Yuan Yuan Tan and Artem Yachmennikov in Tomasson’s Giselle.
© Erik Tomasson
People go to see Giselle and to see new ballerinas dance it for the same reason we go to see new interpretations of Hamlet: The work is such a good one that we always discover something in it we hadn’t seen before…we learn something new. — George Balanchine and Francis Mason
Although most ballets come and go, a victim of their age and sensibilities, some are so steeped in underlying mythologies or are such a fusion of music and choreography that they have been regularly performed for decades. Swan Lake, Romeo and Juliet, Sleeping Beauty, Giselle — all have a core that resonates no matter what is happening in the world outside the performance hall. As the oldest professional ballet company in the U.S., San Francisco Ballet has in its repertory many of these classics. For the longest time, however, one of the best-loved, Giselle, was missing from the SFB list.
This omission was corrected in 1999 when SFB Artistic Director and Principal Choreographer Helgi Tomasson created the version of Giselle currently in the company’s repertory.
Act I outlines the basic story of an innocent peasant girl with a weak heart who loves to dance. Although she has a decent suitor (Hilarion), she falls in love with a nobleman in disguise (Albrecht) who subsequently betrays her. Giselle’s despair leads to madness and her death.
A simple story, but one with an added fillip. In this village neighborhood, dance-loving girls who die after their boyfriends jilt them are destined to spend eternity in the forest as Wilis, the bitter and ruthless spirits who, led by their queen Myrtha, exist only to sentence men to death.
In Act II, Myrtha and the Wilis gather in the forest to initiate Giselle into their sisterhood. First, they do away with Hilarion, mostly because by visiting Giselle’s forest grave, he is in the wrong place at the wrong time. Then they go after Albrecht. Giselle intercedes on his behalf, but Myrtha rejects her pleas. Giselle, though, manages to keep Albrecht dancing until dawn when the Wilis’ power disappears as the sun rises.
The end is problematic. In almost all instances, Albrecht lives, albeit somewhat damaged for life. However, Giselle’s fate is often unclear. Does she join the vampiric sisterhood, or does her act of forgiveness release her from the half-life and allow her to die? Most productions, including this one, leave it vague and subject to dancer and audience interpretation.
A Host of Choices
Tomasson, who describes himself as a traditionalist, has honored the ballet’s historical conventions. Most of his decisions work.
The most felicitous choices appear in the luxurious Act I mime sequences. Through a return to this ballet tradition, the plot-point expositions — Giselle’s weak heart, the solicitous treatment of her by family and friends, the menace of the Wilis, Hilarion’s methodical detective work — turn into tragedy what sometimes appears as a melodramatic story of a not-too-bright girl who is easily duped. In contrast, this Giselle is merely an innocent, protected and sheltered by all around her. She has no reason to believe that anyone would try to do her harm, especially someone who loves her; consequently, when Albrecht proves false, she shatters.
Beyond the mime, the plot is moved subtly through the choreography. In the Act I peasant dances, the corps de ballet moves in lively passes and groupings that are then reinterpreted in Act II. In a travesty of dances in the “alive” world, the Wilis corps moves through precise formal lines and patterns, culminating in a sequence of eerily synchronized sauté arabesques. In a similar fashion, after Giselle dies at the end of Act I, the peasant corps turns away from Albrecht in a gesture that again is repeated by the Wilis as Hilarion and Albrecht plead for their lives.
The only slight miss is the replacement of the Peasant Pas de Deux by a Pas de Cinque. Tomasson once explained that he did so because he has at his command so many excellent dancers. However, although the section is by itself lovely, this replacement breaks the story’s parallel structure. The replaced peasant couple represents everything Giselle wants — they are happy, healthy, and in love, and are a sharp contrast to what becomes her reality.
The sets, designed by Mikael Melbye, are more than the usual attractive backdrop for the action; these sets are characters themselves. The Act I set is bright and open full of light and life, yet shows by its castle on a distant hill that there is a class distinction at play. In contrast, Act II begins with a closed and darkened stage visible only through a thicket of tree branches. As the branches part, the audience is drawn into and trapped by the mysterious and dangerous forest.
SFB has a deep bench and fields five separate Giselles and Albrechts. The cast for the opening night (Saturday, January 29) featured the deservedly popular Yuan Yuan Tan and newly arrived principal dancer Artem Yachmennikov as the tragic lovers. Tan’s Giselle is delicate and charming, bolstered by the underlying power and technique necessary for the role. Bolshoi-trained Yachmennikov, an appealing and complimentary partner for Tan, plays Albrecht as a thoughtless young aristocrat on a lark who gets caught out by actually falling in love. While technically secure, he still needs to grow into Albrecht’s character; fortunately, he has the potential to do so.
On Saturday night, principal dancer Pascal Molet was a strong and fully realized Hilarion. A strong stage presence, Molet’s clever gamekeeper distrusts Albrecht from the start. He makes it clear that although Hilarion is obviously jealous of Giselle’s love for Albrecht, he also is aware of her fragility and doesn’t want her hurt. In addition, he manages to convey an appropriate sense of confusion. Before Albrecht, he was the chosen suitor — he brings food, Giselle’s mom approves of him, and he is a popular guy in the village — he should get the girl, right? Molet’s portrayal makes Hilarion’s death-by-Wilis a large component of the ballet’s tragedy.
The audience experience of the ballet’s story, however, hinges on the cast’s ability to tell the tale. As Giselle’s mother Berthe, Anita Paciotti is strict yet loving in her concern for her daughter’s well being. As the village matriarch, it is left to her to explain the legend of the Wilis, and Paciotti is up to the task.
Tan’s strongest acting moment is in the final sections of Act I after Giselle finally believes that Albrecht has betrayed her. Adding color and shading to Giselle’s mad scene, Tan alternates between anger, confusion, and despair, turning the sad little story into a universal tale of loss and betrayal.
Pascal Leroy as Albrecht’s official fiancée Bathilde and Val Caniparoli as her father further flesh out the story, more through solid acting than by actual mime sequences. When Leroy flashes Albrecht a withering final look as she turns away from him in disgust, the audience knows that he now is alone.
While principals drive the action in Act I, the success of Act II lies firmly in the ensemble work, where characterization often is forgotten in the pursuit of technical excellence. The 24 members of the SFB corps de ballet not only executed the difficult technical assignment (very little “pump handle” action in the sauté arabesques, for example), they truly acted their parts. This freed Elana Altman’s Myrtha to capture a wistfulness amid the steel that makes her less a typical villain than a sad echo of her own personal tragedy.
In Act II, Tan portrays Giselle as a distillation of pure love and forgiveness, fiercely protecting Albrecht from the Wilis’ wrath. In their pas de deux, Yachmennikov’s attentive and secure partnering accentuates Tan’s delicacy, creating the illusion that she could fly away at any moment.
But all of this would be nothing without the music. Conductor Martin West and the orchestra, as usual, managed to serve both the dance and the score.
San Francisco Ballet: Giselle
Through February 13, 2011
San Francisco War Memorial Opera House
[Originally published at California Literary Review, February 1, 2011.]