The San Francisco Ballet launched its 2011 season Saturday night with a breathtaking performance of Giselle, one of the most beloved classical ballets. SF Ballet principle dancers Yuan Yuan Tan and Artem Yachmennikov in the lead roles of Giselle and Count Albrecht, danced Artistic Director Helgi Tomasson’s 1999 production of this venerable 170 year old classic to perfection. If you haven’t been to the ballet lately, or are introducing a young one to the art form, the San Francisco Ballet, in its 78th season, and the oldest professional ballet company in America, is well worth a visit and Giselle is the classic to see—steeped in tradition and full of wispy white-tulled maidens seeking love with toe-dancing elevated to art. The production run is full of roll switches—11 different dancers in the lead roles of Giselle and Albrecht. The remarkable Yuan Yuan Tan, who seems capable of dancing on air, is certainly a Giselle to see, performing again on the closing evening, Saturday, February 12.
Giselle epitomizes all the features of classical ballet—extensive pointe work, turn-out of the legs and high extensions– all executed in graceful, flowing, precise movements. When it premiered in 1841, at the Paris Opera Ballet, it was a hit, exploring the relatively new theme in dance of a peasant in love with a nobleman. It has continued to grow in statue and is now part of the repertoire of most major companies. Tomasson has based his version of Giselle on what we know of the original 1841 French version’s choreography by Jules Perrot and Jean Coralli and on Russian Marius Petipa’s later adaptation. Tomasson has added a pas de deux for Giselle and Albrecht in Act 1 and reworked another peasant pas de deux in Act 1 to make it a pas de cinq to accommodate more dancers. The music is by French composer Adolphe Charles Adam and is significant historically because it was actually composed for the ballet, breaking with the then common practice of piecing together pre-existing melodies for ballets.
The story is unforgettable. Seen with modern eyes, it can be interpreted in many ways. Like the age-old tales of Orpheus and Eurydice or Tristan and Isolde, Giselle can be about the triumph of love over death. It also shows us the unbridgeable gap between stories repeated to us in childhood of love in far away magical places and the crushing brutality of unattainable love. I found myself toggling between the two– viewing it in hopeful childhood mode and knowing as an adult that disaster was just around the corner.
Giselle is a simple peasant girl in a Rhineland village who loves Loys and is unaware he is really a nobleman named Albrecht who is just disguised as Loys. Hilairion, a gamekeeper who is infatuated with Giselle, is jealous of Albrecht and tells Giselle his true identity. Realizing Albrecht is to going to marry someone else, Giselle goes mad; her weak heart gives out and she dies.
In Act II, the very essence of romantic ballet, the ethereal wilis, spirits of girls jilted by their lovers before their wedding day, appear at midnight and encounter Hilarion and toss him to his death. Next, they encounter Albrecht and prepare to dance him to death. Giselle intervenes and saves his life giving him the strength to dance all night. She forgives him for his prince in disguise duplicity and rescues him from the horror of feminine vengeance. By not succumbing to hateful ways of the Wilis, Giselle is freed from any association with them, and returns to her grave to rest in eternal peace. Albrecht watches her die again. If danced well, the ballet’s ending is unbearably sad but it is also a celebration of the inherent goodness in people like Giselle.
The ballet’s credibility is almost completely anchored in the expressive qualities Giselle, its heroine. Yuan Yuan Tuan, now in her thirties, gave a technically striking performance, outdancing everyone on stage in Act 1, where she plays the innocent maiden, not yet a woman. With her long limbs capable of seemingly impossible movements, she is almost too graceful, too regal to be a peasant. In Act 2, she was riveting. What extensions! On one supporting foot, you see her begin to extend her other leg effortlessly to almost 180 degrees and then push even further in astounding Penchee arabesque, an absolutely grueling pose that Tuan has turned into poetry. Paired with the dashing Artem Yachmennikov, a tall striking dancer who complements her, the two made a dazzling couple, very lyrical.
Can Tuan act? If anything, that is her shortfall, more evident in Act 2 where she needed to pull off the transition to the ethereal spirit world and convey that she has been tragically broken by the loss of love. Here, Tan played Giselle with a mental absorption that was palpable but flat in terms of dramatic tension, emotional credibility. She executed it all with astounding technical precision though—demanding acrobatic footwork and beautiful weightless adagios with Yachmennikov where she seemed to glide across the mist-filled stage.
Elana Altman, a stand-in as Myrta, Queen of the Wilis, danced the role with the imperious queen’s role with grandeur. The 24-veiled Wilis in their lovely dresses with outstretched arms, were graceful and precise executing their line dances against the backdrop of the deep forest.
Pascal Molat was fabulous as Hilarion, the rough young peasant with the heart of gold. No matter how many birds he tossed at Giselle’s door, or how perfect his footwork, she had eyes only for Loys/Albrecht.
Mikael Melbye’s set design for both acts features magnificent enormous trees, splendidly lit, giving a very organic feel to the stage.
There are six remaining performances of Giselle (with alternating principal dancers) at San Francisco’s elegant landmark War Memorial Opera House. The 2011 season includes two other classical performances: George Balanchine’s Coppélia and an All-Tchaikovsky program (Balanchine’s Theme and Variations, Kenneth MacMillan’s Winter Dreams, and the world premiere of Helgi Tomasson’s Trio). There are three mixed bill programs of modern masters that include William Forsythe’s Artifact Suite, Wayne McGregor’s Chroma, and John Neumeier’s full-length ballet, The Little Mermaid, and three mixed bill programs premiering new works by Yuri Possokhov, Helgi Tomasson and Christopher Wheeldon. The season closes with the Nutcracker.
Wilis as Slav vampires? In researching Giselle, I came across some interesting notes on the origin of wilis in “The Origins of Giselle” section of the Metropolitan’s Opera’s site (also mentioned on the wordIQ site in its definition of Slavic Fairies).
“…where do these mythical creatures come from? Meyer’s Konverationslexikon defines Wiles or Wilis as female vampires, the spirits of betrothed girls who are jilted before their wedding night. According to Heine wilis came from a Slav legend of maidens who are engaged to be married but die before their wedding. They are unable to rest in their graves because they could not satisfy their passion for dancing when they were alive. They therefore gather on the highway at midnight to lure young men and dance them to their death. There is a Slave word ‘vila’ which means vampire. The plural is vile, and wilis is probably a Germanic pronunciation of that word as a ‘w’ in German is pronounced like a ‘v’. (Puccini’s first opera is based on the same legend, in Italian Le Villi.) In Serbia they were maidens cursed by God; in Bulgaria they were known as samovily, girls who died before they were baptized; and in Poland they are beautiful young girls floating in the air atoning for frivolous past lives.”
Details: Remaining performances of Giselle: Tuesday, February 1, 2011, at 8 p.m., Wednesday, February 2, 2011, at 7:30 p.m., Friday, February 4, 2011, at 8 p.m., Thursday, February 10, 2011, at 8 p.m (features Principal Dancer, Maria Kochetkova), Saturday, February 12, 2011, at 2 and 8 p.m.(features Yuan Yuan Tan as Giselle) , and Sunday February 13, 2011 at 2 p.m. Tickets: $48 to $150.00, with a variety of attractively priced thematic packages for multiple performances. (415) 865-2000 or www.sfballet.org/performancestickets