There's something very American about the Australian Ballet -- maybe it has to do with a shared colonial heritage or frontier mentality. Like Americans, the dancers are straightforward, well-scrubbed, no-nonsense types who attack the neoclassical choreography of Serge Lifar's "Suite en Blanc" with an appealing vigor. But also like Americans, they have to work at being courtiers and princes, and the subtler aspects of "Giselle," one of the most delicate of the romantic ballets, are not yet second nature to them. It wasn't until the third cast, at last night's Kennedy Center performance, that the company showed a truly romantic ballerina, and managed a "Giselle" that was dramatically satisfying.
Maina Gielgud's admirable, traditional production is very similar to, and derived from the same sources as, the one by David Blair that served American Ballet Theatre so well for so long. Like the best productions of any classic, it's structurally and choreographically tight but dramatically porous, allowing for any number of variations in characterization, and each of the three couples the company presented here took a different approach. Last night, Miranda Coney and David Ashmole were as traditional as the production: her Giselle besotted with love, his Albrecht only dallying, a jaded and unrepentant philanderer until forced to confront the effect of his conduct when his victim loses her reason.
There is a considerable disparity in ages between the two dancers -- she's 23, he's 40 -- but they didn't let it bother them, and their acting was so convincing it didn't matter that the electricity between them didn't bound off the rafters. Coney is a born Giselle, a loving and lovable village girl in the first act, her dancing quick and sweet. She has a lightness that makes her dancing seem boneless in the second act's ghost story, and she's the most natural actress of the Giselles shown here, being neither overly coy in the first act nor overly pious in the second.
Ashmole, formerly with London's Royal Ballet, is a neat, clean dancer. His Albrecht likes things tidy too. He doesn't like to make a fuss and tries to cut out before Giselle starts her descent into madness. Ashmole's was the performance of a seasoned pro, his interpretation thoroughly thought out, but still fresh. And the neatness of his dancing should serve as a model to some of the younger men, who tend to go for height and damn the landings.
Anna de Cardi is another young romantic whose buoyant dancing in the peasant pas de deux would have stolen the show with another cast. Michele Goullet was a rather weak Myrtha, despite the fierce facial expressions that seem obligatory for all the Wili Queens in this production (as though they're trying to scare rather than dance the men to death).
On Wednesday night, Lisa Pavane and Greg Horsman danced a very credible "Giselle," but one that was less than ideal dramatically. On the trivial side, his long blond curls are more suited to a rock singer than to a count. More important, he didn't make it clear whether Albrecht was truly in love with Giselle or just playing around; his performance had elements of both approaches. Pavane is a lovely dancer, but her aw-shucks naivete in the first act seems more suited to "Rodeo" than to "Giselle." Conversely, some of her first-act spunk could have been put to good use in the second -- it takes a lot of courage to try to save Albrecht's life, after all -- and her pallid, nunlike demeanor seemed totally unrelated to anything that had gone before. Jayne Beddoe's Myrtha was blandly danced; Lisa Bolte and Campbell McKenzie danced a spirited peasant pas de deux; and Steven Heathcote seemed much more suited to Hilarion's rough jealousy than he had to Albrecht's more complex character.
"Giselle" has been preceded each night by "Suite en Blanc," which makes for a rather long evening. There have been so many changes of cast in "Suite" that if we haven't seen the whole company by now, it sure feels like it. Last night, Helen Shields in the pas de trois, David McAllister in the Mazurka and Lisa Bolte in the Flute variation were especially notable. On Wednesday, Coney's vibrant dancing made her Variation de la Cigarette (it's smokeless) the centerpiece of the ballet, and de Cardi sparkled both nights in the Serenade.