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San Francisco Ballet opens 2014 season with Tomasson’s ‘Giselle’

San Francisco Ballet has chosen one of the most exquisite and frequently performed ballets in the classical repertoire for the opening of its 2014 season. From the gaiety and color of its opening scenes, through the dramatic ending of the first act, to the ethereal but tragic beauty of the second, Giselle is utterly enchanting.

Vanessa Zahorian in Tomasson's 'Giselle'
Photo credit: Erik Tomasson

The origins of the story of Giselle are to be found in a legend written by German poet, Heinrich Heine, which poet Théophile Gautier - a leading light of the French Romantic movement - thought would translate beautifully into a ballet. Playwright Jules-Henri Vernoy de Saint-Georges helped with the translation, composer Adolphe Adam produced a simply glorious score, and with choreography by Jean Coralli and Jules Perrot, Giselle was premiered in Paris in 1841, and rapidly became one of the greatest ballets of the Romantic era. The original choreography has endured to this day, thanks mainly to Marius Petipa - considered the greatest choreographer of the Mariinsky Theatre - who restaged the ballet in St Petersburg in 1884.

Anton Dolin - formerly of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, The Royal Ballet and Ballet Theatre (now American Ballet Theatre) - first brought Giselle to San Francisco Ballet in 1947, but in 1999, Helgi Tomasson - the Company’s Artistic Director & Principal Choreographer - recreated a production which was unique to San Francisco Ballet.

Whilst updating the work, Tomasson retained the original story of Giselle, as well as much of Dolin’s approach to it, and most of the Coralli/Perrot choreography. He also created more opportunities for his dancers. For example, he choreographed a pas de deux for Giselle and Albrecht in Act I, setting it to a part of the original score which had fallen into disuse. “To me, Albrecht wanted to show off for Giselle,” he explained, “and how would he do that? In ballet, he would dance. The music was there, so why not do that?”

He also replaced the peasant pas de deux from the first act with a pas de cinq - his rationale being that he wanted to feature more dancers - and a dance which celebrates friendship and the harvest would naturally include more people. He recalls George Balanchine saying to him: “Use what you’ve got.” And what Tomasson has, he says, are wonderful dancers.

For all its beauty, and its sweeping range of emotions - from initial joy to subsequent tragedy - Giselle is a highly demanding ballet, requiring of the dancers a combination of technical perfection and characterization of emotional intensity. Giselle has to make the transition from an innocent young girl, through the trauma of betrayal - for which she pays with her life - to a spiritual creature who finds the maturity to bestow pity and forgiveness on the man whom she continues to love.

Albrecht has to deal with his downfall from a dashing, confident and handsome prince to his utter humiliation and total exhaustion at the hands of Myrtha, Queen of the Wilis who condems him to dance to his death. And Myrtha herself has to combine her portrayal of a bitter, vengeful and icy queen - a role which Ballet Master Katito Waldo describes as “technically brutal” - with the ultimate grace to recognize the love which Giselle and Albrecht have for each other.

Giselle was premiered by the Paris Opera Ballet, at the Théâtre de l’Académie Royale de Musique, on June 28, 1841. The current production by the San Francisco Ballet was premiered at the War Memorial Opera House on April 8, 1999.

San Francisco Ballet’s production of Giselle opens on Saturdayy January 25 at the War Memorial Opera House, and runs until Sunday February 2. For full details please visit the San Francsico Ballet website.

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