Arts Centre Melbourne
The Tokyo Ballet is a large company of about 60 dancers and was established in 1964, making it a similar age to the Australian Ballet. It first performed this Giselle two years after its founding and has kept it ever since. Arranged by Leonid Lavrosky (after Corelli/Perrot/Petipa) it was created in 1944 for the Bolshoi Ballet when he was the company's chief choreographer. The Tokyo Ballet was taught the ballet by Olga Tarasova, a pupil of Lavrovsky, and has also had the benefit of coaching from that most fabled of Russian prima ballerinas – Galina Ulanova – who starred in a Soviet-era film of the ballet with Nicolai Fadeyechev. That is quite a link to the original Russian source. Another link is through the company's present artistic director, Yukari Saito, who trained in Moscow and grew up watching and admiring the film.
Compared with Maina Gielgud's Giselle in the Australian Ballet's repertoire, this version is quite pared back and the acting less naturalistic. The mime and direction is traditional; there is a fair bit of posturing and gesturing to the distance, but the story is clearly told and the emotions believable. The first act is most notably different for its replacement of the popular peasant pas de deux with a Pas de huit, choreographed by Vladimir Vasiliev, another Bolshoi superstar. It is a very successful addition, allowing a larger number of the company's dancers to display their impressive virtuosity in enjoyably musical pure dance pieces.
The set, by Nicolai Benois (son of the famous Alexandre Benois) frames the stage with autumn oaks and russet colours, with a huge castle, reminiscent of the Neuschwanstein castle in Bavaria, dominating on a scrim at the back. In the second act the castle disappears and instead the setting is a grimly dark graveyard, the moon depicted only by a few rays through gnarled, leafless branches. A Christian church becomes visible in the distance as the day dawns.
On this night Akira Akiyama was superb as Giselle: she has an expressive face, light jump, gravity-defying high extensions, a steady, beautiful penchee and wraithlike arms. She was childlike and trusting in the first act; warm and forgiving in the second.
Bolshoi-trained Yasuomi Akimoto was her match at every level: performing the technical demands – double cabrioles, entrechat six – with spectacular ease. He has a jump so light and soft that he seemed sometimes even more airborne than his partner. The trademark sustained lifts in the pas de deux were timed perfectly, so that Akiyama appeared to float upwards, with no sense of her weight or strain from either partner as she was held and swayed and brought back to earth. Together they created moments of such stillness that the entire audience seemed to be holding its breath.
As the heartless Queen of the Wilis, Akimi Denda glided over the floor as if on ice, her feet moving so fast they were a blur, while she wielded her lilies like spears. Her coldness was an effective contrast to Giselle's gentle character. The corps de ballet – so essential to the success of the ballet – was flawless: blank-faced and unrelenting, forming precise, motionless lines when required or swirling and undulating like fog blown by the wind, coldbloodedly sweeping Hilarion (Junya Okesaki) to his death, and all without any sound from their pointe shoes. They caught perfectly the drooping shoulder and neckline distinctive to this ballet, leaning slightly forward as if burdened by their grief. When back-lit by the cold lighting, in their gauzy costumes, they looked almost transparent. One could easily imagine the misty world where this story was born, where the only light at night was the moon and the only way of telling the time was by the sound of bells, and terrifying things hid in the gloom of the forest.
Orchestra Victoria, under guest conductor Benjamin Pope, played the plaintive, lilting music in drawn out accord with the dancers, though the volume was uneven at times.
As this was the Tokyo Ballet's first visit to Australia, it is disappointing that it did not perform something unique to its own repertoire or by its own choreographers. Nonetheless, it was a treat to see a different version of Giselle, and the performance proved yet again why this ballet is always a sure-fire hit. It was a truly spell-binding experience.
– KAREN VAN ULZEN
The Tokyo Ballet's Giselle continues until July 22.