San Francisco Ballet's "Giselle"
by Ann Murphy
The last wholly transporting white ballet I saw (not that there weren’t plenty I missed) was sometime in the 1970’s when my school friend and I had standing room in the orchestra at Lincoln Center. The Royal Ballet’s Anthony Dowell and Antoinette Sibley were performing "Swan Lake," and together this pair incarnated the roiling depths of love and the tender agony of heart break. They were sublime, and I wept.
Now I’ve seen another transcendent classic: Tina LeBlanc, Gonzalo Garcia, Peter Brandenhoff and Katita Waldo in "Giselle" on a cloudy Sunday afternoon as the second cast at the San Francisco War Memorial Opera House. This time, my 79-year-old realist friend and painter was the one to cry.
With this "Giselle" Tina LeBlanc has gained full membership in the ballet pantheon. Her range now seems limitless—she can dance a perfect young peasant girl with a heart condition as adroitly as she can Balanchine’s "Square Dance"––and the older she gets, the more transparent her technique becomes. This can’t go on indefinitely. But while she’s got it, and probably even after her technique begins to fade, her lucid physicality is the equivalent of her paintbrush, the stage her canvas, and she uses her technique not just to be a thoroughbred dancer, which she has been for years, but to mold steps the way an artist manipulates color and line. In fact, "Giselle" proves she can alter our experience of reality as a solid, finite thing. She uses transitions between steps—the slow, exact close to 5th position from a dreamy glissade, for instance—to deepen access to the ephemeral world beyond words. And her trajectory through steps permits her to slow or speed up time. By itself all this would make her a master of her craft. But with Giselle, LeBlanc has unlocked a soft radiance from a seemingly bottomless spiritual reservoir that finally gives the ballerina the power to break our hearts. We are thrilled when she does.
If LeBlanc was the queen of this Giselle, Gonzalo Garcia was the young hero of the performance, Peter Brandenhoff was his hot-headed alter ego, and Katita Waldo was LeBlanc’s echo, expressing a similar artistic depth as LeBlanc in her deeply nuanced and pathos-ridden depiction of Myrtha.
But it was LeBlanc who set the bar so high, from every blushing encounter with Albrecht to her heroic defense of him in the beautiful midnight glade. It began with the rounded arms—those billowing, soft shapes in demi-seconde, for instance, where even the palm of the hand is pliant and concave. These are lines that have more in common with undulant Baroque ornamentation than with 20th century linearity, and LeBlanc, the once predominantly athletic American dancer, executed them as though channeling Carlotta Grisi herself. She went on to perform the various leitmotiv’s, such as the ballotte, jete en avant, with rounded, buoyant innocence and joy, underscoring Giselle’s girlish vulnerability and her helplessness before love. Garcia’s aristocratic hauteur—his noble tendu stance, his courtly use of his upper body, stood in sharp and ultimately tragic contrast to the peasant girl’s ingenuousness.
But had LeBlanc only brought academically exacting standards to the choreography the audience wouldn’t have cheered the ballerina as it did. She danced Giselle as though she was Giselle. She appeared to blush with each advance made by Albrecht while thrumming ecstatically as he approached, embodying the tension between passion and stricture, yearning and fright over the power of erupting emotion. Again and again she pushed her face upward toward this man, her chest opening as in echo of the flower she plucks in the game of "He loves me." And as the couple danced in circles around the stage, she moved with the deep joy of a young woman learning what it is to melt into another human being.
Garcia, in turn, performed the same leitmotifs with a brilliant combination of deep joy and over-elegance that lent him the shadow of duplicity remarkable in a first performance. Remember the gorgeous but conceited boy in high school who knows just how suavely to approach a girl, just how to seduce, and leaves a trail of broken hearts in his path? Garcia captured that callow guy with a deep heart, overtaken by true love. If, in future performances, he can push further that sense of a man with a secret (and give us a glimpse of why he has that secret—is it narcissism or entrapment by the strictures of class?––) he will bring the divide in the character to new heights and intensify our experience of tragedy in Act II.
Brandenhoff, for years now a boyish and impetuously competitive Hilarion, was a more potent foil to Albrecht than ever. When the moment to betray Albrecht’s secret comes, Brandenhoff dances with a robust, hotheaded malice that shows his hubris and pride to be stronger than his love for Giselle. With Sophoclean clarity, betraying his competitor’s secret triggers the events that kill the very woman he hopes to win back. Brandenhoff dances this with the youthful blindness that tragedy hungers for.
Then there is Waldo’s Myrtha, Queen of the Wilis: has anyone ever danced a finer echo of Giselle’s own heartbreak? Waldo, who performed with a combination of porcelain fragility and cool detachment, finally comes face to face with the dead Giselle’s adamantine love for Albrecht in Act II. Her own queenly hauteur dissolves as though by some kind of alchemical dissolution of her power and she has to let the fierce barrier of her arms fall, her chest hollow, and her elbows collapse in sorrowful recognition of and defeat by that love, capturing both the power of the moment and her own heartbroken past. While she won’t allow Albrecht to be set free, she steps aside to let the ghost of Giselle dance with her beloved, thereby saving him from death.
Was everything about this Giselle perfect? No. Anita Paciotti’s Berthe was played as with witchy forboding (her strangely fitting headgear didn’t help) rather than as a terrified mother cursed with second sight. The "Peasant Pas de Cinq" felt too academically administered, and the dancers failed to connect emotionally to the larger story (they rarely do). The mise en scene often felt forced-––if the setting is merely the lane between Giselle’s home and the cottage occupied by Albrecht, why does the entire village use it as its thoroughfare and do we really need to see adults and children strolling by as though it were a small metropolis?
But these are minor complaints. The Wilis danced with a heartbreaking restraint that bordered on the sonambulistic, which was just right. Jennifer Tipton’s lighting and design was spectral and elegant, and Tomasson and his assistant Lola deAvila polished this old gem until it shined.