When the Australian Ballet arrives in Canberra in May with Maina Gielgud's production of Giselle, it will be bringing audiences something that has been missing from the Canberra stage for some years, at least from our flagship company – an evening-length classic from the international ballet repertoire. Giselle is the kind of ballet that many crave. First performed in Paris in 1841 at the height of the Romantic era, it has a powerful storyline and is full of emotion and drama. It also has many elements that mark it as strongly traditional, especially in the second act when a full corps de ballet, clad in long white tutus, dances together in a moonlit forest.
In true Romantic style, Giselle examines two different worlds — the real and the unearthly. The peasant girl Giselle lives in a grape-growing village in the Rhineland where harvest time is a cause for celebration. She loves to dance but her mother worries that too much dancing will play havoc with her health. She falls in love with a handsome young man, Albrecht, who ultimately deceives her. That he is engaged to another, and is in fact of royal birth, causes Giselle to descend into madness and die. In Act II, Giselle becomes part of a world populated by Wilis, spirits of jilted young girls who rise from their graves at midnight and lure men to their death. When Albrecht comes to the forest at night to mourn Giselle, his life is in danger. But Giselle's feelings for him are unchanged and, while he is forced by the Wilis to dance until he is exhausted, he is saved by the strength of Giselle's love.
Maina Gielgud, former artistic director of the Australian Ballet, now stages ballets for companies around the world. She has been in Australia recently to coach and rehearse her production of Giselle, which she first created for the Australian Ballet in 1986. Watching her in the rehearsal room as she coaches several dancers, all hoping to get a chance to dance Myrtha, the Queen of the Wilis, in Act II, it is clear that this ballet means a lot to her. Myrtha is a steely character who reigns over her forest realm without any concession to men who trespass on her territory at night: she condemns them to death by forcing them to dance until they drop. Gielgud was a well-known interpreter of the role of Myrtha during her own performing career and "menacing" was an epithet used by some critics of her interpretation of Myrtha. So, encouraging a stronger approach and better use of the arms to express the character of Myrtha, Gielgud demonstrates what she wants technically and then incites her charges with the words: "All this forest is my territory. The next man I encounter will die! I'll push him down into the grave."
Later she tells me: "Giselle matters to me so much — well perhaps because as an audience member I love to be transported by a story and to cry my eyes out. So to be able to facilitate this for others is very special and an honour!"
There is so much to anticipate with this ballet. The story centres on Giselle and Albrecht, of course, and the role of Giselle is every dancer's dream. As a young ballet student, Gielgud clearly remembers practising how, if she ever got the chance, she would interpret the mad scene in Act I. But secondary characters also have strong parts to play in the ballet. Apart from Myrtha, Giselle's mother, Berthe, can have a major impact. She foreshadows Giselle's death and transformation into a Wili. She is strongly superstitious and she warns Giselle and her friends to take care. But what is her relationship with the Duke of Courland, who arrives at the village with a hunting party, which includes Albrecht's fiancee, Bathilde? Some have wondered whether the duke is in fact Giselle's father.
Then there is Hilarion, the village gamekeeper, who vies with Albrecht for Giselle's love. When his love is not returned, filled with anger he unmasks Albrecht as a prince by revealing Albrecht's sword with its royal insignia. The sight of it precipitates Giselle's descent into madness. Then, in Act II, the Wilis discover Hilarion in the forest at night and force him to dance to his death. Is his role a thankless one as some have suggested? Or do we feel pity for him and his lost love?
If intelligently staged, this ballet offers much to think about dramatically, technically and historically. Gielgud tells me her approach to staging is a changing one depending on the company she is working with and the strengths of individual dancers.
"Inevitably, my approach also alters from my previous experiences," she says. "I always look for new ideas, some to assist the dancers to find their roles, some to bring the story better to life, and some shortcuts to making the second act more unearthly. But I look too for ways to make the second act more earthly for Albrecht and Hilarion. For instance, how can I get Albrecht to look really tired, yet still dance wonderfully, when he is being 'danced to death' by Myrtha?"
Gielgud is relishing the opportunity, not just to restage Giselle, but to be working with the Australian Ballet once more. Artistic director David McAllister, ballet mistress Fiona Tonkin, and ballet master Steven Heathcote were all in the company as dancers when Gielgud first staged Giselle.
"The company is looking great and there is such enthusiasm from the dancers about performing Giselle," Gielgud says. "And it feels just wonderful to be back working together with David, Fiona and Steven on it."
Maina Gielgud's production of Giselle for the Australian Ballet opens in Melbourne on March 13 and in Sydney on April 2. Its Canberra season is May 21-26. Canberra bookings: (02) 6275 2700 or online at www.canberratheatrecentre.com.au