The traditional ballet Giselle was performed by the San Francisco ballet this last January 26 at a Sunday matinee at the handsome War Memorial Opera House in San Francisco. This piece, choreographed by Helgi Tomasson, formed the whole program for the afternoon. It really is old fashioned ballet, with ballerinas on their toes, and beautiful costumes. The male dancers are strong and the female dancers look delicate. The music has both harmony and rhythm. Somehow, it does not seem out of style.
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What made this performance exciting was the fact that it was not out of style. Ballet, at least as demonstrated in Giselle, involves a limited number of moves and gestures. These are combined in a variety of ways. The dancers used these moves to act out and narrate a story very effectively and without being repetitious. The fact that the story they were telling (involving going insane over being two-timed) seemed completely ridiculous did not seem to bother the dancers or the audience. This was an accomplishment.
The choreography was by the director of the San Francisco ballet, Helgi Tomasson, and seemed to fit with the classical music of the piece very well. It involved a lot of pantomime and gestures at various points in the story. The choreography did its best to explain the complicated tale. However, the story seems to include fake identity, chronic illness, ghosts, infidelity, hopeless love, and class warfare (Giselle and Albrecht are separated by their different economic statuses). It was therefore very difficult to follow. Most of the motivations would be impossible to imagine in the 21st century. It finally stopped seeming worthwhile to try to understand the details of the plot. Instead, it seemed better to just appreciate the dancing as just movement to music.
The dancing was physically demanding and showed that the dancers are all fine athletes. The male dancers must be very strong, because they can lift the female dancers and raise them in above their heads. The dancers were all very accomplished at both the dancing part of the ballet and the pantomime parts as well. They are actors as well as dancers. This seems like quite an accomplishment. This is because the dancing itself is so strenuous that it seems as though it would take all the energy of the dancers.
The music was composed by Adolphe Adam, which is not a familiar name. There were other contributors to the piece: Friedrich Burgmuller, Ludwig Minkus and Emil de Cou. It was classical music, completely classical. This went perfectly with the story, which could not have taken place in any later century. Thus, the music was very well suited to the ballet, and contributed to the atmosphere of performance. It was slightly spooky at moments, for example when the Wilis appeared in their veils, but mostly it was just beautiful. There were obvious dance rhythms such as the waltz in various spots. The orchestra, conducted by Martin West, was quite professional and disappeared into the background, which seemed appropriate.
The costumes were out of a fairy tale, which was also appropriate. They were floaty and pale for the Wilis, and colorful for everyone else. The costumes were like doll costumes, and they made the production seem quite magical. It was not clear whether they were historically accurate for the time, because the real clothing of the last several centuries would have been uncomfortable to try to use for moving around as vigorously as these dancers did. However, the costumes certainly were charming.
The lighting contributed a great deal to the performance. It told the story as well. The lighting helped the audience understand that they were moving from the village to Giselle’s grave in the forest.
This was very traditional ballet. It was a wonderful experience to see something that audiences have been enjoying for over a hundred years. Although the story was silly, and hard to believe, the dancing itself was quite enough to make the performance worthwhile.