe has always shone in such fragile, delicate roles, including La Sylphide and the crazed Odette in Graeme Murphy’s Swan Lake. We, the audience, are on her side, empathising, feeling her sorrow.

Most recently, she has been partnered by Kevin Jackson as she was on the opening night of Giselle.

In Act I, Jackson portrays Albrecht, disguised as the peasant, Loys, as youthful, carefree and almost always smiling. In his interpretation he seems to have become one of the locals in the village, rather than acting the role of a peasant but still showing glimpses of his aristocratic upbringing, in the way in which he walks and stands and his charming manners.

In Act II Jackson seems more at ease, both as a strong partner and in his soaring solo in which he displays astonishing energy and elevation as he is instructed to dance to his death.

Giselle is a showcase for six dancers with acting skills, who support the two principals, and, even if they have little to do, or don’t even dance at all, they are all central to the telling of the story.

The most important is the gamekeeper, sometimes called the “forester”, Hilarion. He is often depicted as a brutish local yokel, but in Gielgud’s production, (and in the interpretation of Hilarion by Andrew Killian), he is manly and attractive, and we can sympathise with him as loses Giselle and takes out his fury as he reveals Albrecht as an imposter.

Albrecht’s servant, Wilfred, has little time on the stage, but his role is also significant. He is the only person in the narrative who knows from the first few minutes that Albrecht is lying and probably on the road to disaster.

As Cyril Beaumont wrote in his book, The Ballet Called Giselle, the role of Wilfred is usually underplayed. In this production, the role was undeveloped – not the fault of Rudy Hawkes who played Wilfred on opening night. I think more thought needs to be given to Wilfred’s importance in the story.

Giselle’s mother, Berthe, has to indicate that Giselle may die, and depart to the horrific otherworldly realm of the wilis if she keeps dancing and wasting her time with Albrecht.

The mime scene in which Berthe tells this tale is also underplayed in this production, not because of the performance of Olga Tamara, but because a dramatic emphasis is missing.

The Duke of Courland is played by Steven Heathcote, always a powerful figure on stage although in this production he is not given the opportunity to add a little bit of back story, indicating that Giselle might be his illegitimate daughter.

Natasha Kusen is a beautiful Princess Bathilde, (the fiancée of Albrecht) who is charmed by Giselle, showing kindness and generosity, while retaining her distance. You can see from the image just how regal and elegant she appears.

The Peasant pas de deux of Act I was danced on opening night with impeccable style and finesse by Ako Kondo and Chengwu Guo. The audience adored them.

Dimity Azoury was outstanding as Myrtha, a dangerous Queen of the Wilis, full of venom, using her arms like daggers and her legs like scissors as she bounded across the stage, commanding the opening of Act II and never failing to maintain the rage.

Gielgud’s Act II has the wilis emerging from backstage as wispy ghosts with long veils, a very effective entrance and one enhanced by Peter Farmer’s designs that evoke the same mysterious, blurry phantoms of Robert le diable, an opera whose ballet interlude was the precursor to the sylphs of La Sylphide,

Farmer’s costumes are white, ivory or black, with no primary colours not even the usual blue of Giselle’s Act I bodice.

Both the sets and costumes in Act 1 are mainly shades of brown, with the royal hunting party bringing lighter shades to the stage.

Perhaps the limited colours indicate the way in which Farmer saw the ballet, as a storybook tale, in which even Act I is a fantasy. The front cloth for Act 1 appears at the start as the front cover of the book, complete with the word Giselle.

Nine years ago I interviewed Gielgud for The Sydney Morning Herald when she was in Sydney coaching the role of Giselle to five ballerinas, Lisa Bolte, Lucinda Dunn and three other dancers tackling the role for the first time, Rachel Rawlins, Kirsty Martin and Eastoe.

Her advice, she said, was “you’ve got to look at every step you’re doing, that it comes from the story, from the music. Be guided by that. The whole purpose of being coached is to feel the role is entirely your own”.

The highlight of Giselle this time around was Eastoe’s ability to do just that. She made Giselle her own.

After the Sydney season ends on April 22, Giselle will be performed from 21-26 May in Canberra and from 2-6 July in Adelaide.

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Madeleine Eastoe and Kevin Jackson, GIselle, Australian Ballet, © photo Jeff Busby

Natasha Kusen and Madeleine Eastoe, Giselle, photo © Jeff Busby

Dimity Azoury and artists of the Australian Ballet, Giselle, photo © Jeff Busby

Madeleine Eastoe and Kevin Jackson, GIselle, Australian Ballet, © photo Jeff Busby

Artists of the Australian Ballet, Giselle, photo © Jeff Busby