Madeline Eastoe’s swan song performance is the ultimate expression of girl power.

The Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House
3 April, 2015

When Monica Mason, the former Artistic Director of the Royal Ballet in London, stepped down from the top job at Covent Garden in 2012, she had infamously failed to commission a single female choreographer to produce a work for the company during her ten year tenure. Mason simply brushed this glaring omission aside, saying the reason for not asking any women choreographers to create a piece for her was because “I have not come across one that I felt was suitable,” and indeed the world of ballet choreography, to this day, is one ruled almost exclusively by men.

However, Giselle, the Australian Ballet’s latest installment in their “year of beauty,” is not only a luxurious celebration of fine classical ballet, executed to the highest levels of precision, but also a potent expression of girl power.

First staged in 1841, Giselle is a narrative born in the crucible of a European cultural elite addicted to ballet’s sumptuous excesses, ethereally talented performers and the enchanting, yet almost inexplicable newfound technique of dancing en pointe. As successful prima ballerinas jostled for top billing, an arms race of ever more astonishing feats of balletic perfection propelled the art form to new levels of technical accomplishment. These impressive feats of classical dance were showcased through a new wave of captivating ballets featuring female protagonists, from wild-eyed, thrilling gypsies and innocent peasant girls to eerie and supernatural sprites.

I offer this potted history as a kind of disclaimer: Giselle is the absolute epitome of this Romantic cultural climate, but it is saddled with a very problematic narrative. Albrecht, a two-timing prince who is incognito dressed in peasant garb, seduces a beautiful young woodland girl, Giselle, who falls instantly in love with him. Upon discovering the prince’s lie and his true identity, the distraught girl, driven senseless by the betrayal, drops dead of a broken heart. Buried deep in her woodland home, Albrecht visits her grave, only to be set upon by the vengeful spirits of other jilted women, called the Wilis, who punish unfaithful men by making them dance to their deaths. Yet even in the knowledge of Albrecht’s fleckless nature, Giselle’s love for him endures and she manages to hold off the attack of the Wilis until the first light of dawn, when the spirits are driven back to the dark seclusion of their graves.

The Wilis (Austrlaian Ballet, photo: Jeff Busby)

It’s a twee, laughably clichéd plot, loaded with narrative absurdities and unrelatable characters, but Giselle was never intended to be about believable story telling. It’s a showcase for a ballerina at her most virtuosic and powerful. It’s about pure, poetic, transcendent dance that moves and inspires, and Australian Ballet’s production, built upon the shoulders of four monumentally talented women (both onstage and off), delivers exactly that.

Every ballet company in the world has at least one production of Giselle in its regular repertoire, and Australian Ballet’s version is a favourite of the company’s, performed here for the 222nd time. Choreographed by the company’s former Artistic Director, Maina Gielgud, who adapted it from the steps of the original 19th Century production by Marius Petipa, Jean Coralli and Jules Perrot, the dance is an essay in classical discipline. Every pose, extension, lift and jump is rooted in the staunchest tradition of classical technique, but this is more than just a ballet class for devotees to coo over. Gielgud’s immaculate ballet pedigree has given her an expert eye for balancing technical rigor with dramatic artistry, and the lyrical fluidity of her movement both impresses and delights in equal measure.

The usual Joan Sutherland Theatre acoustic bugbears aside, Adolphe Adam’s pleasant score was delivered with clarity and control by the Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra under the baton of Musical Director Nicolette Fraillon. Her precise, direct style is an ideal match for this deeply musically rooted choreography.

On stage, this company can easily boast an embarrassment of riches, with a corps de ballet and roster of soloists who all delivered world-class performances. Particular praise should go to Ako Kondo and Chengwu Guo whose performance of the Peasant pas de deux was joyous and spectacular. Kevin Jackson’s Albrecht was delivered with conviction and impressive technical endurance, however it was the two leading ladies of the production who provided the most compelling performances of the evening.

Dimity Azoury (photo: Jeff Busby)

Dimity Azoury as Myrtha, Queen of the Wilis blazed with strength and elegance, achieving a perfect equilibrium of unrelenting vengeance and spectral grace. Leading her phantasmal troupe of Wilis underlings through the pools of moonlight bathing the stage, like a smack of ghostly, weightless jellyfish, her steely demeanor was the perfect foil for Madeleine Eastoe in the title role.

This run of Giselle will be Eastoe’s last professional engagement before her retirement, and so it seems especially apt that a production that hinges so crucially on the capabilities of its central heroine should be this immeasurably talented performer’s swan song. Eastoe exhibits the exceptionally rare combination of skills that have been a hallmark of the greatest Primas throughout the history of the artform: astonishing technical perfection, unmatched aptitude for dramatic delivery and a keenly honed musicality. Every step was executed with effortless poise and precision, displaying a limber sensitivity to the nuances of the score. However it was Eastoe’s unprecious commitment to conveying the extremities of Giselle’s emotional destruction that offered some of the most enthralling moments. After the exactitude and light of beginning of the performance, her character’s unraveling is joltingly savage, and the vast descent from such eloquent control to Giselle’s final emotional collapse is all the more devastating for it.

Equally impressive is Eastoe’s transformation from the corporeal to the supernatural. Gliding across the stage, almost ignoring gravity altogether, she is able to appear as both an insubstantial apparition, and a fierce opponent for Myrtha in defense of her Albrecht. Eastoe is a dancer at the height of her powers, and her haunting performance will surely be regarded as one of the finest Giselle’s ever produced by Australia. 

Australian Ballet present Giselle on a national tour until July 6.