Gielgud’s Giselle, a heritage work in the Australian Ballet’s repertoire with added pizazz courtesy of David Hallberg

The minute David Hallberg makes his entrance it’s clear he’s a man of distinction and charm. No wonder the vulnerable Giselle falls in love with the imposter, an aristocrat masquerading as a peasant.

Hallberg is one of the great Count Albrechts of our time.

He takes control of the stage through the exactitude of his technique, his superb acting skills, his experience in the role and his partnerships with ballerinas in companies around the world, among them American Ballet Theatre, the Bolshoi, the Royal Ballet and now the Australian Ballet.

When it comes to technique, Hallberg’s every step and position is refined whether it’s a fifth position, a posé, an attitude or a turn.

Guesting with the Australian Ballet on 31 August, Hallberg partnered Leanne Stojmenov, a principal of the company, although the original plan was for Hallberg to partner Natalia Osipova in this one-off performance at the State Theatre, Arts Centre Melbourne.

That meant Stojmenov met a double challenge; she was not only replacing Osipova as Hallberg’s partner, but also making her debut as Giselle.

Stojmenov was a delicate and playful Giselle, concentrating on her love for Albrecht rather than exploring the emotions and complexities of a young woman who is controlled by a protective mother (Berthe), an angry former boyfriend (Hilarion) and a persuasive Albrecht.

Giselles are usually more confident in either the first or the second act. For Stojmenov, her forte appeared to be Act II when, as Giselle, she saves Albrecht’s life despite the determination of Myrtha, the Queen of the Wilis.

Myrtha, the counterpart to Giselle, is the leader of jilted women, an icy figure who rules her domain, demanding the deaths of all men who come near.

As Myrtha, Amy Harris covered the stage with impressive jetés, and super fast bourrées, but the knife-edge bitterness of a woman scorned wasn’t always evident.

The Australian Ballet’s Giselle is a heritage work that premiered in 1986 in a production by the then artistic director, Maina Gielgud who clearly loves the ballet. She’s coached many Giselles and Myrthas over the years and was back in Australia again to stage the ballet once more in Melbourne.

Gielgud, who has always carried the flame for ballet’s romantic era, brought out the best in the corps de ballet wilis who held their arms aloft, curved and slightly tilted to one side in the manner of 19th century dancers.

Every character in Giselle is important to the narrative, from the royals – the Duke of Courland, the Princess Bathilde and Wilfred, the attendant of Albrecht – to the locals, the forester Hilarion, and Giselle’s mother.

The locals express themselves through mime although Hilarion both mimes and dances.

Lisa Bolte, as Berthe, resisted the often seen urge to overact the history of the frightening wilis. Her mime was clear and concise.

Natasha Kusen as the Princess, was a kind and empathetic lady rather than a snob who regards Giselle and the peasants as amusing but easily forgotten.

Hilarion is sometimes played as a cranky yokel but Andrew Killian’s Hilarion was a three dimensional, fully developed character who loves, hopes, discovers, rages then despairs.

Giselle’s peasant pas de deux is always a puzzle.

It looks interpolated, an after thought and adds little to the narrative, but, of course, it gives soloists a place to display their technique.

Benedict Bemet, a soloist, and Shaun Andrews, a corps de ballet member, danced the peasant pas with aplomb, with Andrews in particular, showing impressive elevation.

This short Giselle season was dedicated to the memory of the much loved, (and very amusing) English designer, Peter Farmer, who died in 2017.

His colour palate of brown, orange and buttercup yellow in Act I has stood the test of time, (as has the production itself).

So too, have the Act II long white tutus worn by the wilis who emerge in ghostly lines from upstage.

Their entrance – Gielgud’s idea – always impresses and is enhanced by the subtle lighting originally designed by William Akers and now reproduced by Graham Silver.

The guest conductor was Simon Hewett, the principal conductor at the Hamburg Ballet, and a guest conductor at the Royal Ballet, Paris Opera Ballet and Vienna State Opera Ballet.

That experience was shown throughout his conducting of Orchestra Victoria.

Why is Giselle such a much loved 19th century ballet?

Maybe because the narrative is so familiar.

Unlike the tales of the swan queen, Odette, a spirit, La Syphide, and the princess, Aurora, we can identify with Giselle as she falls in love, is betrayed and yet finally offers compassion.

Watching Giselle and Albrecht we can be in the moment rather than floating in a dreamland.

There are no performance photographs of the Hallberg/Stojmenov performance in Melbourne, although there are some rehearsal photos.

However, so far, I only have rehearsal photos of Stojmenov.

Hallberg will also be guesting in Giselle with La Scala Ballet in Brisbane next November. Dates to be confirmed.