OK, so I’m an old softie. I cried during the first act of Giselle last night. Thanks to a donation to KQED, we had tickets to the San Francisco Ballet’s performance of this venerable classic. They weren’t great tickets — next-to-last row in the Orchestra section — but even from there, the show had its magic moments. When Lorena Feijoo, dancing Giselle, performed her long solo portraying the young woman fresh in love, there was a fluidity, an effortless defiance of gravity, a transcendent joy that swept all leaden restraints aside and brought tears welling to my eyes. I cried a second time when, at the end of the first act, Giselle dies.
These tears were a tribute to the dancer more than to the story or the production. The story of Giselle is one of class injustice triumphant. Giselle, a peasant maiden, is betrothed to Hilarion, an honest young man of her class (danced by Ruben Martin Cintas). Enter Albrecht, a nobleman from the court, who is engaged to a princess, but disguises himself as a peasant to go slumming in Giselle’s vlllage. They meet. He hits on her. She falls for him big time. She still loves him, or maybe even more, after Hilarion exposes his true identity. (Can you blame her?) But heartbreak soon arrives in the form of the reigning duke and the princess, Albrecht’s betrothed. In front of everybody in the village, Albrecht stands by his class, turns his back on Giselle, and dumps her. She goes crazy and dies.
Act two takes place in a dark forest at night. Legend has it that maidens who are dumped by their men and die before they wed become Wilis. Wilis are vengeful fairies who dance all night to lure men to the woods, and if they catch one they dance him to death. In this production, Hilarion comes, very woefully and sincerely, to put flowers on Giselle’s grave. For this, the Wilis dance him to death and toss his cadaver into the lake. Giselle doesn’t lift a finger to save him. Very unfair to the good man. Then comes Albrecht to her grave, ridden with guilt, and the Wilis decide to give him the same treatment, which he richly deserves, the prick. But Giselle intervenes and stalls the proceedings until dawn, when the Wilis vanish, saving his life. That’s the basic plot, designed to flatter the men of the gentry and soothe their guilty consciences.
There’s great solo dancing in Act Two, but the production leaves something to be desired. After an initial special effect, the dark forest set becomes wearisome over time. Giselle and Myrtha, the queen of the Wilis, wear identical costumes, so that from the rear of the house it’s next to impossible to tell them apart, which makes the story even harder to follow than it already is. And the Wilis are all dressed in white bridal gowns, fuzzy and lovable, totally contrary to their real character as vengeful assassins. In a modern production they might be Dykes on Bikes. The Wilis have to be shown as tough and threatening to give the story some moral bite. But this production and choreography are the brainchild of Helgi Tomasson, who made his career dancing Albrecht, so of course Albrecht the aristocratic cad is saved and forgiven and Hilarion the honest peasant ends up tossed into the lake. A woman might have shaped it quite differently.
My view of the second act might have been cooled by having seen the Pennsylvania Ballet do Giselle in Philadelphia last year. The corps de ballet there in the second act showed such unity and precision that the audience, myself included, burst into a sustained storm of applause. It’s of course brilliant to dance solo, to stand out, but it must also be devilishly difficult to dance in perfect unison with twenty-three other bodies so that none stands out and all appear to be part of one single organism. The San Francisco group had its moments of such perfection, but still has a way to go to reach the Pennsylvanians’ level consistently.
P.S. The program notes cite Alicia Alonso as one of the all-time great performers of Giselle. I had the pleasure of seeing Alonso dance a solo from Giselle in Havana in 1963. She was 42 years old then and almost completely blind, but you never noticed. Neither age nor blindness dimmed the beauty of her dance.