When it comes to ballet, Kiwi film-maker Toa Fraser is blunt. "I didn't know much about ballet. My sister did ballet when we were kids, but we were kids."
Since then Fraser has become both a successful playwright – he cut his teeth with plays in Wellington, including the hit No 2 – and had success on the big screen.
After turning No 2 into a feature film in 2006, he went to Britain to direct Peter O'Toole and Sam Neill in the historical drama Dean Spanley in 2008.
His latest, Giselle, which opens tomorrow and will be shown in the prestigious Toronto International Film Festival next month, is largely a performance of the famed dance work by Wellington's Royal New Zealand Ballet.
Fraser is aware that it's a significant change of gear for him.
After the release of Dean Spanley, he caught a performance in London by Cuban ballet dancer Carlos Acosta. "He was such an incredible performer and it was part of my thinking about wanting to do something more athletic [in films]. It was an inspiring show for me," Fraser says.
About the same time, more personal events made him start to think differently about athleticism, how it could be explored in film and influence his style of film-making.
Four years ago he got a Creative New Zealand Fulbright fellowship to write in Hawaii. "That was a real turning point for me. I was supposed to be based in Honolulu, but they hadn't organised my office. I really needed to start writing and I was really inspired by Laird Hamilton, the big-wave surfer. I read a bit about him and got in touch with his yoga instructor. She organised me some accommodation under a yoga studio on Maui."
Fraser says he then started "exploring my own athleticism". "It was part of the reason it took me a while to take another movie. I've kind of gone on a personal journey over the past five years. That was the point where it all coalesced."
Filming the Royal New Zealand Ballet was suggested by Dean Spanley producer Matthew Metcalfe. Fraser says the first idea was to adapt Cinderella, but he was more keen to adapt Giselle. One reason was that the story was "about love and joy in the darkness". The other was that top American dancer Gillian Murphy, who plays the title role in Giselle, had joined the Royal NZ Ballet with her husband, fellow dance star Ethan Stiefel.
Fraser says he was free to approach Giselle in any way he wanted.
"It could have been a documentary and it could have had dialogue. For a while we threw that idea around. I spent a lot of time with the Royal New Zealand Ballet in rehearsal and quickly realised that I wanted to present the whole ballet, which was feature length, so there wasn't much room for talking."
Fraser says he also wanted the film to have a contemporary reference point. He filmed some contemporary sequences of lead dancer Qi Haun in Shanghai last year, while the ballet company was on tour in China. Then Fraser and a tiny crew that included veteran Kiwi cinematographer Leon Narbey, who shot Dean Spanley and No 2, flew to New York to film Murphy.
Fraser says the idea was to show the two dancers in two giant cities separated by an immense distance, mirroring the distance the two have as lovers in Giselle.
Giselle also features scenes of the pair shot in a lush green meadow in the Catskills, New York, a location he says was a buzz for him. He had first heard of the Catskills from his father telling him the story of Rip Van Winkle. He's also a Bob Dylan fan and knew Dylan went to the Catskills to recover from a motorcycle accident in 1966.
"We almost didn't find that meadow location. It happened to be right by our hotel. Again, it was a kind of coincidence, but I was inspired by the richness of the history."
Making Giselle has changed Fraser's views on the ballet world.
"One of the first things is the amount of dedication, skill and effort. In rugby we want to see the blood and the sweat. Whereas with dance, they put in an equal amount of incredible effort into the performance, but we are not allowed to see any of it."
The experience is also likely to influence the style of Fraser's future films. He is preparing for his next movie to be shot in New Zealand and it will be a more physical film than what he did before Giselle, he says.
"I felt with No 2 and Dean Spanley that I love those movies and I'm totally proud of them. But at the same time I felt like I was paying my dues to an older, more classical style of film-making."
Giselle opens in cinemas tomorrow.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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