The Australian Ballet is bringing two programs to Adelaide for the first time in more than 10 years – Giselle and The Dream – nicely different and each a must-see.
Giselle, one of the oldest works in the ballet repertoire, premiered at the Paris Opéra on June 28, 1841. It was the idea of the French Romantic poet Théoophile Gautier, who had read of “sprites in white gowns with hems that are perpetually damp, fairies whose little satin feet mark the ceiling of the wedding bedroom, the snow-white wilis who waltz the whole night long, and wondrous apparitions … glimpsed in a mist bathed by German moonlight.” The wilis he read about were the ghostly spirits of maidens who had been passionately fond of dancing, engaged to be married, but dying before the wedding day. Once in their graves, and unable to satisfy their passion for dance, they lured young men to dance with them, and dance until they dropped dead. With the help of a dapper man-about town, Jules Henri Vernoy, Marquis de Saint-George, Gautier fleshed out the legend with a village heroine, Giselle, who falls in love with a country boy, who turns out to be a duke, Albrecht, engaged to a countess. Discovering this, Giselle goes mad and dies, probably owing to a weak heart. End of Act 1. The autumnal rusticity of this first act is replaced in Act 2 with sinister moonlight, and cheerful peasants with vengeful wilis, led by their steely queen Myrthe. The wilis welcome Giselle, but when they try to force Albrecht to dance to his death, Giselle pleads for him, and the two dance together until the dawn begins, when the wilis begin to melt away, and he is saved. Romantic, melodramatic and one of the greatest parts ever for a ballerina. In 2006, the Australian Ballet’s Madeleine Eastoe was promoted to principal status after making her debut in the role; and she will be dancing it again as she ends her career here in July. She told me recently that she loves drama in a story ballet. “You have a whole array of emotional journeys to be part of … I feel most comfortable in these types of works. I don’t feel so restrained by those visuals because they are often driven by those emotions.” Asked if that meant she was not really thinking about what her feet were doing, she pondered a little, and then said she often nutted out the issues in studio rehearsals about what she really hoped to achieve on stage. “You blend the characterisation and the technique together, so that one doesn’t override the other.” From early in her carer, Eastoe has been impressive in the way her strong but exquisite technique has been subservient to the presentation of character. I remarked on this aspect of her performance when reviewing her debut as Lise in Frederick Ashton’s La Fille mal gardée here in Adelaide in 2004 and again when she danced the title role last year in Alexei Ratmansky’s Cinderella – roles very different from the heart-wrenching tragedy of Giselle’s Act 1 and the romanticism and classical purity of Act 2. Most recently, Eastoe has been appearing as Giselle and Titania in Ashton’s The Dream, which gives its title to the whole Adelaide season and with some luck we may see her in the role here. Created in 1964 for Shakespeare’s 400th anniversary celebrations, Ashton’s distillation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream is probably the finest ballet made from Shakespeare’s great comedy. Less than adored in its early years, The Dream is now acknowledged as an Ashton masterwork, in which the duet for Titania and Oberon, danced to Mendelssohn’s Nocturne, in Ashton scholar David Vaughan’s words, “crowns the whole work”. To ensure authenticity, the Australian Ballet sent four of its principals to London to be coached by the first Oberon, Anthony Dowell, who produced the ballet for the company with Christopher Carr. Whereas Giselle is a full evening performance, The Dream is one of an Ashton triple bill. The second, Monotones II (1965), a dance for two men and a woman, is set to Erik Satie’s Gymnopédie orchestrated by Debussy and Alexis Roland-Manuel. Ashton was inspired by space exploration, and it was his idea to dress the dancers in lunar-white-skin tight costumes and skullcaps, placing them on a bare stage. The choreography is quiet, even understated, but technically demanding, and the clarity of their movement is mercilessly exposed. It is a seamless work, in which noted American critic Arlene Croce wrote that Ashton’s line “is like that of a master draftsman whose pen never leaves the paper”. The third Ashton work is his undisputed masterpiece, Symphonic Variations, danced to César Franck’s music. His first ballet made after World War II, in which he had served as a RAF officer, it became a signature work for the Royal Ballet, and was not performed by any other company until after his death in 1989. The three women and three men of the cast never leave the open stage, and it requires enormous stamina, as well as pure, strong classical technique – strongly exemplified by the first cast, led by Margot Fonteyn and Michael Somes. Again, going to the source, the Australian Ballet brought out Somes’s widow, former Royal Ballet principal Wendy Ellis Somes, to produce the work, which Ashton had bequeathed to Somes, who had been a close friend early in their careers. The abstract nature of the ballet is supported by Sophie Fedorovitch’s backcloth, which evokes the English countryside. According to the choreographer, when he and his designer were cycling through Norfolk one day, on cresting a hill they suddenly came upon “the most marvellous glade, filled with sunshine, and this had the most terrific effect on us”. The refined simplicity of the décor complements the costumes, again white, but with touches of black – short tunics for the women, and blouses and tights for the men. The choreography is anything but simple, but the whole work has a calm serenity and characteristic fluidity. Even 70 years on, it promises to be a revelation. The Australian Ballet has not produced an Ashton work since 2004. A feast is compensating for the famine. Giselle Thursday, July 2 to Monday, July 6 Festival Theatre The Dream Wednesday, July 8 and Thursday, July 9 Festival Theatre australianballet.com.au