Giselle is the ultimate gothic ballet: an innocent peasant girl seduced by a nobleman with a penchant for playing pastoral, the cruel discovery of his betrayal when his aristocratic fiancée arrives to tour the country village, her demise in a fit of madness, and her induction into the wilis, a sorority of phantom women who died before their wedding day and haunt the woods, drawing men who happen by into a dance of death.
This ballet offers the opportunity for its principal ballerina to explore the dramatic range between earth and ether as a lovestruck country girl and the spirit who ultimately chooses to defend that love, and, as the exemplary ballet blanc, it offers a company the opportunity to demonstrate the purity of its corps in the second act dances of the wilis.
San Francisco Ballet's production, which runs January 25 through February 2, brings the romantic ballet to life in its traditional form, featuring minimal adaptations by artistic director Helgi Tomasson to the time-honored choreography handed down through Marius Petipa, Jules Perrot, and Jean Coralli.
The curtain opens on a stage dressed in dun brown by Mikael Melbye, everything done in a thick potato-fed line reminiscent of the peasant scenes of Pieter Bruegel the Elder. This scheme makes Giselle's blue dress pop, connecting the girl to the cerulean sky above and contrasting her starkly against her more terrestrial peers. The gamekeeper, Hilarion, is the first to enter the stage, carrying a brace of rabbits that he tenderly hangs on the door of Giselle's (here rather grandiose) cottage: peasant love represented in the humility of country comestibles. The tone shifts when Count Albrecht enters.
Disguised in the village uniform of nut brown, the nobleman dismisses his squire with an effete wave of the hand. He knocks on the door of his beloved, and out she springs with the frolic of the young, the ingenuous, and the animal. Everything fits the idyll of bucolic charm, with happy provincials dancing rather than tilling the fields.
The arrival of Bathilde, the daughter of the Duke, among a hunting party, at first seems the prelude to class warfare, with the aristocrats arrayed in jewel-toned velvets and plumes demanding refreshment. However, Bathilde and Giselle bond over the perpetually feminine subjects of boyfriends and clothes, both admitting to a lover without realizing (gasp!) it is the same man. Jealous Hilarion ruins the scene with his revelation that Albrecht has both sword and hunting horn, accoutrements no good peasant would own. Sick with despair, Giselle does what any self-respecting nineteenth century woman would do and dies of madness.
Like the Nutcracker, most of the narrative occurs in Act I, while the dancing everyone likes to watch is in the second, with hapless men blindly wandering into the clutches of the beautiful but deadly wilis, led by the indomitable Queen Myrtha. San Francisco Ballet's production emphasizes the women's collective status as thwarted ghost brides, all in white gowns and diaphanous veils on the dimly lit fog-filled stage.
The disguises were thin in opening night's cast, which featured Yuan Yuan Tan in the role of Giselle, with Davit Karapetyan as Count Albrecht. While Albrecht's irrepressible nobility might be understood -- indeed indicated in an instinctive reach for his absent sword in an altercation with Hilarion -- Tan, whose delicate spidery limbs so suit her to unearthly and abstract roles, makes an implausible rustic. That she and Albrecht should be drawn to each other seems less a product of real attraction than the simple fact that neither of them belongs in this town.
Act I was played as a parody of love for laughs, Tan's Giselle a foolishly naïve caricature to Karapetyan's rather blank Albrecht. The peasants were better represented by the vigorous pas de cinq featuring especially the sensational jumps of Hansuke Yamamoto and the sweet and vivacious charm of Sasha de Sola, whose lyrical renversés as one of the solo wilis in Act II suggests a Giselle in her future. The mad scene that closes Act I explains Tan's method: with eyes looking far into the distance and wispy arms wafting forlornly, her Giselle was never meant to be a living woman but always a wili waiting to happen.
Act II presented Karapetyan, Tan, and the full company to advantage, with Tan's weightless limbs drifting into glorious extensions and fluttering in feather-light entrechats and Karapetyan whirling through almost supernaturally fast tours. San Francisco Ballet's corps made a steely perfection of the wilis, with the precision of every arabesque outlining the single-mindedness of undead women bent on revenge.
Tomasson makes some peculiar dramatic choices in his staging. The moment when Berthe lets Giselle's hair down at the end of Act I should be an opportunity for a mother to illustrate her care but here is only a perfunctory gesture necessary for the visual disorder of loose hair. Hilarion's presence in the woods is often justified by his visiting Giselle's grave (here an ugly cross of wooden boards tacked together with her name apparently spray-painted on), but Tomasson omits this, using the poor man as just another random figure to be tormented by the wilis. Similarly, his death is not strongly indicated, diminishing the terror of the wilis -- instead, he is merely tossed out of the forest by a coven of mean girls. Still, the moment that closes the ballet, a bloom falling from Giselle's hands as she returns to her grave, with the understated restraint of a single tear, has all the beauty and tragedy this ballet requires.
San Francisco Ballet presents Giselle various times January 25-February 2 at the War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness, S.F. Tickets are $39-$340; sfballet.org