Stiefel & Kobborg stay true to the spirit of Giselle

It may be small in numbers, with just over 35 dancers and a handful of extras, but the new production of Giselle by Ethan Stiefel and Johan Kobborg for the Royal New Zealand Ballet is big in scope, in its sweep of narrative, its adherence to the spirit of the story and most of all in the impact of the performance as Giselle by Stiefel’s fiancée, Gillian Murphy.

Wearing a buttercup yellow skirt and white blouse, Murphy steps out of the cottage as a modest girl who does not immediately bound across the stage, but seems almost painfully shy and naĂŻve as she encounters Albrecht in disguise.

It’s not until a sequence of five superfast turns do we see the power within Murphy herself and the power of the performance to come.

Her Giselle is introverted, apprehensive. Pale-skinned beneath her auburn hair, she seems to feel safe only when she is close to Albrecht (in this production called Lenz in his disguise, rather than Loys).

The transition into madness and then into life beyond the grave is smooth and logical and this Giselle seems most at home when she has reached her authentic self as a wili whose love is so deep that she can both save and forgive the man who betrayed her.

Stiefel and Kobborg have framed their production as a flashback in the mind of an older Albrecht who cannot forget the past and who walks once more to Giselle’s grave only to be met by an advancing and ruthless line of wilis. It’s clear that Albrecht will not escape this time and nor does he really want to.

The opening image of the RNZB production, which premiered at the St James Theatre in Wellington on 7 November, is a simple painting of a tree whose branches sprout small red hearts, with the painting bordered by a frame that resembles a William Morris pattern.

I learned afterwards that the hearts did not appear to fall from the branches, as planned, due to a technical hitch. The painted cloth rises slowly to reveal the roots of the tree sinking deep into the darkness below.

The older Albrecht stands alone on the stage, remembering his past.

In the program notes, Kobborg explains that the moments we might expect of “huge spectacle” in Giselle are not vital to the storytelling, partly because “they belong to an older tradition”, but also because the RNZB is too small in numbers to field rows of wilis and happy peasants, some dancing, others standing in a semi circle, decorating the stage.

With Stiefel, he has concentrated on the intimate triangle of Giselle, Albrecht and Hilarion, the last a decent man who is genuinely confused as to why his girlfriend no longer cares for him and what this stranger is doing in his patch of the world.

When he reveals the betrayal and sees its consequences, Hilarion is as appalled as the others in the village.

Not that he doesn’t jostle and fight for his place before that moment.

Albrecht, in turn, is haughty and occasionally rough in his treatment of his potential rival. When Hilarion dances, (in a new solo created for this production), Albrecht trumps him with an even showier, more virtuosic solo.

Yet we sympathise with both men. This Giselle has no baddies – nothing is as simple as that.

Qi Huan as Albrecht and Jacob Chown as Hilarion are both believable in their characterisation and Huan has many opportunities to show his fine technique in general, and in particular, his astonishing elevation in Act II.

Murphy’s Act I solo is fast and faultless, and her circle of pirouettes into the diagonal are as clean and neat as a line drawn in one stroke by a calligrapher.

Adding to the ballet’s traditional motifs of a cross (depicted in both sword and gravestone), Stiefel and Kobborg have added a logical extension of the flower motifs of lilies and daisies by reinterpreting the couple who dance the peasant pas de deux as a bridal couple.

Instead of Giselle being the belle of the harvest festival, the bride and groom are the celebrated villagers, she wearing a white wedding dress and carrying a bridal bouquet that she throws to the gathering. It is caught by Giselle.

And the daisy motif is extended into Act II when Albrecht not only places lilies on Giselle’s grave, but also what appears to be a daisy on the cross itself.

The wedding couple, Lucy Green and Medhi Angot, are charming and lovable and Angot’s training at the school of the Paris Opera Ballet shines through.

Eliminated from Act I is Giselle’s fascination with the costume and demeanour of Bathilde, Albrecht’s fiancée, and therefore Bathilde’s bestowing of her necklace on Giselle is also missing.

As Bathilde and the Duke, Antonia Hewitt and Sir Jon Trimmer make a glamorous pair, she in grey and purple silk, with a bustle, but they have little to do.

At the first hint of real trouble, they and the rest of the hunting party make for the exit as if to say, “it was rather fun, but we definitely don’t want to know about this distasteful matter”.

The blackness of their late Victorian/early Edwardian riding habits and top hats contrasts well with the bronze and russet of the village girl’s skirts.

Natalia Stewart’s costume designs as a whole complement and enhance the settings by Howard C Jones who has been influenced by both William Morris designs and Aubrey Beardsley/art nouveau tracery in the lines of the trees in both acts.

As Stiefel said in his speech after the performance, the lighting by the American, Kendall Smith, was sculptural, particularly in Act II with the subtle lighting of the wilis. Thankfully, there was no blue lighting effect and little dry ice.

As Myrtha, Abigail Boyle showed amplitude in her arms, razor sharp footwork, and a space eating style that the Queen of the Wilis must have if we are to believe her strength and determination.

Lucy Green as Moyna and Mayu Tanigato as Zulma were equally luscious in their upper body movement.

Murphy was more at home in the supernatural world than in Act I, making a stunning Act II entrance with those whirling dervish turns in attitude.

As we hoped – and expected from a principal dancer with American Ballet Theatre – Murphy’s feet, line, use of her head and creamy port de bras were impeccable. Every part of her body is in harmony.

Giselle’s ending is always poignant but this production had two final moments that were new and touching. As dawn breaks and Giselle is ready to return to the grave, Albrecht hands her the small flower from the cross. No, she indicates, it’s for you, and she hands it back to her lover.

But Albrecht is never going to go quietly into the night. The older Albrecht returns to meet his fate at the hands of the wilis who will never ever give up.

For those who can’t travel to New Zealand to see Giselle, there’s good news.

The production is being filmed for general release by the New Zealand Film Commission, although there is no release date yet.

The production will tour to eight New Zealand cities after the Wellington season ends on 11 November.