Gillian Murphy and Qi Huan by Evan Li

Gillian Murphy and Qi Huan, photo by Evan Li

I admit it’s rather tired for me to call the Royal New Zealand Ballet “small but mighty.” But as I watched them Saturday night at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion (presented by Glorya Kaufman Presents Dance at the Music Center), that overused expression kept popping into my head as most appropriate for this company of 34. A scant 14 Wilis, plus the aggressively fierce Abigail Boyle as Myrtha, managed to look twice as numerous onstage in this 2012 traditional-revisionist “Giselle.” How else to explain that?

The New Zealanders, who by my records were last in Southern California in November 1990 at Irvine Barclay Theatre, are now led by former ABT principal dancer Ethan Stiefel. This “Giselle,” co-created by Stiefel and Johan Kobborg, has become a vehicle for Stiefel’s fiancee, ABT’s Gillian Murphy, who had been typecast as Myrtha, never given a chance to try her hand at the mad scene. Perhaps because she is most familiar with the Romantic style of the second act, her Giselle-as-Wili was most affecting–sorrowful, aching, but utterly explosive in the role’s leaps, beats and lickety-split turns. Playing meek, however, was more problematic for Murphy. She has yet to find her distinctive personality as the first act peasant girl; doe-eyed sweetness is not quite enough. Qi Huan, on the other hand, was an Albrecht to cherish. Narcissistic  and heartless as he tricks and woos Giselle, he was believably broken-hearted at her death. And, like Murphy, his physical prowess only increased as the ballet progressed, his soaring beats being especially impressive. And, he was an unerring partner, steadfast as he grabbed her by the hips and power-lifted her over his head.

But I was just as struck by the style and commitment of the rest of the company, despite the few bobbles and missteps. They performed with a rare crispness and exuberance; the made the story vital and consequential. The dancing was light and musical, with the accent up, rather than down. (Perhaps this influence came from Kobborg, a veteran of the Royal Danish Ballet, although the Royal New Zealand Ballet was founded back in 1953 by another Danish principal.) Jacob Chown was a sympathetic and charming Hilarion; Bronte Kelly and Rory Fairweather-Neylan were the accomplished wedding couple. Mayu Tanigaito and Clytie Campbell were formidable as the Wili soloists,

As far as Stiefel and Kobborg’s tweaks and revisions, some provided dramatic urgency, while the really big one–spoiler alert–the ending, was rather dreadful, in my opinion. The ballet is framed as a flashback for Albrecht, who has never gotten over Giselle’s death; he rushes to her grave at the ballet’s last seconds, and the Wilis march on militaristically to get him. It felt completely wrong-headed. More interesting was how Hilarion was made a more active rival for Giselle, with the peasant pas de deux turned into a dance competition for Albrecht and Hilarion. When Bathilde (Campbell) looks into Giselle’s face, she sees not a pretty girl of a lower-caste, but feels the chill of a real threat, and turns away.  One nice touch from a company that offered many.

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