Yuan Yuan Tan and Tiit Helimets in Tomasson’s Giselle. Â© Erik Tomasson
From my experience, people watch Giselle with two very different expectations. One group watches Giselle for the spectacular dancing, for the technique and artistry – the classic standards of ballet. For the leads, the difficult demands include superb technique with a well of emotional depth and stage presence. Giselle also requires a corps with pinpoint precision, in which one leg at the wrong angle can stick out like a sore thumb. This audience group looks for exemplary dancing, in the most traditional sense. The second group watches Giselle with the expectation of character development and great acting skills, and may even forgo technical prowess for proper dramatic development and believability of the character’s motives and intents. (Technically, there are two other groups as well – one group who requires both great dancing and great character development in order to be happy, and another group that doesn’t care either way.)
Yesterday, I had the pleasure of watching two consecutive performances of San Francisco Ballet’s Giselle, with an example of each set of expectations – the matinee cast excelled at the technical and artistic demands of Giselle, while the evening cast was better at the character development of Giselle. The matinee cast was led by Yuan Yuan Tan as Giselle and Tiit Helimets as her Albrecht, with Sofiane Sylve as Myrta. Before going into this performance, I had a few expectations – I was fairly warned of Tan’s acting skills, and I thought that she would be a spectacular Wili in the second act. Both turned out to be true. In the first act, I had a hard time believing that Yuan Yuan Tan was a peasant; her arms had an airiness that would be more fitting as a Wili rather than an earthy peasant girl. Tan has the uncanny ability of making everything she dances her own style (insert adjectives such as fluid, regal, precise, womanly, a more mature/deeper artistry); it’s just not traits that anyone would normally associate with a peasant girl. The second act however, was unforgettable. Tiit Helimets got a chance to shine, and his chemistry with Tan was mesmerizing, as their bodies seemed to melt together and speak as one. Helimets has gorgeous extensions to spare and a reserved princely aristocratic air, but I was most taken by his complete in-the-moment embodiment of emotion, from his facial expressions (seen a little bit in the photo above) to the way he related to Tan. Every single moment when he was dancing, Albrecht’s acknowledgment of the gravity of his actions was manifested in Helimet’s entire body, as if he was dancing for the last time with the love of his life. Nothing was outrightly external, but restrained emotions simmered, with passion seen in yearning extensions that were held a second longer, and Albrecht’s guilt and Giselle’s forgiveness seen in every movement. Seeing them dance together (my first time seeing them together) was breathtakingly gorgeous – passionate, tragic, gentle, forgiving, and very moving to watch. As a Wili, Tan’s softly fluid artistry betrays her love and forgiveness for Albrecht despite being a cool and aloof ghost, her hovering arms protecting his life. Emotion and dance cohesively melted into one, and the second act with Helimets and Tan was stunningly beautiful.
The evening cast starred newly hired principal Maria Kochetkova and Joan Boada. Kochetkova is much smaller in size (when she is placed on a cart with the children, she is actually the same height as the children), and she embodied the spirit of a young girl, with a light flirtiness and precise attack. From the flirty downcast of her eyes to the way she slowly uplifted them to look into Boada’s face, you see a girl slowly falling in love for the first time with a growing trust as the first act progresses. Even though it was my second Giselle for the day, the first act flew by for me as I found myself getting caught up in the dramatic action. In the second act, her mad whirling attitudes as soon as her veil is lifted off brought tremendous applause. As a Wili, she still shows traces of the young girl as she flits across the floor, so fast that she was sometimes ahead of the beat, and her precision and lightness was lovely. Her chemistry with Joan Boada felt incomplete in its emotional depth, however. Joan Boada made a handsomely dramatic and passionate Albrecht, but at times his high energy felt unharnessed and a tad unfinished, especially on some of the landings on his jumps. His dance of death in the second act was filled with sky high jumps and passionate bravura, and his partnering of Giselle’s soft jumps across the floor made her look like she was floating across the floor.
The supporting principals were equally impressive. The matinee Myrta was guest principal Sofiane Sylve, who portrayed Myrta as a rock solid unflinching queen of the Wilis. She particularly excelled in quick footwork, where she played with the music’s downbeat with thrilling musicality. The evening Myrta was soloist Sarah Van Patten. I’m seeing more of her these days, and her artistry is progressively leaving a lasting impression. Her Myrta was expressed through her eyes. Wide-eyed and unblinking as a ghost intent on killing, yet her eyes were also pools of sadness. Her delicate upper body belied her regret and tragic past as a jilted lover, with an external steely resolve that seemed that it could crack at any moment. Both Myrtas were glowingly beautiful. Hilarion was played by two principal dancers – Damian Smith (matinee) played Hilarion with more gravitas, while Pascal Molat (evening) danced with more dramatic energy, and even brought out moments of humor.
Another interesting thing about this production of Giselle is the way that it showcases the strength of its soloists and its corps, both in ensemble work and in solos. The corps is key to the effect of the Wilis seen in the second act. The SF Ballet corps isn’t always cohesive, but they were a unified and a scarily determined marvel on Saturday, distilled in a single man-killing machine. The peasant dance in the first act also gave some corps members to shine – corps member Diego Cruz (matinee) shined in his technically perfect solo, while principal Nicolas Blanc (evening) was less technical but danced with more spirit. Soloist Frances Chung sparkled in the peasant solo in both performances, and she danced cleanly with sunny broad strokes. Corps member Clara Blanco danced one of the lead Wilis in the matinee, and she held a particular regret in her arms that was sad and lovely.
To me, forgiveness is the biggest virtue that speaks of love. Passion and lust – that’s for beginners. Forgiveness? After all, it is divine. Some of the most moving pieces of theater addresses forgiveness and grace; Les Miserables comes to mind, where grace rules to change people. The story of Giselle can seem silly to modern audiences, with shallow characters and and a twisting plotline (for instance, why does Hilarion have to die?). Giselle herself drives me crazy, actually, because she’s frustratingly not very bright, and Giselle and Myrta represent two female stereotypes that aren’t so flattering. But it remains a classic, for many other reasons including the fact that grace and forgiveness displayed on stage is something audiences never get tired of watching, especially when it’s so beautifully done as the performances I saw on Saturday.
The last performances of Giselle was today; their next program, a tribute to Jerome Robbins, starts on March 6, with Fancy Free, In the Night, and the West Side Story Suite. It’s interesting to read reviews of NYCB’s West Side Story suite, and knowing this is what I have to look forward to. It sounds like a musical with pointe shoes, complete with the singing dancers. I’m looking forward to seeing how this translates onstage.
Has anyone seen SFB’s Giselle? What are your thoughts? Do you watch Giselle for the dancing, and/or care about character development onstage? When was the last time (if ever) you ever saw two shows in one day?