San Francisco Ballet Opens Expansive, Emotional Giselle
February 25, 2023—Last night San Francisco Ballet opened this season's spectacular Giselle with a large cast in a variety of colorful costumes, creative sets, but especially with vibrant and emotive dancing.
Along with Swan Lake, Giselle is one of the iconic ballets. When performed by dancers of the caliber of San Francisco Ballet, and supported by the strong San Francisco Ballet Orchestra conducted by Martin West, it is one of the best ballet experiences for both seasoned ballet fans and newcomers. First performed in Paris in 1841, Giselle is considered the heart and soul of classical ballet, the story of a guileless peasant girl who is struck mad when she learns her lover Albrecht has deceived her.
Overcome with grief, Giselle goes mad and dies. Her ghost joins the Wilis, the spirits of young women who died before their wedding day, betrayed by their lovers. Led by their queen Myrtha, the Wilis are condemned to dance their doomed betrayers to death. At night in the woods, the Wilis force Hilarion, Albrecht's rival who revealed the deception, to dance until exhausted, then unceremoniously toss him into the lake to drown. The Wilis attempt to do the same to Albrecht, but Giselle keeps them at bay by dancing with him until dawn. The coming sunrise dissipates the Wilis as Albrecht tries desperately to embrace Giselle, but she slinks back into her grave.
The Wilis scene is one of the most beautiful and iconic in all ballet. In this production, rows of twenty-eight Wilis dressed in white tulles and veils, dancing in synch, is unforgettable and a powerful example of the caliber of San Francisco Ballet.
Among the last season of productions by departing artistic director Helgi Tomasson, this Giselle is Tomasson's updated rendition of the romantic classic. The program explains that Tomasson's touch included adding a pas de deux for Albrecht in Act I set to a piece of the original score that was no longer used. Tomasson also increased the number of dancers in Act I's Peasant Pas de Deux to a Pas de Cinq.
Principal Sasha De Sola was perfect as, in turns, the innocent peasant girl Giselle and the forlorn, haunting ghost that the deceived girl becomes. De Sola was expertly convincing as Giselle in love, exuding a warmth and joy in charming, lively steps, such as petit allegro. In pantomime, Giselle's innocence and naïveté came through in De Sola's expressions and gestures, as when she demurely speaks to the Duchess. By the end of Act I, De Sola convincingly conveys Giselle's emotional breakdown on learning she's been deceived, a transition to inconsolable, hallucinating madness. As a spirit from the grave in Act II, gone is the warmth and joy in De Sola's Giselle. Her pas de deux in death with Albrecht is appropriately expressionless, perfect pirouettes without feeling.
Aaron Robison's Albrecht seemed at first a duplicitous cad deceiving a naive girl, yet his forceful sissonnes in Act I expressed Albrecht's boundless joy at being in love. By Act II, Robison has us seeing Albrecht as a tortured, regretful man torn between love and obligation.
Nikisha Fogo danced a forceful and regal, if cold, Myrtha, Queen of the Wilis in Act II, with precise arabesques and jetés appropriately unemotional in this role of cold death.
The Peasant Pas de Cinq included Isabella DeVivo, Norika Matsuyama, Carmela Mayo, and Max Cauthorn, but Hansuke Yamamoto seemed especially outstanding this night.
For me, this was the most moving performance of Giselle I've seen. For those who have never seen Giselle or want to see it again, now is the time. This may be the last traditional Giselle we'll see by this Company for a while. When incoming artistic director Tamara Rojo was director of the English National Ballet in 2016, she commissioned an entirely new Giselle by innovative choreographer Akram Khan, who reimagines ballet much as Peter Sellers did opera. Khan's new Giselle has a new storyline with migrant laborers, a new score, new sets and costumes, and dance that draws on Indian kathak as well as ballet.
San Francisco Ballet's Giselle runs through March 5th. For more information, see sfballet.org.