Sasha De Sola and Aaron Robison in Tomasson's Giselle // © Lindsay Thomas

Giselle. San Francisco Ballet 2023.

Written by:
Toba Singer
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In the romantic tragedy “Giselle,” the most important dramatic character, the games keeper Hilarion (Nathaniel Remez), is the one most underutilized as a dancer. He opens the story with a futile knock on Giselle’s cottage door. Why futile? Because Giselle (Sasha De Sola), the object of his blinding affection, does not answer. His entreaty carries the suggestion that this is not the first time his overtures have gone frustratingly ignored. Hilarion reappears at strategic turning points in the plot. He embodies a fundamental postulate: if only the interloper aristocrat Albrecht (Aaron Robison), and the Giselle girl, whose vocation is “to spin,” had played by the rules governing social class, the outcome could have been a kinder and gentler one, all around.

Two of my favorite dancers were paired as Giselle and Albrecht, communicating their backstories in limpidly comprehensible mime. However, De Sola’s perfectly executed steps emerged from a body trapped in a persona that recalled my childhood Ginny Doll, always tempting to take down off the shelf to play with, but not pliable enough to imagine responding with gusto to our shared adventures. Here, Albrecht, as danced by Robison, is a callow, misdemeanor-level cad, redeemed by his trickster moves meant to pry Giselle loose from her indefatigable poise. He works diligently to prompt a chemical reaction that barely reaches for its potential. So all-consuming is this vain effort that the sense of place Robison establishes with such refined definition and detail in his entrance, eventually lags. It is restored in spades by the arrival of the corps de ballet, bearers of a bright and bountiful peasant intercession, buoyed by Max Cauthorn, who reaches gallantly for the stars, and Hansuke Yamamoto as his comrade in arms.

A now-exuberant-now icily aristocratic Bathilde (Sasha Mukhamedov ), Albrecht’s fiancé, stoops to dote on Giselle, and then reels it in when both the women realize that they are rivals for Albrecht’s quicker-than-the-eye hand in marriage. Giselle, who suffers from a weak heart and is cautioned by her mother Berthe (Anita Paciotti) not to stress it, goes mad and dies. It is in the mad scene that De Sola’s exceptional dramatic talents release her character from its chrysalis. Despite staging that chokes off space just when escalating madness requires the opposite—opening up the stage for Giselle to wield the sword she grabs on impulse to defend herself against a hostile world order, De Sola transforms it into an arena for her last stand against injustice. Her character’s pulmonary ailment waxes contagious: she delivers a heart-stopping segue to Act II.

In seasons past, Act II introduced itself in minuscule flash points of light in a forest that reached across the stage’s upstage girth. Then, a change took place that divided the woods into unnaturally equal halves. The lights grew larger and more numerous, so that the scene opened on what looked like a noirish scene clip from “Law and Order,” with ten or 15 giant flashlights ganging together upstage center. I wish that the current Act II intro could be scrapped and the former one restored.

We are lucky to have the scintillating Nikisha Fogo as Myrtha, Queen of the Wilis, because if anyone can effect a sense of place, it is this principal dancer in her company debut full-length role. She is not your progenitors’ Myrtha. There is not a hint of the stolid or martinet poseur in her portrayal. She creates a sense of place by acknowledging with her dark, orbital eyes, that these woods are dangerous, checking all points that describe the possibility of panoramic menace. We can feel the moss beneath her feet as she extends her arm to take her measure of the domain she surveys because she rules it. Her every move is perfectly synchronized to sharpen our awareness of the musical accompaniment. Her interpretation of a woman scorned is fully in keeping with the times we are living in. Albrecht arrives carrying his bouquet as if it shrouds his grief. We bear witness to a boy transmogrifying overnight into a profoundly repentant man, who, though light-hearted in Act I, in Act II labors to carry the burdensome consequences of his deceit. It recalls an episode of the TV show “Friends,” where a visiting psychotherapist, commenting on Chandler’s proclivity to make light of everything, asks, “What happens when the jokes stop?”

Hilarion begs for his life to the impaneled diagonal line of Wilis. He has done nothing wrong, except to challenge the unworthy cad who deceived the woman he loved. He again reminds us that injustice prevails not only on the feudal estate, but everywhere in its domain, including the imagination. De Sola’s solo is magnificent, regal. Struggling to make sense of her grief has deepened her agency, and cultivated within her enough forgiveness to grant Albrecht, whom she loves, a pardon, which Myrtha vetoes. His variation, by choice, is pure Esquivelian, full-out virtuosic, and when he falls to the floor, we see that he has offered up all that he has left to give.

These two acts ask the audience to consider so many possibilities, choices that dancers make to build a character, including how to phrase, or which elements to emphasize as the context changes. Character construction becomes controversial instead of, by habit, a letter-perfect capture of how someone else did it that leaves little to learn about the process. To see a performance that raises questions or opens space for placing emphasis differently for the sake of contrast, makes you think about the story in a more probing way. You can feel lucky, with much to be grateful for when the time comes for that standing ovation. In the words of the Cuban virtuoso and former San Francisco Ballet Principal Character Dancer and teacher, Jorge Esquivel, “In whatever field you find yourself, there is always something waiting to be learned.”

Toba Singer

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