Saturday, March 1, 2008

broken-heart society

copyright erik tomasson

Giselle, from the 1841 ballet by the same name, is one of ballet's oldest Romantic heroines. She is usually portrayed as a lively country girl who loves to dance and, despite a weak heart, shyly moves in and out of her beloved's grasp. On rare occasions, she is performed as a young woman with an artistic imagination, rejecting the stolid local boy Hilarion for the more poetic Albrecht who has moved in across the yard.

Even more rarely, Giselle materializes as both the high-spirited peasant and the soulful idealist, which is how she was crafted Saturday night in Yuan Yuan Tan's sublime interpretation of one of ballet's most important roles. Tan let nothing get in the way of her multilayered Giselle, not even her classically elegant but fussy partner Tiit Helimets, whose technical grasp of the aristocrat's role was impeccable and enactment of the drama irritatingly callow.

Tan is one of San Francisco Ballet's reigning principals. She is also the company's queen of long limbs, with a lethally beautiful line and feet so articulate and strong, they appear to have their own center of intelligence. Her only real competition came from Muriel Maffre, who retired last year, and Maffre had a leg up on the cerebrally cool Tan, since Maffre was a dancer of enormous artistic breadth and musicality. Tan long seemed destined to shine best in abstract roles with limited musical and emotive demands.

No more. Tan claimed Maffre's terrain Saturday, proving to be a stunning actress of womanly depth and musical subtlety and inhabiting the mid-19th century role with complete assurance.

She progressed as Act 1 came to an end from happy to crazed and dying girl. She then morphed with effortlessness into a tender and womanly beauty in Act 2, protecting Albrecht from the vengeance of her fellow spirits and becoming as ethereal as a dragonfly in the eerie graveside setting among the Wilis, the spirits of jilted brides. Each pristine beat of her long, supple feet or winglike arms, and every precise plunge into arabesque, was as exquisite as it was heartbreaking.

She and Helimets, whose own beats and leaps were deliciously spongey, were supported by stunning demi-soloists and a company in fine if not always purely classical form ensconced in a set designed with simple fairy-tale elegance (sets, costumes and lighting by Mikael Melbye). Nicholas Blanc and Pascal Molat singed the air in the Peasant Pas de Cinq with their bravura jumps, pump-action turns and nearly out-of-control landings. Clara Blanco, Elizabeth Miner and Frances Chung were a lovely if more demure grouping, picking up and elaborating on Giselle's vocabulary of leaps, hops and turns.

Myrtha, Queen of the Wilis, is often danced with the burning cold intensity of liquid nitrogen, but visiting artist Sofiane Sylve danced with an intriguingly sad warmth and implacable will. The corps moved in moonlit unison throughout Act 2, swarming first around Hilarion, then Albrecht. And when Giselle floats in Helimets' arms, skimming the ground like a glittering fairy, the pair gave shape to love and sorrow and loss with breathtaking magic.

The deeply human production has been honed by Spanish maestra Lola de Avila, associate director of the San Francisco Ballet school. Paul Ehrlich performed the viola solo in Act 2 with soulful clarity and the orchestra, under the baton of Martin West, played with unerring sensitivity.

reprinted with permission

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