San Francisco Ballet’s 2011 season started with a look to the past with Helgi Tomasson’s production of Giselle. From this Romantic classical ballet first performed in 1841, it’s easy to see why this ballet is such a classic. The ballet strongly stresses technical virtuosity and artistry to almost impossible levels, wrapped in a moving story of love and forgiveness. Â Set to the music by Adolphe Adam, San Francisco Ballet’s production is a handsome one, with scenic, costume, and lighting design by Mikael MelbyeÂ that carry a touch of fantasy that encourages the imagination. Classics such as Giselle reminds us of why such virtuosity and artistry is a gold standard for ballet today.
Apparently, advanced plot lines evolved later on in ballet history.Â The plot line is a simple one – boy two-times girl, the girl goes mad and (sorry, spoiler alert) dies. The girl rises from the grave to join the Wilis, a group of ghost-like jilted women who prowl the forest for men to kill by conveniently making them dance until they die. Â The two-timing boy comes to the forest, is caught by the Wilis. The girl defends the boy and forgives him, saving him from a certain death by the man-killing Wilis, in an ultimate act of forgiveness. I had forgotten how silly the plot line sounds to modern ears, and was only reminded of it when I took two people who had never seen Giselle to the ballet (made only funnier by my attempts at describing the plot to them).
But who watches this ballet for its plot?Â The lead role of Giselle is a pivotal one, demanding technically while at the same time, requiring the dancer to mask the technicality in effortless grace, particularly in the second act. As a Wili, Giselle performs an unending series of quick footwork (all with a floating ghostly quality), as if inhuman. Interspersed are stretches of adagio with interminable balances and leg lifts, swathed in sorrow and regret. Add to that a wordless communication of forgiveness, chemistry, and tension between Giselle and her partner, Albrecht, and it really might be one of the hardest roles in ballet to perform. On Sunday afternoon, principal Sarah Van Patten made an impressive debut as Â Giselle. As a peasant girl in the first act, Van Patten’s Giselle was a role centered on the cusp between girl and woman, with a heartbreaking innocence and optimism. In the second act, Van Patten briefly struggled with technical control necessary for a certain stillness required to seem otherworldly. Moments seemed cautious, but these are nitpicky criticisms. Many moments gave me the chills; Van Patten’s Giselle was a Giselle fraught with human emotion. There were many incredibly gorgeous moments especially in her arms showing Giselle’s sorrow and regret. Her supported hops across the floor were breathtaking as she floated across the floor, and Van Patten’s Giselle was an impressive debut, and a portrayal that will only get better with time.
Van Patten was partnered by the gallant Tiit Helimets, who threatened to overtake the stage with his presence every time he was onstage. He exudes prince from head to foot; even the way his hair flops appears princely and refined. And who could ask for a better prince in Helimets? His long legs move through the air slowly with agility and grace as if he had all the time in the world, switching it up with crystal clear footwork that looks so easy. Another standout was Frances Chung as Myrtha, Queen of the Wilis. Chung danced the role with a commanding presence and strength, with rock-solid technique and an intimidating air.
In addition to these roles, the Sunday matinee performance seemed to be an opportunity to parade the newcomers to the SF Ballet roster in its smaller roles. Corps member Daniel Baker was an athletic Hilarion, and the solo Wilis with Nicole Ciapponi and Sasha DeSola were impeccably danced. Myles Thatcher brought a humorous moment as the Servant to the Duke and made the audience laugh when he came onstage. The Peasant Pas de Cinq was led by a playful Courtney Elizabeth with Charlene Cohen and Madison Keesler. Isaac Hernandez and Lonnie Weeks completed the pas de cinq with Hernandez dancing with ease, and Weeks dancing with pure joy.
In all, the corps looked to be in fabulous shape, and I was impressed by the smaller roles danced with such precision and nuance. Conducted by Nicolette Fraillon, the orchestra sounded untidy on a number of occasions both with each other and with the action onstage, but nonetheless created energy and beauty amidst the theatrical atmosphere.
It is daring for the San Francisco Ballet to provide such a monumental classical ballet as its first offering for the year, but it couldn’t be a more thrilling choice for dance lovers such as myself.Â San Francisco Ballet’s production shows us why this ballet is such a classic. It is a great start to the season for the San Francisco Ballet.
San Francisco Ballet’s Giselle runs through February 13. Click here for more information.