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Review: The Australian Ballet’s Giselle

Sophia Dickinson

On June 24 1964, the doors of the Canberra Theatre opened with a gala performance by The Australian Ballet. Now almost exactly 50 years on, The Australian Ballet returns to present Giselle.

This ballet is included in many ‘top 10 ballets of all time’ lists. Renowned for its technical difficulty and demand for emotional depth, dancers long to have the title role on their CV. The lead roles have been performed by the world’s most famous dancers including Margot Fonteyn and Robert Helpmann. It’s the tragic story of a village girl who has her heart broken by Count Albrecht, who is betrothed to another. She loses her mind, dies and is transformed into a spirit. In Act Two, she must save her lover in a haunted wood full of jilted women. The ballet was inspired by a poem by Heinrich Heine, which recounts the Slavic legend of the wilis, girls who died before their wedding day.

The Australian Ballet’s entire company (70 dancers plus about 15 other Australian Ballet staff, including Artistic Director David McAllister AM) have travelled to Canberra for the show. There’s also a backstage crew of around eight. The company comprises of, in order of rank, 11 principle artists, 5 senior artists, 11 soloists, 15 coryphées (who get to dance in small groups on stage) and a 28-strong corps de ballet (who dance in the big group on stage). Three of these dancers, Lana Jones, Drew Hedditch and Jasmin Durham grew up and had ballet training in Canberra and will all be performing in Giselle.

A different cast will perform the lead characters each night. I was lucky enough to see Canberra’s own Lana Jones as Giselle and Adam Bull as Count Albrecht. The statuesque pair is stunning on stage. In the opening scenes, Lana showed the curious, child-like innocence of the character then succumbs to the overwhelming craze caused by her heartache before returning in Act Two as a ghostly presence that still longs for Albrecht. Adam is a strong partner, holding Jones high in the air above his head with staggering strength and grace, making it seem effortless. He had myself among many other audience members in tears in the final scene when he bids his final goodbye to Giselle.

Act One has a lot of mime in it, so it’s a good idea to read the handout provided as you enter the theatre. It gives a full outline of the story, which will help you understand what all the expressive gestures are about. Act Two is superb. It’s everything ballet should be, beautiful and moving with extraordinary physicality. There are rows of perfectly synchronised dancers in white tutus. The leads spin and leap with such poise and agility it looks easy. The wilis glide across the stage with but tiny movements of their feet (called couru, done en pointe). The effect is spine tingling. Giselle and Albrecht dance together, but are unable to fully connect with each other, because Giselle has left this world. Adam expressed the character’s confusion at this strange situation with resounding despair, while Lana maintained a haunting air of distance.

Peter Farmer’s set and costumes are a beautiful combination of rustic elegance. The scenery looks like a 3D oil painting of a medieval village and forest. The costumes were very effective, especially the wilis in Act Two, with their long veils adding to the ethereal atmosphere. The Canberra Symphony Orchestra performed Adolphe Adam’s music flawlessly, under The Australian Ballet’s Music Director and Chief Conductor Nicolette Fraillon. The music in Act Two was not as sombre as I expected, but perhaps that would have overwhelmed what is a very delicate production.

We last saw The Australian Ballet in Canberra in 2013 as part of our Centenary celebrations. They presented Symmetries, which combined three pieces, Monument, choreographed especially for the occasion by Garry Stewart, the Pas de deux (duo) from After the Rain and The Four Temperaments by choreographer George Balanchine. It’s great to see The Australian Ballet back in Canberra.

“Canberra Theatre Centre and Hindmarsh Corporation helped to convince The Australian Ballet back to Canberra by providing financial support for the Canberra Symphony Orchestra to play in the pit,” said Canberra Theatre Director Bruce Carmichael.

“The last time The Australian Ballet played in the Canberra Theatre before Symmetries was in 2005 when they brought White. Giselle is the first full-length story ballet from The Australian Ballet since The Merry Widow in 2000.”

If you haven’t got tickets already, get in quickly, though you might have to settle for a seat at the back of the theatre. It’s not a bad thing, being further back allows you to take in the whole scene at once. I borrow my dad’s racing binoculars too so I can get a really close look at the costumes. My advice would be to get a seat as close to the front as you can and sit to the right of the theatre (facing the stage). We were on the left and it was a bit hard to see Giselle’s grave, which is an essential part of Act Two.

Any night at the theatre is a special one so feel free to dress for the occasion. Sure, wear jeans if you want, but watching all those elegant, glamorous dancers always inspires me to pull out my sequins and faux-fur. Sipping sparkling helps too, and if you ask for it in a plastic flute you can take it into the theatre (try as I might to be fancy, I won’t let a posh glass get between me and my drink – I never manage to finish it before interval ends).

If you’re going heading to the theatre on Saturday night, you’ll see Madeleine Eastoe, perhaps Australia’s most famous ballerina at the moment, in one of her final performances. Madeline has announced she will retire this year after over 17 years with the company. The lead roles are played by principle or senior artists each night, so regardless of when you go you’ll see Australia’s top dancers. I never give standing ovations, but I could not help myself tonight. I am thrilled this production came to Canberra, I had an unforgettable evening.

The essentials

What: The Australian Ballet’s Giselle
When: On now until Tuesday 26 May
Where: Canberra Theatre Centre
How much: Prices start from $53
Tickets: Purchase online through Canberra Theatre Centre


Sophia Dickinson

Sophia is a true Canberra girl having been born and raised here, and she now works in the public service. She loves Canberra for all it has given her from a great education, fulfilling work to opportunities to indulge her love of dance and music. She is passionate about travel and writing, and studied post-graduate media and communication. She has appeared in several local amateur theatre productions, although she prefers to be an audience member these days. More about the Author