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Abigail Boyle with Royal New Zealand Ballet in the role of Myrtha, Queen of the Wilis, in Toa Fraser’s new film Giselle.Matt Klitscher

Toa Fraser admits he wasn't much of a dance fan before setting out to make Giselle, a new full-length film of the 1841 Romantic ballet of the same name, that had its North American premiere recently at the Toronto International Film Festival.

The 38-year-old director and playwright whose dramatic comedy, Dean Spanley, starring Peter O'Toole and Sam Neill showed at TIFF in 2008, grew up in New Zealand playing rugby when not fighting on the streets as part of an adolescence caught up in gang warfare.

Ballet was something his sister did, when both were children growing up in Auckland, the offspring of a British mother and a Pacific Island immigrant from Fiji who named his son Toa, which generally translates as warrior.

"She danced a cameo role in the Teddy Bears Picnic and it was nice," says Fraser, hunched over a table during TIFF, a sly smile on his clean-shaven face. The bland sentiment reveals much about what he thought of classical dance before he came to make a film about it.

Today, it is no exaggeration to call him a classical dance convert – he now understands that ballet is fearless. "In rugby we expect our heroes to walk off the field looking like shit: bleeding and moaning and their wounds bared. If not, it can't be said they played a game. But in ballet it is precisely the opposite: They have performed incredible feats and gone the limit with their bodies but they are expected to hold it all in, show nothing of the pain involved."

The restraint of ballet, its suggestion of a hidden life, is what ultimately convinced him to make a ballet film after the idea was suggested to him by producer Matthew Metcalfe, his collaborator on Dean Spanley.

The original proposal was for Fraser to film Cinderella as performed by the Royal New Zealand Ballet, this year celebrating its 60th anniversary. But that ballet didn't grab Fraser the way Giselle did: by the heart strings.

Fraser had recently suffered the end of a love affair, and when he saw Giselle, he saw his own emotional vulnerability reflected back at him by the dancers.

"My own story was a story that really touched the outer boundaries of romantic love. I know very strongly what it means to be in love, with all the joy and eroticism and trauma and heartache that brings," he says, his Kiwi-accented voice sounding soft and regretful. "This film is a love letter to someone I loved."

Fraser's film made its debut in New Zealand last July. As a result of its TIFF screening in early September, it is now set to be shown on 100 screens across France in November. It is the ultimate compliment considering that Giselle, which opened as a dance at the Paris Opéra more than 170 years ago with the Italian ballerina Carlotta Grisi in the lead role, is considered one of the finest achievements of the French Romantic ballet. It took a New Zealander to bring it back home.

"Obviously I am thrilled they love it," Fraser says.

For the most part, his Giselle pays direct homage to the French original.

It is a stage production brought to the big screen with allegorical scenes of the ballet's leads shot on location in New York and Shanghai dropped in to create a heightened sense of drama in the here and now.

The interval between the two acts is filled with an original pop score by Don McGlashan of New Zealand.

There is precious little cinematic intervention otherwise – no stylized camera movement, for instance, and very little in the way of rhythmic editing, the stock-in-trade of most dance films.

Fraser says that's deliberate.

"I wanted to celebrate the dance," he asserts. "I didn't want my fingerprints all over it."

Lacking any previous connection with the hermetic world of the professional ballet company, Fraser drew inspiration from director Martin Scorsese's The Last Waltz, a 1978 documentary of The Band's last live concert, and Bob Dylan's 1975 album Blood on the Tracks.

The objective was to create "a performance film that occasionally breaks out into other spaces." Some of those other spaces include the dance rehearsal studio and the Catskills region of New York state, a location directly inspired by Fraser's obsession with Dylan.

And yet Giselle is not a documentary.

"There's a reality TV series in New Zealand called The Secret Lives of Dancers but I wasn't interested in a behind-the-scenes look at the ballet," Fraser explains.

"I wanted to do something more cinematic and poetic. I wanted to do a movie about connection and vulnerability."

In the film, Albrecht is performed by Qi Huan, a Chinese dancer with extraordinary elevation and a palpable sense of dramatic conviction.

Fraser's Giselle is the flame-haired American Ballet Theatre ballerina Gillian Murphy (Royal New Zealand artistic director Ethan Stiefel's fiancée), who dances the part flawlessly, with a diamantine-brilliant technique married to emotional frailty.

Other stand-out performances include Abigail Boyle as Myrtha, Queen of the Wilis, and Jacob Chown as the put-upon Hilarion. Also well showcased is the solid ensemble dancing of the 34-member, multicultural Royal New Zealand company. Fraser used five cameras to film them, using full-body and close-up shots.

Before commencing filming, he initially connected with the ballet's leads while watching them in rehearsals, lying on the studio floor, to regard them from various angles.

Getting close to the dancers has had far-reaching repercussions for Fraser as both a man and an artist.

On a personal level, he has taken up yoga as part of a process of distancing himself from the "punchy masculinity" of days gone by in order to embrace a more yin-yang sensibility.

On the professional front, Fraser's next film, a work of fiction in preproduction in New Zealand, will be "heavily movement oriented," a result of his work on Giselle.

"I am working with a choreographer," he says. "It's a real departure from what I usually do, a new form of story-telling, and for that I am grateful to the grace and the elegance of the ballet."