The return of Helgi Tomasson’s Giselle (1999), continues the San Francisco Ballet’s 90th anniversary season in performance through March 5. I had the good fortune of attending the afternoon performance on February 25, 2023 with my granddaughter and her two young daughters. What a special opportunity to enjoy this exquisite ballet which this company does so well and to see my great granddaughters watching the action with attention. SF Ballet, America’s oldest ballet company, first presented Giselle in 1947, and it was last seen at SF Ballet in 2015.
After Giselle premiered at Paris Opera Ballet in 1841 it was immediately embraced by viewers and has gone on to become one of the most significant surviving classical story ballets of all time. There are powerful themes of betrayal, love, death, and rebirth with the score is by Adolphe Adam enhancing these emotions. Tomasson’s Giselle includes scenic, costume, and lighting design by Danish artist Mikael Melbye.
Walking into the War Memorial building the magic began and continued in the gorgeous sets, the exquisite costumes, the perfection of the dance movements, and the sounds of the orchestra that heightened the feelings of what we were seeing, as well as the lighting which was very important. In this matinee performance of Giselle Jasmine Jimison and Esteban Hernandez danced as Giselle and Albrecht. They were outstanding. These roles require a Giselle to act and dance and Albrecht to have amazing strength that is exhibited int the second act and dance almost kills him.
Note the further observations by my dancer granddaughter:
“Giselle is one of the few romantic ballets still commonly produced by major ballet companies and San Francisco Ballet is a top ranking US ballet company. The dancers at San Francisco ballet are amazing technicians who are able to let loose and dance with reckless abandon or poignant beauty as the mood of the music and choreography takes them. I’ve seen them do Helgi Tómasson’s choreography of Giselle at least twice before, and this third time did not disappoint. One of the characteristics of ballet and classical professional dance in general is that, much like an oral tradition, it is best learned from other dancers who can explain exactly how to do the steps: it’s difficult to learn from either dance notations or from video recordings of past performances. One of the reasons it is important to put on the great classics to to allow new generations of dancers to learn them, but it also provides an opportunity for new generations of choreographers, costumers, set designers, and artistic directors to update and experiment with a work. Some parts are classic and must be adhered to, but other parts can become out of date or impossible for modern audiences to understand.
Tómasson’s version of Giselle and San Francisco Ballet’s subsequent productions of it is a high quality interpretation of the story: he takes the story and emphasizes the many relatable themes of love and betrayal and care within the restrictions of social roles, first as Albrecht is revealed to be lying about his identity in a way that literally breaks the heart of his love, and then as Giselle comes back as a spirit whose role is to kill her love with the dancing that she loves to do. While neither the settings nor the context of rigid societal roles that keep the lovers apart are particularly relevant to most modern members of society, the ideas of loving someone who isn’t good for us and the tragedy that results from the lies and consequences of those lies are timeless.
One of the things I particularly love about this interpretation of Giselle is that the character of Hilarion, who has a crush on Giselle and who ultimately reveals Albrecht’s noble identity to Giselle is that he isn’t portrayed as either a good guy who is just looking out for Giselle or as a bitter and jealous young man intent on marrying her himself, he is squarely in the middle of those two extremes and it is incredibly relatable. This makes his ultimate demise in Act II at the hands of the Willis (vengeful ghost maidens) much more difficult to swallow, and firmly establishes the character of Myrtha, the Willi queen, as a cold and merciless entity.
Overall, the production is a gorgeous masterpiece, one of the gems of San Francisco Ballet’s repertoire, and I highly recommend it for anyone old enough to be able to sit in the theater. I took my two girls (my son was stereotypically uninterested, but I was heartened to see many other kids in the audience, not all of whom were little girls), and they loved it. Both of them danced out of the theater. My younger daughter said: “I like the part where they danced, especially Giselle. She was my favorite because she was the best and because she took care of the person she loved and made sure he didn’t die.” My oldest said: “The dancers are amazing and I want to be like them. But I don’t understand why Giselle would just die when she found out about her boyfriend, she should have been angry! I loved seeing this ballet and I can’t wait to go and see the next show.” Like most dances, and certainly the classic ballets, the best seat is front and center of the first balcony: you want some height to see those gorgeous, stage-filling formations of the corps de ballet. “
SF Ballet’s 90th anniversary season continues with The Colors of Dance (March 14 ̶ 19) featuring the stage premiere of Myles Thatcher’s COLORFORMS; Christopher Wheeldon’s Cinderella (March 31 ̶ April 8); and Tomasson’s Romeo & Juliet (April 21 ̶ 30).
GISELLE PERFORMANCE DATES
2 pm, 8 pm
GISELLE PRODUCTION CREDITS
Choreographer: Helgi Tomasson after Marius Petipa, Jules Perrot, and Jean Coralli
Composer: Adolphe Adam, with additional music, orchestrations, and arrangements by Friedrich Burgmüller, Ludwig Minkus, and Emil de Cou
Production: Helgi Tomasson
Scenic, Costume, and Lighting Design: Mikael Melbye
Assistant Lighting Designer: Lisa J. Pinkham
Assistant to the Choreographer: Lola de Avila
World Premiere (complete ballet): June 28, 1841—Paris Opéra Ballet, Théâtre de l’Académie Royale de Musique; Paris, France
San Francisco Ballet Premiere (Tomasson production): April 8, 1999—War Memorial Opera House; San Francisco, California
ABOUT SAN FRANCISCO BALLET
San Francisco Ballet is one of the world’s leading ballet companies. As a commissioner, collaborator, and presenter, the Ballet performs locally, nationally, and internationally with the top choreographers, artists, and dancers while proudly celebrating its trailblazing role in dance. Since its founding in 1933 as the first professional ballet company in the United States, the organization has been an innovator in dance and an originator of well-loved cultural traditions, from staging the first American production of Swan Lake to being the first company in the United States to present an annual holiday Nutcracker. In the progressive, innovative spirit of San Francisco, its mission is to share the beauty of classical and contemporary ballet, the joyful, transformative experience of dance performance by artists working at the highest caliber, and to provide exceptional training opportunities for the next generation of professional dancers in its School.
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