We’re going to the opera house. THE Opera House. The ground was still sloughing off yesterday’s storm rains as we walked, threatening to soak our dress shoes. I can’t believe we’re walking toward THE opera house. I kept babbling at my companion, who received my constant exclamations with shared enthusiasm and a touch of patience. I was a little excited. Ever since I was young there was something about the white sails of the Sydney Opera House that called out to me. Not only did I want to go to there, but I was determined that I would see a performance – not just snap a photo on the stairs outside. And there I was, about to see a ballet – another thing that had caught my interest from a very young age. It was painfully cliché, yes, but a small dream of mine was coming true.
My first choice at the Opera House would have been an opera, but given that the only opera performance was at the outdoor venue, I chose a close-second. I love ballet. I grew up reading Angelina Ballerina books and my mom bought us subscriptions for tickets to the Oregon Ballet Theater. Even though I switched to gymnastics when I was 7, ballet has always held a spot in my heart.
We arrived early, but that left time to sip glasses of champagne in the lobby and soak in the surroundings – high curved ceilings, wood panels, shallow steps with pebbles set in the concrete. When the doors opened we finished our drinks and made our way into the Joan Sutherland Theater. Our seats were perfectly centered in the very top row (we were informed by our usher that they do NOT refer to it as the “back”). It made no difference to me – I was there and I could see the stage just fine.
The ballet was Giselle – a classical ballet, originally performed in Paris in 1841. As we settled in I brushed up on the story in my program. It was, of course, one of love. An engaged duke disguised as a peasant falls for the prettiest girl in a country village (then principal dancer Madeleine Eastoe as Giselle). Flirtation and cheerful dancing commenced. A scorned gamekeeper, his love for Giselle unrequited, reveals the engagement to everyone’s shock. In the striking end of the First Act, Eastoe took down her hair and walked the stage in delirium. What was once a joyful gathering became the scene of a young woman dying of a broken heart. She dropped to the stage and the curtain fell.
I’ll be honest, at that point I wasn’t completely captured. There were a lot of theatrics, and I’m used to the stripped-down qualities of more contemporary ballet; a focus more on the dancing than the story. The dancing was superb, don’t get me wrong, but the pace was slow, and the sets made the stage seem cramped. In a review in Kill Your Darlings, writer Jane Howard points to the influence of history playing a part in the scene:
It’s in the first act that the weight of age threatens to sink the production. The original Giselle was one of the first story ballets: the story was told through dance, pantomime and music, shunning the use of song as in opera. This mime is now heavily dated; its exacting language of movement tied to meaning is suffocatingly rigid.
While I didn’t feel quite that strongly, I do agree. It felt more acted than danced. At intermission we exchanged thoughts, and I tried hard not to seem underwhelmed. When I took my seat again I hoped for an Act Two that showcased what I love most about ballet – the coexistence of extreme power and extreme grace in the human body.
The curtain rose revealing a dark stage at the site of Giselle’s grave, deep in a forest haunted by the Wilis – ghosts of young maidens deceived by their lovers. The first dancer tiptoed her way across the back of the stage, and then appeared again closer to the front. She turned out to be Queen Myrtha (now principal dancer Ako Kondo) and was soon joined by a dozen or so ballerinas all draped in billowy white. The dancing commenced, the effect successfully ghostly. Two men appeared and Giselle was summoned from her grave to join the Wilis. She begged Myrtha to spare the Duke – the Wilis have a reputation for making their wrongdoers dance to their death – but her pleas were ignored. Instead, Giselle danced through the night to save the Duke from his fate. When the ballet closed, dawn arrived and the Duke was alive, but alone.
The second half outshone the first. It brought my hand to my chest and made me wonder how ballet is even physically possible. The dancers’ movements were so perfectly timed. I watched Kondo perform a 360 degree turn in arabesque – moving nothing but the supporting foot. Jane Howard concedes: “The magic of the Wilis is undeniable as the corps de ballet cross the stage, legs in arabesque, moving in unearthly unison under dim lighting.” Though this doesn’t cause her to lose her concerns about the performance as a whole.
Maxim Boon of Limelight Magazine has a different take: “It’s a twee, laughably clichéd plot, loaded with narrative absurdities and unrelatable characters, but Giselle was never intended to be about believable story telling. It’s a showcase for a ballerina at her most virtuosic and powerful. It’s about pure, poetic, transcendent dance that moves and inspires, and Australian Ballet’s production… delivers just that.”
The Australian Ballet is actually based out of Melbourne – much closer to my then-home down under – but they have a long-standing history with the Sydney Opera House. Their first performance there (SleepingBeauty) was in 1973, the same year the landmark opened. Giselle premiered in 1986 and the 2015 performance was the same production as the original, created by past artistic director Maina Gielgud. In reality, I could have taken an hour long train ride to see the same performance in Melbourne. But by that time I was in full traveler mode and seeing it at the Opera House felt like the perfect addition to my trip to Sydney.
Though the First Act fell a little flat, it’s hard to say anything negative about the experience. It was exactly what I’d hoped for, a story told through the body, a classical ballet danced with the perfection that the form always seems to convey. And after all, I was in Sydney. There had been champagne, good company, people watching. It took some willpower for me not to leap and pirouette my way back to the train. It was the same walk back, the same wet ground, but there were brand new exclamations to be shared.
Ginger Duncan is a writer of poetry, flash fiction, and creative non-fiction. A native Oregonian, she lives and works in Portland, but always has her eye out for a new adventure.