Light and dark, day and night, youth and maturity, a flirtation and redemption, naturalistic and ethereal: Giselle spins a conjuror’s trick all the wilier for its very familiarity, its everlasting allurement.
An autumnal village presented in Act I flips to reveal the ballet blanc of Act II: two halves of a whole. We know this, we anticipate this, we lap it up. Fermented in honey before interval, raising a flagon of mead to love, and even love’s folly, and unpinned madness, we heed the warnings spun to the villagers. The flipside to a light-hearted Peasant pas de deux is heartache and mourning. We are cognisant of the fact that when we return to our seats in the theatre, the scene will have changed. Light for dark. Day for night. Of the earth for beyond this realm. A village for the darkest forest floor of folkloric apparitions who demand you dance to your death. Raise your flagon of mead for raise your ghostly spirits, cloaked in a shawl spun by otherworldly spiders.
True to a magic trick, in the Australian Ballet’s 259th performance of Maina Gielgud’s production of Giselle: how is it that I had not really noticed Hilarion, a forester (gamekeeper) before? Giselle and Count Albrecht make a ballet classic, but Giselle and Hilarion could have made for a happier life. Against the backdrop of opposites, there appears a triangle. In magic, ballet, life, it appears. Unrequited love and anguish wears a beard in the form of Jarryd Madden, and his performance portends great things to come in Lucas Jervies’ Spartacus, to conclude the 2018 Melbourne season. On Tuesday night, Madden’s Hilarion is more than a narrative ploy to reveal Albrecht’s deception through identity as the finder-of-cloak-and-sword; he is more than a game-offering, unnoticed suitor in the woods; more than a warning that Myrtha and her glow of Willis mean business: you will dance to your death.
Murphy’s Nutcracker loops freely from summertime in late 1950s Australia back to snow-cloaked Imperial Russia before launching towards the 1917 Russian Revolution, in the way that memory does, and the musical score, in turn, can be read. Clara’s memory maps her life as a star of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes before touring with Colonel de Basil to the homelands of previous divertissements: Spain, Egypt, China, and, naturally, the addition of Melbourne. Clara’s final performance is also the birth of a company, the newly formed Borovansky Ballet. To sweep such rich terrain in an evening, Clara’s story is told through three different performers, from Child Clara (Jessica Stratton-Smith) to Young Clara, performed by Leanne Stojmenov (on opening night) and Dimity Azoury (on Tuesday night), and Ai-Gul Gaisina and Chrissa Keramidas (on opening and Tuesday nights respectively) as Clara the Elder. Stojmenov not only taps into but epitomises fluid-shifting remembrance and loss, and ultimately resilience with such tactile conviction, rendering her spine elastic yet unbreakable in every intimate lift with Kevin Jackson as her Soldier/Lover. Great love never dims, it merely changes shape, and their connection and faith in each other feels all the deeper for beginning at the end.
From Hills Hoist to the Argus newspaper calls, the Australian gumtree angle works because it is presented as a truth. It is not (self-) consciously laid on thick; it is merely there. A mirror. This is us. A part of our dance history. These are scenes we recognise. Clara the Elder’s apartment is one we’ve all sat in, either in real life, or in a story where perhaps we wished we had a relative who had spent their formative years on the stage. As Clara the Elder, both Gaisina and Keramidas appeared to shine from inside out. To paraphrase Murphy, just as you hear Tchaikovsky poured his heart into the score, the same can be said of the light-footed recollections of Gaisina and Keramidas as Ballet Russes émigrés. Where past is in contrast to present, and Russian society is shown in contrast to a life of exile in Australia, the time spent in Act I with Clara and her émigré friends (Frank Leo, Colin Peasley OAM, Terese Power et al.) is what enables Nutcracker to hit you in the guts when the curtain closes. The body as it gets older cannot do what it might earlier have done with ease. This is the cruelty of age. And this is strength, beauty, and the importance of connections forged with others. If ever there was a call to follow your dreams, this celebration of a lived experience being that which makes us richer is it. It is precisely the amount of time spent in her apartment that is why, I believe, we feel a lump in our throat or a tear on our cheek when Clara dies. We cannot know what has been lost without knowing what is. Nostalgia colours the past, but it also informs the present and alters the future. "Time does not help us make sense of our otherwise jumbled lives; our jumbled lives help us make sense of time."
On a Tuesday night, I fancied myself carved from the pages of Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple. I cast myself as Gwenda Reed from Sleeping Murder. The year was 1951, and I pinned a bakelite Bluebird of Happiness brooch to my coat lapel. I swapped The Duchess of Malfi for Coppélia because this was fantasy, and made for the Palais Theatre in St Kilda. And true to the liberties of daydream, 1951 rolled into both 1962, when the Australian Ballet first performed Coppélia during its inaugural season, and 1979, when founding artistic director Peggy van Praagh and former theatre director George Ogilvie revived the production.
On the stage in ’79, Ann Jenner had assumed the role of the wilful Swanhilda, Kelvin Coe, her foolish fiancé, and Ray Powell had donned the many-eyed cloak of Dr. Coppelius, Keeper of the Girl with the Enamel Eyes. But on this particular night, soloists Dimity Azoury and Jarryd Madden were to be my mischievous two, and Jacob Sofer, my misunderstood doctor of mechanical dolls. Entering the theatre, the company’s return to the Palais stage 22 years since their last appearance was infectiously nostalgic (hence the unexpected appearance of Agatha Christie). Currently wrapped in covers and scaffolding as it undergoes major restoration, the theatre conveyed a sense of also being bundled up in sentimental longing.
As recalled by current artistic director, David McAllister, “I feel like I’m surrounded by ghosts of dancers past…. It’s an extraordinary theatre and I started my career here as a dancer so it’s very exciting to be back…. It was Dame Peggy, it was George Ogilvie, it was Kristian Fredrikson. It has this feeling of great pride in our repertoire. So all the dancers coming to this production for the first time feel like they are stepping into the history of the Australian ballet.”