San Francisco Ballet's "Giselle"
By Paul Parish
San Francisco Ballet has not had "Giselle" in the repertory until Helgi Tomasson made a version a few years ago. This elaborate and beautiful production was a gift from the and outgoing Chair, Mrs. Warren Hellman, a former dancer who'd been in the corps in Festival Ballet's "Giselle" (legend has it) when her future husband first spotted her. The Hellmans are rich as Croesus, but Mrs. Hellman has been a wise counselor to the ballet as well as a staunch defender and bountiful sponsor. She steered the company through the bad years after the earthquake, when the ballet had to be out of the Opera House—a period when artistic standards continued to rise and the company stayed in the black.
So we have a fancy production, with no expense spared. The first act is overdone, with way too many straw hats and completely unnecessary cod-pieces on the farm-lads, Hilarion in a dagged-leather jacket that makes him a real rival for leading-man status, recognizable Napa Valley vineyards in the distance below the castle, and a cottage for Giselle that looks like something in North Berkeley. But also a truly sumptuous second-act forest, marvellous costumes for the Wilis, a glorious variant for Myrtha, and a cloak for Albrecht that outdoes anything anywhere.
What we also have is no tradition of dancing it, and a company of superb dancers trained all over the world but with no consistent style in these old things, and very little time to rehearse a ballet like this en masse. We've really got only one dancer who can play a peasant convincingly. Peter Brandenhof, who's Danish, knows how to do little, and with weight, and so intelligibly you can see every thought go through his head, and you know it's a peasant-thought. As Hilarion, he's sexy as Marlon Brando, and in fact, when he's asking Giselle "you think he loves you?" the whole speech seems so close to one of Stanley Kowalski's, you actually wonder how well Tennessee Williams knew "Giselle"—and then you realize, he probably did: those were the great Markova days, when the theater in Ballet Theater was a real contribution to the intellectual life of New York City.
But our version has come at the end of the neo-classical period, and it should be said right away, that Oakland Ballet's "Ballet Russe" version (which one hopes we may see again) has more conviction to it than the over-refined version at the greater company. SFB's does not take seriously the idea of pastoral tragedy. I think of Giselle as one of love's martyrs: the story tells her passion and death and first miracle, and it's ONE story: underneath all that prettiness, Giselle matters as much as anyone on earth. Sure she's just a country girl, but her soul is a star of the first magnitude.
So far, I've seen this production five or six times, and in only one case (when Tina leBlanc danced it with Roman Rykine in its first season) has it not broken in half—Lucia Lacarra, Yuan-Yuan Tan are marvellous second-act Giselles, Kristin Long is a great first-act Giselle. Lorena Feijoo gave it everything, but it was all too much for her to hold together, and one felt she was trying too hard to make her world. She's a great dancer, with a complex temperament that is both extraverted (in the extreme) and also introspective, thoughtful, reflective. The production seemed to tear her in two.
This year "Giselle" ran for just under a fortnight: I saw Tan (with Pierre-Francois Villanoba) on opening night and Long (with Guennadi Nedviguine) at the last Saturday matinee. There was much to enjoy, but also many places where the vibes just went haywire. In the background, the dancers just looked like nice suburban kids who can't tell their aristocratic greetings from their "guess we've gotta go back into those hot fields one more time" things. SFB has the same problem with "La Sylphide": the spirits are more believable than the people.
That said, there were many many wonderful performances. It is a pity the company can't perform the ballet often enough to integrate all these possibilities —and indeed, perhaps they did on nights I did not see them perform. I'm told that Tina leBlanc, Gonzalo Garcia, and Katita Waldo got a standing ovation last Friday night, and from having seen LeBlanc's incredible ability to make her back seem boneless and her image seem to extend on and on, and from all I heard about Waldo's complex and even poignant interpretation of Myrtha, I think they deserved it, and I deeply regret that I didn't see Waldo.
But I must praise Yuan-Yuan Tan: she was truly fantastic in Act 2. I have never seen her jump like this—she molded her feet, and jumped like a dream, and made some surprisingly HIGH jumps. The entrechat sixe in the grand adagio was so light and high, like a puff of air in the midst of those slow magnificent extensions and reverences. She danced Giselle not like a dead person but like a spirit.
She'd allow extraordinary releasing to distort her upper body, while the pelvis and legs were working with great exactness and care, so as she'd fly backwards in all those great jumps her image underwent the kind of billowing I associate technically with Trisha Brown but theatrically with ghosts in cartoons (good cartoons). Over and over I saw details that were so fresh: she jumped the passes in the brilliant coda of entrechat quatre/passe entrechat quatre/passe, and indeed she outdid anything I've ever seen in that passage.
She had good ideas about some things that ballerinas never think about, e.g,how to take the final pique arabesque at the end of a variation; she'd step into it slightly behind the beat, which softened the attack, and then held the balance while falling forward, so she could run off the stage like the wind. What so often happens is that a dancer will hit the balance, work work work to hold it, arching further and further into the back, so when they do come down they can barely walk off stage. It's always anticlimactic, heavy. Makarova used to do that. I don't know who coached Tan; maybe it was her own idea.: but whoever's responsible, it's huge in its effect.
Meanwhile, back at Act 1, I was watching Bathilde's reaction to Albrecht during Tan's mad scene.
Indeed, Pascal Leroy was a superb Bathilde—within the bounds of the role, she was a complex person, actually interested in Giselle (without being Princess DI about it), and more real, alive to the developing circumstances, than anybody who'd come onstage so far. She was Bathilde to Kristin Long's Giselle as well, and the balance was much stronge—for Long was so real; her first act rivals Lynn Seymour's for credibility.
They cast the ballets to the ballerina's strengths. Long got all the best first act supporting cast, Tan, the great support of the ballerina Muriel Maffre as Myrtha, a vision of stillness and control. Long got Katita Waldo for her mother, the wonderfully sympathetic (and technically flawless) Guennadi Nedviguine for her lover, Brandenhof for Hilarion, and a cadre of small superb dancers for the first-act pas de cinq, who danced in the same style Long did and did not sweep them off the stage.
Tomasson has expanded the peasant pas de deux into a Dresden-ish pastorale, extremely pretty in itself and worthy of showing on any gala, but the effect can be like too much china on a table. Though Saturday afternoon I realized it does not have to be that way, if, when Giselle and Albrecht dance together, they reveal the intimacy we saw in these two.
They danced cheek-to-cheek; I have never been so moved. Giselle loves to dance, and she loves to dance with Albrecht. As Lincoln Kirstein noted, there is a leitmotif for "I love to dance with Albrecht"—Long and Nedviguine were so in love at that moment, they barely moved their feet. They were joined from cheek to thigh, right there in front of God and everybody, and it was a beautiful thing. This is the heart of Romantic ballet—Paradise NOW! This is what the French Revolution was about: we want it in our lifetimes, the pursuit of happiness.
Nedviguine did not seem comfortable with the larger rhetorical gestures, but the intimate ones he really has; he responded to her with great tenderness.
Long is an extremely strong dancer, and not just technically. She has the courage to keep it simple. She does feathery little ronde de jambes or petite serres, makes a small "ping" with her eyes as she makes a low extension and just holds it there, preserves the picture, stays up on pointe for another count or so before coming down, omitting a precipite here and there because she didn't need it. I hated this when Cynthia Gregory did it, but with Long I never once found myself faulting her taste. She is creating a Giselle whose power to love is so life affirming, so strong it will last into death.
The dancers in the pas de cinq Saturday were very fine, especially Elizabeth Miner as the "first among equals." Clara Blanco was exquisite also, and Joseph Phillips—whom I've never seen featured before, apprenticed two years ago—was extraordinarily open, generous, modest, musical, and nearly flawless in every step (including a whiz-bang virtuoso thing that looks like a doubled tour jeté, like four or five scythes whirling very fast below the belt, and then he lands and smiles at us, and then he does it again, with a Danish forbearance).
These dancers made an air-tight case for this interpolation: and then Giselle came out and did her toe-hops, and then (after the nobles leave the stage, Albrecht returned for a Tomasson pas de deux of considerable delicacy and charm which these dancers made seem integral to the whole enterprise.
The sections of this "Giselle tapestry" are very fine. If they could only stitch it together, establish some consistency in the mise en scene. Why do the hunting party walk like peasants, presenting the heel so aggressively with every step?
But don't get me started.