Sydney Festival’s Giselle is a new interpretation of the romantic ballet brought to us by internation dance ensemble Fabulous Beast, heralded by director/choreographer Michael Keegan-Dolan. Giselle traditionally tells the story of a young girl dying because of the selfish men in her life, and this production sells itself as giving the ballet a line-dancing face lift. As it turns out, I guess I really like line dancing. There just was a whole lot of the show I didn’t like.
Designer Sophie Charalambous and Lighting Designer Adam Silverman have done a wonderful job of creating a series of stunning images. From preshow, where Giselle and a lone telegraph pole give sharp silhouettes against the back wall, I was consistently impressed by the clarity and effectiveness of the design. Similarly I thought the sound was great, if a tad repetitive by the end of the show. It belied an urgency and gravity that dwelled beneath the narrative.
The narrative itself, however, was abysmal. When Giselle’s father, the narrator, climbed atop the telegraph pole and began to introduce us to the characters and their relationships, I was irked, but permissive. Surely this part is just putting the story into the space so that the imagery does not need to rely on storytelling? And surely the childish and slapstick exchanges being carried out between the performers to match the narrator are just a bit of fun as we warm into the piece? Alas, no. The entire first half was a messy, indulgent, and most importantly unfunny acting out of a reworked Giselle story. It felt like the ensemble was working under a “show AND tell” mantra, as the narrator’s unnecessary intrusions were then played out for far too long, with all the dramatic integrity and comic maturity of a year nine camp skit. I was quite prepared for this show to be light-hearted and funny, but as Pat Dunn’s butcher ad went nearly as long as the painfully juvenile sex scene, I just felt embarrassed to be there.
It wasn’t all terrible. The scenes between Giselle and her mentally-ill brother w
ere very solid, mature pieces of drama. Similarly the tragedy of the mute and outcasted Giselle came across with a very earnest clarity at times, but unfortunately the rest of the story in all its irrelevance ruined these would-be effecting moments. The line dancing too was amazing, but there just wasn’t enough of it (particularly considering the show was marketed on that).
But then Giselle dies from an asthma attack brought on by shock. And something amazing happens. The performance becomes breathtakingly amazing. We move from an awful rendition of the story to phenomenally beautiful dance, music and images. The spirits in the graveyard thrown dust into the side-lit air, and weave themselves across the space and through each other with sublime movements and huge noose-like ropes, accompanied by the angelic voice of a male soprano. The lights and music frame the action with remarkable efficiency, setting the tone for this second half of the Giselle story. Giselle’s brother enters and is gracefully dispatched by the spirits. The same nearly happens to Giselle’s lover, but she steps in, and the two share a beautifully choreographed ballet sequence. I was entranced the entire time. The performance ends with Giselle’s lover stepping back as she returns to her grave at sunrise.
This show was possibly the most frustrating performance I have ever seen. I felt insulted and embarrassed for the first forty minutes, and then the end featured an absolutely beautiful sequence of images. I worry that this is typical Festival fare where the strengths are outweighed by pandering to an audience that just isn’t there. But even though the first half did nothing to serve the piece, the finale brought a depth of beauty that I am very glad I witnessed.