It was 1985 and the Australian Ballet was on regional tour when a fire consumed the sets for Peggy Van Praagh’s Giselle. The only thing that survived the blaze was Giselle’s large gravestone cross, reminding then-artistic director Maina Gielgud that in Russia, Giselle is called “the holy ballet”.

Ako Kondo (Giselle) and Chengwu Guo (Albrecht) © Daniel Boud
Ako Kondo (Giselle) and Chengwu Guo (Albrecht)
© Daniel Boud

And certainly there is something enduring about this masterwork of romantic ballet, as Gielgud proved the following year by mounting her own production. The Gielgud Giselle has been a staple of the Australian Ballet repertoire ever since. She herself was a noted interpreter of Myrtha, Queen of the Wilis, before being selected by Rosella Hightower to dance the title role. Her production demonstrates a deep thoughtfulness and love for Giselle, as one intimately familiar with it.

The Gielgud Giselle comes to us in 2019 as a replacement in the season for Graeme Murphy’s The Happy Prince, but in no way is it tired or slapdash. It is a long-term work of the company, that evolves and refines itself with each viewing, and always reveals new delights and insights.

Part of its longevity is due to how beautifully classical the sets and costumes are: creations of that wonderful contributor to ballet, the late Peter Farmer. Act 1 is rich in autumnal tones, with Giselle’s dress based on the original design worn in 1841 by the world’s first Giselle, the Italian superstar Carlotta Grisi. Act 2 transports us to the supernatural groves of the wilis, looking like something straight out of a Brothers Grimm story book, bathed in moonlight and shrouded by great overhanging branches. A Gielgud innovation for Act 2, of which I never tire, is how her wilis make their first entrance. In traditional productions they enter by walking on from the stage’s side wings. In Gielgud’s tale, swirling mists gather at the back of Farmer’s set and then, from those mists, the veiled wilis rise as one like brides of the grave.

Ako Kondo (Giselle) and Chengwu Guo (Albrecht) © Daniel Boud
Ako Kondo (Giselle) and Chengwu Guo (Albrecht)
© Daniel Boud

The fact that Gielgud’s Giselle has been in the company for so long means that it has become a special part of the careers of several generations of Australian Ballet stars, tying them to each other and to great ballerinas around the world. Opening night’s Giselle, Ako Kondo, received her promotion to principal artist following her 2015 performance as the heroine, and was this year coached by the Australian-born Royal Ballet star, Leanne Benjamin, one of the great Giselles of her generation.

Kondo is one of those ballerinas born to dance Giselle. Her technique was wonderful, easily stretching the breadth of ability required for the role – the fast footwork and lightness of the petite allegro sequences, the speed and height of the Grande Allegro, and the graceful lines of the slow adage sequences. Her delicacy and lightness made her exquisitely pretty in Act 1, and heartbreakingly ethereal in Act 2. It is rare to see a Giselle so able to combine the technical assurance of a dancer of Kondo’s experience with such fresh innocence of character. Even her musicality was youthful, lacing every sequence with fresh and surprising emotion.

Kondo’s Albrecht was her real-life partner, Chengwu Guo. The two dancers have a very unique seamlessness in pas de deux, making those ethereal Act 2 lifts look for all the world like Giselle had been merely caught up on a breeze. A technical firecracker, Guo easily ate up all of Albrecht’s solo variations with a thrilling bravura, speed, and razor-sharp technical cleanliness. The only issue was that Guo is so obviously a dancer of immense capability that he really didn’t seem on the point of death-by-exhaustion. If this Giselle was open for bets, my money would have been on him outlasting the wilis regardless of whether the heroine had stepped in. Guo clearly has no issues with the technical aspects of Albrecht, and I look forward to seeing how his dramatic interpretation matures in future.

Nicola Curry (Myrtha) © Daniel Boud
Nicola Curry (Myrtha)
© Daniel Boud

Soloist Nicola Curry was a delight as Myrtha, with a steely technique and commandingly beautiful stage presence. The experienced Andrew Killian danced an underhanded Hilarion. The corps were in fine unified form as the wilis, although the peasant dancing in Act 1 would have benefited from greater lightness and liveliness. Jill Ogai and Marcus Morelli's Peasant pas de deux began slightly reserved with a technical focus, which warmed as it progressed. Natasha Kusen and Rina Nemoto were graceful leading wilis.

Finally, Nicolette Fraillon's fantastic conducting was a true highlight. Her mastery as a ballet conductor is a joy, with the orchestra breathing with the dancers and bringing the light and shadow to Adolphe Adam's famous score.

The best part is knowing this ballet will in all likelihood grace our stages again, with a new generation of dancers learning the steps and more experienced dancers honing their interpretations. There is a reason certain ballet productions become classics, and it was wonderful to see Gielgud’s Giselle again.

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