Fresh spin on ballet classic Giselle

16:00, Nov 05 2012
Capturing a classic: Giselle will be filmed by Toa Fraser for a feature film on the production.

Giselle has danced a long way since its first performance in 1841. The Royal New Zealand Ballet's new production of the classic ballet promises something old and something new.

Royal New Zealand Ballet artistic director Ethan Stiefel describes it as a sacred work. For Johan Kobborg, Giselle is special for anyone who has danced it.

The lady may be 151 years old, but the object of their affections seems ageless - a classic serving of high romanticism and storytelling which continues to grip the public's collective imagination.

Generating Giselle: Johan Kobborg, left, and Ethan Stiefel are the creative team behind the Royal NZ Ballet’s new production of Giselle.

Yet even a staple of the ballet repertoire benefits from the occasional makeover and Giselle is no exception.

Previous versions have ranged from a chaotically surreal non-dancing Irish theatre production to a snappy one by the Dance Theatre of Harlem in 2005.

But it seems that nothing beats a true original, and the tale of betrayal, love and group of spectral proto-feminists who wreak their revenge on men from beyond the grave haunts the ballet repertoire.


The Royal New Zealand Ballet's new production promises respect and imagination for a work which first appeared on stage in 1841 with music by Adolph Adam and choreography by Jean Coralli and Jules Perrot.

Based on the works of Victor Hugo, Heinrich Heine and Theophile Gautier, it was revived later for the Imperial Russian Ballet by Marius Petipa.

Giselle was last performed by the Royal New Zealand Ballet in 2006. Stiefel and Kobborg bring their gently reworked production to Wellington with Gillian Murphy, the ballet company's principal guest artist and star of American Ballet Theatre, dancing the title role for the first time.

Project Giselle began two years ago in London. The idea slowly evolved via email and the occasional meeting into a firm plan.

"You have to be caring and thoughtful about a ballet, especially one of the sacred works, like Giselle," Stiefel says. "In a project like this you must retain the spirit and essence of the work.

"Johan and I have given a fresh take on Act I to enhance the drama. This is a new production with, hopefully, a new life."

He first danced in Giselle in his early 20s and remembers it as a moment when ballet's technical and artistic threads meshed together - "a breathtaking experience and one which catapulted my career in ballet . . . dancing to death can certainly absorb your imagination".

The Royal New Zealand Ballet's 2013 production has been shaped "in an environment of mutual respect", Stiefel says.

"This production will be new for some of the dancers, but it will be a unique experience for everyone."

Johan Kobborg entered the Royal Danish Ballet School in 1988 at 16. After a year, he became an apprentice with the Royal Danish Ballet, making his stage debut in Giselle's peasant pas de deux.

He joined the company as a full-time member in 1991, becoming principal dancer three years later after his debut as James in La Sylphide. He joined London's Royal Ballet in 1999.

As a choreographer, director and producer, he continues to create and stage works for many of the world's leading companies. His first visit to New Zealand comes during a busy dancing schedule - he returns to London the day after the production's first night to dance in Swan Lake.

"It's rare for two dancers to collaborate in a production, but this is a special ballet, especially for anyone who has danced it.

"This is an early ballet about human emotions and the effects of social status. It's a dark story, especially in Act II," he says.

Kobborg's first encounter with the Royal New Zealand Ballet has revealed a company of positive individuals with a high work ethic and an openness to new ideas.

"The New Zealand ballet has qualities which give it a high international standing," he says.


Not only is the Royal New Zealand Ballet's Giselle a big leap for the ballet company on stage, but the new production and tour will also be the basis for a feature film, directed by Toa Fraser, of No 2 and Dean Spanley fame.

The film is a joint project with the New Zealand Film Commission.

''Our film is an interpretation of the Royal New Zealand Ballet's beautiful, moving production of Giselle,'' says Fraser.

''The film will move in and out of the theatre, through time and space, to create a truly cinematic, poetic retelling of the story.''

- The Royal New Zealand Ballet presents Giselle, St James Theatre, Wellington, November 7-11

The Dominion Post