She made her entrance as Giselle, young and innocent and joyous, and the crowd in the Joan Sutherland Theatre burst into applause at the mere sight of her. Madeleine Eastoe is adored by audiences of The Australian Ballet, and this is her last role before retiring. In Giselle, Eastoe dances away with our hearts for the last time, and when she goes, we’ll all be a little less richer for it.
This production, Maina Gielgud’s revival of her own 1986 staging, captures something aching in the ultimate beautifully sad classic ballet. She and Eastoe trace a tragic arc through our leading lady. Giselle is bright and gentle, brimming with merry romanticism beneath her shyness, dancing like she has no cares in the world despite her weak heart — when she stops, sits, and breathes deeply, she never stays down for long — and when she falls in love it’s an entirely winsome affair.
Of course the man who plays charmingly and calculatingly to win her heart is actually Count Albrecht, who of course is already bethrothed, and Kevin Jackson gives him a suave sliminess that’s completely magnetic, and his performance matures dramatically in the second act as Albrecht himself matures.
Eastoe and her Giselle have also matured by the second act, and, dancing with the chorus of Wilis and their Queen (a divine, commanding Dimity Azoury) in the dark of night, she is imbued with a deeper, more knowing sense of space. Her sorrow is palpable and her love is clear in the turn of a neck, the placement of a hand.
Eastoe and Jackson’s pas de deux in the forest is an agonising, beautiful affair. Jackson’s partnering is tender and Eastoe is simultaneously giving and self-aware they are such a melancholy image of regret and love. Eastoe was born to dance, it’s clear. She radiates.
It’s the precision of the company that propels this production forward so relentlessly, breathlessly for the audience (yet its structure and staging is so measured). The corps, particularly the Wilis, move with an attractive self-possessed unity and strength. It’s a dream of classical movement and so are they. Everything lifts as they converge on stage; when they force Albrecht to dance until he is spent, Jackson’s entrechats are dizzying.
Francis Croese’s lighting conjures up something darkly romantic, a haze of softness that turns into a touch of danger in Act II; it lifts the pleasant, traditional sets and costuming by Peter Farmer to romantic heights. And Adolphe Adam’s music is sumptuous here, with the Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra led by conductor Nicolette Fraillon — in particular the ‘he loves me, he loves me not’ leitmotif, which sneaks into your heart quietly, but persistently.
Gielgud’s production is especially sympathetic to its scorned lead, and Giselle is perfectly calibrated here. When she realises Albrecht’s deception her grief is pure and relatable; she pleads to everyone around her as though she just doesn’t understand how someone can be so cruel. When she seeks solace with her mother (a fine Olga Tamara) and the strain overwhelms her heart, it’s a clear and striking loss that someone so vital is now driven to this, collapsed and gone.
And in death Giselle is not vengeful, nor is she entirely forgiving; there’s something in Gielgud’s production that assures us that there’s steel in Giselle now, in place of feather-lightness; steel but not hardness. Giselle saves Albrecht from a place of love, but it’s also something of a sense of wisdom: she’s protecting him from the worst, the worst she has lived through. It’s not an absolution, but it is a kindness; thanks to Eastoe and Gielgud, it feels like a blessing, the gift of a second chance. It’s pure grace.
As a production, this Giselle is gorgeous. As a farewell to Eastoe, it’s fittingly heartbreaking and life-affirming. She will be missed.