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San Francisco Ballet - 'Giselle'

Sensing her way through space

by Hanna Takashige

February 25, 2005 -- War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco

The San Francisco Ballet's current production of "Giselle" is a beautiful rendition of this most perfect of ballets. The romantic story is retold through Helgi Tomasson's excellent staging, simple and direct mime, and choreography which honor the spirit of this great classical work. A seamless corp de ballet forms the gorgeous Wilis in Act 2, and powerful and exciting demi soloists and ensemble work are featured in both acts. On the evening of February 25th, Katita Waldo danced a clear and steely Myrtha. Tina Le Blanc and Gonzalo Garcia portrayed Giselle and Albrecht with great technical skill, artistry and finely executed partnering. Their performances, however, lacked something of the depth and poignancy inherent in great dancing, and inherent in the ballet "Giselle."

What constitutes a great "Giselle"? At the 100th Anniversary of the Metropolitan Opera House in New York in 1983, Alicia Alonso appeared in the second act pas de deux of "Giselle," partnered by Jorge Esquival. Many in the audience were moved to tears, and she brought down the house as no other performer did that evening. At the time she was in her mid 60s, but appeared much, much younger because of the quality of her movement. As she was exiting, she stumbled slightly on the gravestone and then recovered her footing in a real life moment informing everyone watching that this dancer could not see. Did her blindness, as some speculate, infuse and inform her etheric Giselle? Her portrayal is generally recognized as one of the 20th century's greatest. Does Giselle possess a sensory capacity to literally feel her way through space?

Giselle is portrayed in the first act as a peasant dancer who has a weak heart. Shocked by her aristocratic lover's deception, she dies of a broken heart; a romantic conceit, which has recently been confirmed possible by modern science. In the 2nd act she has become a Wili, and can now dance as freely as she is moved to. She completely forgives the grieving Albrecht, and protects him from the Wilis who are led by Myrtha. Myrtha brandishes sprigs of rosemary, 'rosemary for remembrance', as Ophelia says in Hamlet. But this remembrance is for the betrayals these young maidens have suffered at the hands of men, and for which as Wilis they seek vengeance by dancing to death any male who strays into their midst. A consummate visual expression of the Wilis' fury is found in the crossing of rows and rows of dancers pointing accusingly with arms and legs in extended arabesque as they move across the entire stage. The Cubans dramatize this menacing quality with a strong dynamic quality in each forward moving 'chug', as opposed to the light bobbing exhibited in this, and in most, productions.

In the Russian and Cuban style, the tempo of the adagio is slowed down requiring even greater strength in the control of partnering. Alternately, and in complete dramatic contrast, the tempo is speeded up for the petite allegro to feature Giselle's execution of brilliant, quick footwork. In the St. Petersburg Ballet Theatre production performed last week at the Marin Civic Center, this slowing of tempo was employed to great dramatic effect in an evocative sequence in the 2nd act pas de deux. Giselle and Albrecht move away from each other in spiraling assemble turns, and then very slowly and expansively, starting from deep plie and bending far forward from the waist, they each draw upward with their arms as if pulling spirits from the earth.

Throughout the ballet, flowers appear as symbols of love and spiritual connection, first in the enchantingly danced courtship scene where Giselle is tricked by Albrecht into believing that there is one less daisy petal than she had counted. Later in the forest, Albrecht places white lilies on her grave, and Giselle offers him flowers, which spill, overflowing from her arms. "Giselle" takes us beyond our everyday reality into a fairy tale of human drama in which characters converse between two worlds. Albrecht carries Giselle as if she is a little bird in their tender last moments together, exquisitely executed here by Le Blanc and Garcia. Giselle is here and not here. Within the tale of "Giselle" lies a cautionary tale for women who must protect each other from the heartless deception of men, and a warning to lovers not to cross the social barriers of class. Ultimately, the story illustrates the healing that is required when such transgressions of love occur.

Both acts feature gorgeous scenery with trees prominently featured. The forest scenery evokes the depth of a forest, which continues on and on. There are some odd choices in costuming which are sometimes too modern, whimsical, or outright distracting, such as with Hilarion's costume which features a sort of 'dance belt' incongruously worn outside of his tights. The orchestra beautifully performs Adolphe Adam's perfect score for this enchanting ballet.

Overall, this is a very fine production. Yet what may ultimately be missing is the essential romantic style of this classical ballet, a style which is so poignant and otherwordly. It features a slight tilting forward of the torso like a bird about to take flight, or like a blind person sensing the surrounding space. The ethereal illusion of Giselle is strengthened, as her chest leads and her head is tilted in an expressive, stylized manner. In this way the perfectly choreographed movement expresses a longing from the heart. In her essential delicacy and strength, Giselle forgives Albrecht and lends him her own strength. The lovers are tragically separated. And we are left with the ballet's lasting and transcendent depiction of their eternal love.

Edited by Staff.

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