Giselle

Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House, April 2

Madeleine Eastoe and Kevin Jackson. Photo: Jeff Busby

Madeleine Eastoe and Kevin Jackson. Photo: Jeff Busby

The ideal way to retire, they say, is to leave the audience wanting more – and Madeleine Eastoe will certainly do that when she hangs up her ballet shoes after her final performance as Giselle in Adelaide in July.

It feels like a fitting choice of ballet with which to say farewell. Eastoe was promoted to principal artist in 2006 after her debut in the role, and she is utterly exquisite in it. In fact, her performance at the opening of the Australian Ballet’s 2015 season was so heartrendingly beautiful it’s hard to believe that the time has really come for her to end her dancing career.

Giselle is one of the great, classical story ballets: a tragic tale of love, betrayal, madness, death and salvation from the Romantic era of ballet.

The Australian Ballet is again performing Maina Gielgud’s traditional but lovely 1986 production, using the 19th century choreography of Marius Petipa, Jean Coralli and Jules Perrot. Gielgud herself has been in Australia to revive the production, which has set and costumes by Peter Farmer, beautifully lit by Francis Croese (based on William Akers’ original design).

Though she is now 36, Eastoe looks convincingly young as Giselle, the innocent peasant girl who falls giddily in love with a dashing suitor. Flying around the stage she radiates a joy, which she is shy to admit but that cannot be contained. When she discovers that he is a nobleman (Count Albrecht) disguised as a peasant, and already betrothed to a Duke’s daughter, her weak heart breaks, sending her mad and then to her grave.

In the ethereal second act, a distraught Albrecht goes to Giselle’s grave in the forest where he encounters the Wilis, spirits of jilted women who dance men to their death. Still in love with him, Giselle pleads for Albrecht to be spared and manages to keep him alive through the night so that as day dawns he is saved.

Members of the Australian Ballet. Photo: Jeff Busby

Members of the Australian Ballet as the spirit Wilis. Photo: Jeff Busby

Eastoe is such an expressive dancer that she conveys every emotion along the way, while seeming to float across the stage, whether in joy, grief or transcendent love. There’s something about the incredible lightness with which she moves that suggests the air around her is more rarified, with less gravity, than anywhere else on stage. It’s a divine performance: unforgettable, in fact.

Hugely popular with audiences, the Sydney opening crowd went wild. The emotion of her final performance in Adelaide promises to be off the Richter scale.

Kevin Jackson gets better and better. Always a strong dancer, he now has the emotional expressiveness to match the physicality. He is in commanding form as Albrecht. His jumps are exciting, his partnering is sensitive and his performance has a depth of emotion. Despite Albrecht’s duplicity, Jackson convinces us of his love for Giselle in the first act so that he doesn’t appear quite as callous as he sometimes does. And his remorse in Act II is very moving.

Their pas de deux are lovely, developing from shy, joyfulness in Act I to something far more mature and deeply felt in Act II.

Madeleine Eastoe and Kevin Jackson. Photo: Jeff Busby

Madeleine Eastoe and Kevin Jackson. Photo: Jeff Busby

Chengwu Guo and Ako Kondo are a delight in the exuberant peasant pas de deux. (They will dance together as Giselle and Albrecht at some performances). Dimity Azoury is a strong, steely presence as Myrtha, Queen of the Wilis, Andrew Killian gives a sympathetic portrayal of Hilarion, the gamekeeper in love with Giselle, and Olga Tamara exudes great warmth as Giselle’s mother.

The corps de ballet is in fine form and the scenes featuring the Wilis are intoxicating, while the Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra, conducted by Nicolette Fraillon, gives a lyrical performance of Adolphe Adam’s music.

This Giselle is a beautiful and beautifully performed production, at the heart of which is Eastoe’s blissful performance. She is going to be greatly missed.

Giselle runs at the Sydney Opera House until April 22; Canberra Theatre Centre, May 21 – 26; Adelaide Festival Centre, July 2 – 6.

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Swan Lake

Capitol Theatre, February 20

Madeleine Eastoe as Odette. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Madeleine Eastoe as Odette. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Graeme Murphy’s delectable Swan Lake was first staged in 2002. It is now one of the Australian Ballet’s most loved and frequently performed works – and it’s not hard to see why.

Inspired by the love triangle between Princess Diana, Prince Charles and Camilla Parker Bowles, it is cleverly conceived (concept by Murphy, the late Kristian Fredrikson and Janet Vernon), ravishingly beautiful, choreographically inventive and deeply moving.

If the AB is going to present a commercial season at Sydney’s Capitol Theatre, then this Swan Lake – now one of their signature works internationally – is the perfect choice.

More than a decade on, the production still feels fresh, particularly when performed as sublimely as it was on opening night by Madeleine Eastoe as the fragile Odette and Kevin Jackson as the conflicted Prince Siegfried.

What’s more, it’s great to see the ballet on the large Capitol Theatre stage, where there is more room to move than at the Sydney Opera House.

For those who haven’t seen the ballet, the re-imagined story line works beautifully, dramatically and emotionally, lending itself to some of Murphy’s most stunning choreography. On the eve of her wedding to Prince Siegfried, Odette has unsettling doubts about his love for her – with good reason, for he is having an affair with a Baroness. Odette realises as much at their wedding and her mind begins to shatter. She is committed to a sanatorium, where she finds emotional escape in hallucinations of herself as a swan with the Prince still her beau.

Some months later, the Baroness – who has the Prince very much in her thrall – hosts a ball. Odette appears, now radiantly serene. The Prince falls deeply in love with her. The Baroness attempts to have her returned the sanatorium. Odette flees into the night with the Prince in hot pursuit. They fall into each other’s arms but Odette knows there will never be a happy ending. With the Baroness there, she will never know any peace of mind and so she throws herself into the lake, leaving the Prince to mourn her forever.

The Baroness replaces the sorcerer Rothbart of the original and also takes the place of Odile at the ball where all the guests are in dark, glittering outfits except Odette whose white dress reflects her spiritual purity.

Brooke Lockett, Benedicte Bemet, Karen Nanasca and Heidi Martin. Photo: Branco Gaica

Brooke Lockett, Benedicte Bemet, Karen Nanasca and Heidi Martin. Photo: Branco Gaica

Choosing an Edwardian setting, Fredrikson’s costumes are just gorgeous – the most famous being Odette’s ballgown with a long train, which Murphy weaves into choreography. There are all kinds of resonant touches in the costuming, including the swans appearing in black for the tragic denouement. Suffice to say the production, with sets also designed by Fredrikson, is a constant visual delight.

Murphy tells the story through emotionally imbued choreography that takes the breath away at times. It is wonderfully inventive while making references to the original, particularly with the swans. A pas de trois between Odette, the Prince and the Baroness says everything you need to know about the threesome and Odette’s bewildered anguish. The way Odette hurls herself into the arms of all the men at her wedding speaks of her broken heart, spirit and mind. There are signature Murphy flourishes, like Odette walking along the raised hands of the men, but they always feel as if they belong to the world of this ballet. And how the crowd loved the iconic cygnets, danced with admirable precision by Brooke Lockett, Benedicte Bemet, Karen Nanasca and Heidi Martin on opening night.

Eastoe is meltingly lovely as Odette. Always a superb interpreter of emotion, she is gossamer light, every moment perfectly performed yet intensely eloquent, her acting as convincing as her dancing. Jackson is her match as the Prince, portraying a conflicted man who is thoughtless rather than calculating, allowing himself to be swayed by the Baroness but finally realising what he has lost. I have rarely seen him convey such emotion.

Kevin Jackson and Madeleine Eastoe. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Kevin Jackson and Madeleine Eastoe. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Dancing the role of the Baroness on opening night, Ako Kondo brings plenty of hard-edged flash to the role. With the entire company in fine form, this is just the show to seduce newcomers to ballet – and hopefully there will be many in the audiences at the Capitol, a venue closely associated with musicals.

The Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra is currently playing for Opera Australia so Orchestra Victoria played Tchaikovsky’s glorious score under the baton of the AB’s Chief Conductor Nicolette Fraillon.

All in all, a beautiful night.

Swan Lake is at the Capitol Theatre until February 28