Romantic tale transcends the centuries

14 May 2021

West Australian Ballet’s 2021 season of Giselle demonstrates that this 180 year old ballet still has the capacity to touch audience’s hearts, says Kim Balfour.

Giselle, West Australian Ballet ·
His Majesty’s Theatre, 13 May 2021 ·

West Australian Ballet (WAB) is marking the 180th birthday of Giselle with another season of its rendition of this Romantic masterwork, accompanied by West Australian Symphony Orchestra (WASO).

Choreographed in 2014 by Artistic Director Aurélien Scannella and Principal Rehearsal Director/Artistic Associate Sandy Delasalle, WAB’s version remains true to the original 19th century ballet by Jean Coralli and Jules Perrot, with some additional touches.

Though Giselle premiered in 1841 Paris, the ballet’s popularity has transcended nearly 200 years of changing cultural values and representations of gender roles. Like the conventions of classical ballet itself, Giselle is “of its time”. But when done well – as it is in this instance – Giselle’s emotional poignancy can still elicit universal feelings of heartbreak, anguish and grief from its audience.

In the white tutu of a Wili, Dayana Hardy Acuna soars through the air in a grande jete, holding two sprigs of flowers.
Virtuosity: Dayana Hardy Acuña as Giselle. Photo: Bradbury Photography

Giselle is the story of a doomed love triangle in two acts, in which peasant girl Giselle falls victim to the advances of two male suitors, Albrecht (Oscar Valdés) and Hilarion (Juan Carlos Osma).

Albrecht, a duke already betrothed to noblewoman Bathilde (Kiki Saito), decides to slum it among some peasant folk to win the heart of Giselle (Dayana Hardy Acuña). The village gamekeeper Hilarion is also in love with Giselle, and so reveals the duke’s deceit, whereupon the faint-hearted Giselle falls dead, after an emotional breakdown known as the “mad scene”.

In Act II, Giselle is resurrected as one of the Wilis, ghosts of women deceived by their lovers, who spend their time dancing men to their deaths in a gloomy forest. The Wilis try to dance Albrecht to death, but Giselle’s unshakable love protects him.

True to the original, Giselle features a lot of mime. Dance mime is mostly incomprehensible to a new audience, but in this season the performers have done well to naturalise it as best they can. Hilarion, in particular, spends a lot of time miming, and for this reason I have seen depictions of this character look clownish. Osma, however, brought a nuanced sensibility to the role of Hilarion, effectively portraying his character’s desperation and frustration.

Dressed in the ragged peasant clothes of Hilarion, Juan Carlos Osma holds one hand in front of his heart, the other extended outwards, as though pleading. Behind him, though out of focus, we can see a line of white tutu-clad Wilis.
Juan Carlos Osma brings a nuanced sensibility to the role of Hilarion. Photo: Bradbury Photography

Giselle’s dance elements are pared back to their purest form, supposedly to allow dancers an opportunity for greater dramatic expression. But dance in its purest form is not easy; a misplaced foot here or wobble there becomes glaringly obvious.

Keeping this in mind, Valdés and Hardy Acuña’s opening night performances in the lead roles were a world-class example of dramatic expression and virtuosity. Hardy Acuña’s light, airy port de bras, nuanced and expressive epaulement, and dramatic expression conveyed innocence and joy in the first act, and an otherworldly ethereality in the second. With his magnetic presence, Valdés displayed a refined virtuosity in solos and partnering alike. The couple’s on-stage chemistry and confidence allowed observers to be fully drawn into the emotional elements of the story.

The company’s contributions to the Act I’s set pieces were full of excellent performances, though at times there were signs of unsure footing and truncated penchés. Fortunately, this was not enough to take away from the overall quality and enjoyment of watching the corps dancers leaping, turning, and weaving into regimented formations.

The corps dancers gave many excellent performances: Julio Blanes and the dancers of West Australian Ballet. Photo: Bradbury Photography

Giselle’s famous Peasant Pas de Deux has always been a crowd favourite, and this time was no exception. While not quite as refined and surefooted as the leads, Candice Adea and Julio Blanes’ Peasant Pas de Deux built towards a satisfying end to rapturous applause from the audience.

Act II’s ominous moonlit forest clearing sees fifteen Wilis command the stage with cold resolve. The two lead Wilis, Carina Roberts and Claire Voss displayed beautiful line, form, and balance. Kiki Saito as Myrtha, Queen of the Wilis, while often showing good technique, did not quite reach the dramatic heights expected of this role.

In both acts, Jon Buswell’s lighting and WASO conductor Jessica Gethin’s interpretation of Adolphe Adam’s brilliant score brought to life Giselle’s themes of love, loss, and grief, played out within Peter Cazalet’s moody, magical set design.

WAB’s Giselle makes for an excellent night out for both seasoned viewers and newcomers to classical ballet. If you’re looking for an opportunity to see a first-class rendition of Giselle, with an exceptional cast and artistic team (plus two lovely Greyhounds, named Sophie and Pink), then this one’s for you.

Giselle continues at His Majesty’s Theatre until 22 May 2021.

Pictured top: Dayana Hardy Acuña as Giselle, Oscar Valdés as Albrecht with the dancers of West Australian Ballet in Act II of ‘Giselle’. Photo: Bradbury Photography

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Author —
Kim Balfour

Kim Balfour is a writer and former professional dancer, who has danced with companies such as WA Ballet and Sydney Dance Company. Kim has worked as a freelance writer for more than 15 years, including the role of dance writer for The West Australian newspaper. In 2020, Kim was selected as a writer-in-residence at the Centre for Stories, and is writing a work of creative nonfiction on gender identity and expression in dance. As a child Kim was sometimes seen sitting on a gently spinning playground carousel, deep in thought, staring at her feet as they dragged along the ground.

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