Giselle, San Francisco Ballet

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Yuan Yuan Tan and Artem Yachmenikov in Helgi Tomasson’s “Giselle.”
Photo © Erik Tomasson


In Defense of a Junior Varsity Giselle

Giselle
Romantic ballet in two acts
Music by Adolphe Adam
Choreography by Helgi Tomasson (after Marius Petipa, Jules Perrot, and Jean Coralli)
San Francisco Ballet
War Memorial Opera House
Jan. 29-Feb. 13, 2011

Sarah Van Patten faces a dilemma. The astonishingly direct, emotive, and highly musical young ballerina (she’s 26) danced the title role in “Giselle” for the first time with this company on Sunday, Jan. 30, and gave what may likely be misinterpreted as a second-fiddle performance to that of Yuan Yuan Tan, the 30-something principal who appeared in the season premiere the night before to generally effusive praise, or of Maria Kochetkova, whose fans are breathless for the 20-ish Russian star’s one-night-only return later in the run (see the video clip below of her 2008 premiere with Joan Boada). Tan had been playing the part (and her unrivalled prima status) before New York critics began noticing Van Patten (“When she did grands jetés,” New Yorker scribe Joan Acocella wrote of Ms. V.P. in another work a couple of years ago, “people got out of the way”), so there was some degree of expectation that people would also be blown away by the rising principal from Boston (where she was born and trained) in this blockbuster role.

Alas, that may not pass. Unless more big-gun critics review her second performance as Giselle (Feb. 2), few will learn that Van Patten has a valid claim to the role. As she demonstrated last season in “Romeo and Juliet,” she can match emotion to movement in brilliant, believable ways. And though in “Giselle” she may not always mimic Tan’s impeccable technique (her six o’clock penché was more like ten-till-six), she is more convincing in her portrayal—particularly in the second act, when Van Patten drops the mawkish gestures required by the ballet’s overheated opening half and uses both the music and her wonderfully expressive neck and shoulders to convey the wrenching loss of love. From the moment she traverses the stage, her perfect pas de bourrée cloaked by mist and giving the impression that she is floating, Van Patten is a model of composed serenity, a woman literally doomed by love. When she arches over Albrecht and gently places a single lily in his hands, you want to sob. “She’s better dead than alive,” one sage observer whispered at Sunday’s matinee. And it’s entirely apt: Van Patten seems deadened by the garish melodrama of the first act, yet she comes fully to life as a ghostly figure in the muted tragedy of the second.

As a matter of fact, you could extend that death-and-transformation idea to the ballet itself. The village scene of Act I presents a gaudy pastiche of exuberant pastoral life in a storybook Rhineland of some indeterminate century (Mikael Melbye’s scenic design, though but a dozen years old, looks too 1950s Disney-esque, even for this old-fashioned piece); it’s hard not to smirk at the grandiose fakery of it all. The ominous nocturnal forest of Act II, however, has a more refined and timeless—even funereal—appeal. Of these two landscapes, modern audiences are more likely to favor the murky woods over the hygienic, Technicolor pageantry of Old World wine country.

Ultimately, though, no matter where audiences’ sympathies lie, this is not a coherent story in any sense, with its count/commoner love theme quickly dispatched by betrayal, followed by the hokum of a mad scene and premature death (the ballet premiered in 1841, when such theatrics were all the rage in opera), and then capped with a supernatural, albeit plaintive and austere conclusion in which true love spares the cad but not the maiden.

But the story hardly matters nowadays, and decades of superlative dancers have shown why: This is a capital-R Romantic ballet, with its showy pas de deux and solos, some of them not exactly linked to the plot. Artistic Director Helgi Tomasson’s choreography, while spirited (if not exhausting), effectively advances the storyline without overusing pantomime. And even with his additions (like Act I’s long-ish “Peasant Pas de Cinq”), the show moves along briskly (aided considerably at a number of performances by guest conductor Nicolette Fraillon, who coaxes surprising nuance and meaning from the warhorse score).

Tomasson also gives his principals room to shine as actors. As noted, Van Patten makes use of her dramatic skills in Giselle’s mad scene, and she is yet more heartbreaking as a Wili. Her credible interpretation even manages to elicit a believable performance from Tiit Helimets as Count Albrecht, the noble whose flirtation with Giselle ultimately ruins her. Though he’s every bit the consummate premier danseur in terms of technique (his series of bouncing entrechats six in Act II drew deserved applause), he also summons a bit more characterization than in the past, less stilted and more feeling. It’s clear this Estonian has also spent some time in the sun since coming to California and has gained some muscle mass along with his longer hair. Though he’s not quite a surfer dude, he’s no longer a zombie.

Where Helimets seems a trifle wan, Daniel Baker is a flesh-and-blood Hilarion, robust and virile in his daring to challenge Albrecht, and oddly moving in his complete meltdown after Giselle dies in Act I. His earthy physicality in Act II makes for a fine counterpoise to the Wilis, with their wall of white-shouldered rebuffs. Making her debut as Myrtha, their queen, Frances Chung exhibited the requisite imperious glare and grave bearing, although she appeared the tiniest bit tentative during the variation (in all fairness, that may have had something to do with her stepping in for Elana Altman, who covered for the ailing Sofiane Sylve the night before). The Wili corps had sublime moments, and even when they weren’t perfectly in sync, they inhabited their steps with grace and implied allegiance to each other in their sad fate. Among the numerous cast members were two standouts: the newly hired corps dancer Lonnie Weeks, who drew gasps for his impressive leaps and rapid turns in the Act I pas de cinq; and Katita Waldo as Berthe, Giselle’s mother. This former principal (now a ballet master for the company) gave an appropriately understated performance, keeping her pantomime clear and histrionics to a minimum.

That issue of dramatic approach to this hyperdramatic ballet is central to Tomasson’s choreography and the way his dancers use it to make the story’s characters more human and less caricature. Of the five Giselles scheduled for this run, Van Patten is the newcomer. The fresh take she brings to the role aligns perfectly with Tomasson’s intent: She gives us a heroine of mortal stature by means of an art that requires all but superhuman ability. That her artistry comes with such seeming ease bodes well for her in this role in the future, for her career with the company, and for ballet lovers in general.

John Sullivan

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