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Arts Festival Review: Giselle

Arts Festival Review: Giselle

Review by Lyndon Hood

Giselle
Fabulous Beast Dance Theatre (Ireland)
Writer/Director Michael Keegan-Dolan
8 - 12 March
Shed 6, The Events Centre
90 Minutes (no interval, no readmission)
http://www.nzfestival.nzpost.co.nz/theatre/giselle


It isn't a ballet - and for much of it's length it's as much theatre as dance. It might be what you get if you take the ballet, mix it with talent and bodily fluids and bury it in peat to ferment. It is inspired.

Although the later part of the performance mirrors the ballet's second act (and is almost entirely danced), a knowledge of the original would probably be more hinderance than help in following the whole. The fact that instead of a prince in disguise we have a bisexual bratslavian line-dancing instructor is just the start of the madness. The ballet's plot is used more as a jumping off point, the company haring down any number of tangets to explore the hidden crevices of human depravity, gleefully represented in the mesmerisingly horrible lives of a fictional Irish villiage called Ballyfeeney.

We are given a birds-eye view of this midland hellhole through the intermittent narration of Giselle's father, who lives up a telegraph pole (he has his reasons). Moving smoothly from person to person, as much exposition as plot development, it's strangely like the vision of Llareggub in Dylan Thomas' Under Milk Wood. Except that in everyone is miserable and everyone spends all their time doing horrid things to each other, arbrarily copulating or attending line dancing lessons (or some combination of the three).

And rather than Dylan Thomas' verbal poetry the production gets its sizzle from vivid and eclectic theatricality. The presentation cheerfully leaps from dialog - characters presented with vaudevillian energy and precise physical exaggeration - to physical metaphors to face-on exposition to folksong to opera to dance, never missing a stride. The dance especially weaves throughout - as well as being part of the plot, characters sometimes break in to dance they way people break into songs in musicals. The company's range of skills is as diverse as their multiple nationalities.

The characters aren't exactly sympathetic, but this entertaining presentation and the truthfulness underlying it makes us care. And least offensive of all of them is Giselle herself (named by a ballet-mad mother and sired in an affair with an illegal-immigrant mexican dancer). Silent and passive, the consummate victim to her abusive brother and the bullies of the town, is offered a moment of hope in a romance - and a fascinating line-dance style pas de deux - with Albrecht, the aforementioned line-dancing instructor. His betrayal, her asthma and various other tangled webs come together to kill her; a tragedy arranged with farcical precision.

However, since this is Giselle, it's not over yet. The spirit of the dead heroine joint the unquiet, vengeful spirits of betrayed women that emerge in moonlight. The galloping pace that has been maintained until now slows as the white, dusty dead dance, using outsize nooses in a low, skidding aerial dance that emphasises their attachment to the ground more than their efforts to fly.

They carry off Giselle's brother when he comes to mourn. But when they turn on Albrech, Giselle holds them off - pretty much the first action she's taken of her own will. The two dance together until (just as things began for me to seem overlong) dawn comes. And Giselle rises with the light.

Implications of the redemptive power of love may seem odd in the context of what's come before, especially as it seems to be another divergence from the original. But we left intellectual territory a while back, and where we are, we get there by dancing. And the final moments are so astonishing I'll forgive an awful lot.

Like last festival's Tristan and Yseult, this piece grabs the closing notes of the classical piece it echoes to power its ending. The closing image of Giselle is compounded of this music, of all that has gone before, of black and white design, of light and of a stage device that is straightforwardly silly. That kind of audacity makes for memorable theatre and it comes off perfectly, simultaneously enitrely ridiculous and utterly sublime - thinking about it now I still want to laugh and cry at the same time.

*********

Giselle on the Art Festival website (inludes video)
Arts Festival press release - Not ‘Yer Conventional Ballet’: New Take on Giselle
Scoop Full Coverage: Arts Festival 2008

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