The Australian Ballet had programmed Graeme Murphy’s new ballet The Happy Prince for Sydney this month, but when Murphy’s illness forced its postponement, the Sydney slot was filled with Maina Gielgud’s much-loved production of Giselle. Gielgud created her version in 1986, when she was the company’s Artistic Director, to replace Peggy van Praagh’s, which had come to an untimely end the previous year when the scenery went up in smoke during a regional tour.

Ako Kondo and Chengwu Guo. Photograph © Daniel Boud

More than 30 years and over 250 performances later (Wednesday’s first night marked the 266th performance), Gielgud’s Giselle is still delighting audiences. Naturally all eyes are on the ballerina in the title role and Ako Kondo rose to the occasion with an exquisite performance.

One of the great, classical story ballets, telling a tragic tale of love, betrayal, madness, death, supernatural spirits and final salvation, Giselle has captivated audiences since it was first staged in 1841. Gielgud’s lovely, thoroughly traditional production uses the 19th-century choreography of Marius Petipa, Jean Coralli and Jules Perrot, and tells the story with dramatic clarity and great heart. It’s also a lovely looking production, with sets and costumes designed by Peter Farmer, moving from the autumnal colours of the village in the first act, to the ghostly Wilis in moonlit white in the forest in the second act.

Kondo traces Giselle’s journey perfectly, her stunning technique matched by an emotional subtlety and an ability to move as if she really is lighter than air. In the first act, in the village, where Giselle is courted by the philandering Count Albrecht, disguised as a peasant, she exudes a quiet, touching, innocent girlishness. Shy at first to admit her love for Albrecht, she then embraces it with a playful joyousness. Her collapse when she discovers his deceit, is heart-rending as she falls almost like a wafting feather to the stage.

Ako Kondo and Chengwu Guo. Photograph © Daniel Boud

In Act 2, when she is summoned from her grave by Myrtha, the Queen of the vengeful Wilis, she is transformed; all giddiness gone. Instead she is an ethereal vision, now truly part of the air around her but with the strength to save Albrecht from the Wilis, who dance unfaithful men to their deaths. Kondo’s every movement feels graceful, fluent and weightless, as if she is in a parallel universe, with less gravity, almost floating at times and moving at a slightly slower speed to everyone else.

Kondo is well supported by Chengwu Guo as Albrecht, whose dancing is also stunning and whose acting really hits home in the second act. Kondo and Guo  are married in real life; perhaps that’s why their connection in the forest as Giselle fights to save him from the Wilis feels so deep and truthful. Their pas de deux are divine, the way Guo holds her above his head so effortlessly is breath-taking.

Andrew Killian brings a sympathetic humanity to Hilarion, the jealous forester who also loves Giselle, Olga Tamara exudes great love and warmth as Giselle’s mother, handling the mime sensitively but eloquently, and Jill Ogai shines in the peasant pas de deux with Marcus Morelli, who shows great technique.

Nicola Curry as Myrtha, Queen of the Wilis, was a strong presence but could have brought a little more menace to the role, as could the women of the company who played the Wilis, but their dancing was beautiful, with plenty of precision in the demanding unison work.

The Opera Australia Orchestra, conducted by TAB Musical Director and Chief Conductor Nicolette Fraillon, offered a moving rendition of Adolphe Adam’s tuneful, emotional score. Overall, a lovely night, with Kondo’s performance intoxicatingly divine.


Giselle plays at the Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House until May 18

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