TOURING REVIEW: Giselle (Royal New Zealand Ballet)

Review by Brigitte Knight

Photo: Stephen A’Court

[Escapist Magnificence]

Ethan Stiefel and Johan Kobborg’s production of Giselle premiered in 2012, and has become a signature work for the Royal New Zealand Ballet, supported by the beautiful 2013 feature film Giselle directed by New Zealander Toa Fraser. The production is richly realised, refined with impeccable taste, and embodies the centuries-old magic of classical ballet in absolute escapist magnificence.

The impeccable Royal New Zealand Ballet Principal Mayu Tanigaito (returning to the stage for the first time following knee surgery and a year-long recovery) in the title role of Giselle is essentially flawless. She seamlessly blends virtuosic athleticism, physical sensitivity, boundless energy and discipline, with detailed, considered, authentic artistry; an actor with a commitment to her artform at the very highest level. The Wellington audience on opening night responded to Tanigaito’s first entrance to the stage with generous applause; a rare gesture indeed for a notoriously conservative New Zealand audience. 

Tanigaito is partnered superbly by recently-promoted Principal Laurynas Vėjalis as Albrecht. The Stiefel/Kobborg production has deliberately refined, expanded, and breathed life and dimension into the male and corps characters of Giselle, so Vėjalis’ Albrecht is both nuanced and warm. Act II allows him to shine; the full power of his breath-taking elevation and strength revealed. The Tanigaito/Vėjalis duo is a powerhouse, and audiences fortunate enough to see this cast onstage will be treated to a experiencing a living treasure of New Zealand performing arts. 

While retaining the best-loved traditional aspects of Giselle, Stiefel/Kobborg made thoughtful and well-informed adjustments, including considering class structure and its power over the characters’ autonomy, and allowing the technicality of the corps dancers to be celebrated through more complicated choreography. Paul Mathews as Hilarion is active, commanding, intelligent and vital; fully realising this traditionally side-lined character, and indisputably in control of the stage. Katherine Skelton and Kihiro Kusukami as The Wedding Couple are delightful, Ana Gallardo Lobaina as Moyna and Katherine Minor as Zulma perfectly embody the ethereal and wrathful Wilis with icy, haunting grace, and Kirby Selchow’s grief as Berthe is both powerful and genuinely moving.

As Myrtha, Queen of the Wilis, Principal Sara Garbowski is steely and cool, with beautifully detailed use of the eyeline, head and neck to enhance her characterisation. While technically clean, her delivery is more reserved than the other leads, requiring dramatic risk from Garbowski to provide the antithesis of Giselle’s full range of emotional states. 

Howard C Jones’ design and staging for Giselle is extremely effective, layering scenery, depths, levels, and reaching a balance between stylisation and visual details to create a rich and haunting world for the ballet to unfold in. Natalia Stewart’s restrained palette of autumnal colour in Act I compliments Jones’ scenery perfectly, her Act II romantic tutus other-worldly with glorious ghostly grace. Sensitive lighting by Kendall Smith draws the production elements together with effortless sophistication, making the Royal New Zealand Ballet’s production of Giselle feel cohesive and holistically complete.

This season of Giselle is supported by live orchestra in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch, and on opening night Orchestra Wellington, conducted by Hamish McKeitch, is resoundingly rich and vibrant. 

The Royal New Zealand Ballet’s Giselle is a gem of a production, and absolutely worth seeing again for admirers of authentic (and evolving) romantic era ballet. Suspend your disbelief for a night and this ballet will reach into you and break your heart.

Giselle is touring 12 May – 9 June, 2021. 

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