Composer: Adolphe Adam, with additional music, orchestrations and arrangements
by Friedrich Burgmüller, Ludwig Minkus, and Emil de Cou
Production: Helgi Tomasson
Choreographer: Helgi Tomasson after Marius Petipa, Jules Perrot, and Jean Coralli
Scenic, Costume and Lighting Designer: Mikael Melbye
Assistant Lighting Designer: Lisa J. Pinkham
Assistant to Mr. Tomasson for this production: Lola de Avila
World Premiere: June 28, 1841—Paris Opera Ballet, Théâtre de l’Académie Royale de Musique; Paris, France
San Francisco Ballet Premiere (current production): April 8, 1999—War Memorial Opera House; San Francisco, California
San Francisco Ballet in Tomasson's Giselle (© Erik Tomasson)
At 173 years old, Giselle remains a vigorous perennial. Choreographed by Jean Coralli and Jules Perrot, it is the jewel of the Romantic ballets, surpassing even its much-admired predecessor, August Bournonville’s La Sylphide. Since its premiere in Paris in 1841, Giselle has not merely endured—it’s one of the most frequently performed ballets in the world’s classical repertory.
The story of Giselle originated in a German legend about ethereal creatures called Wilis. These maidens, who had been betrayed by their lovers and then died before they could wed, emerge from their graves at night to seek vengeance on any man who happens upon them. Théophile Gautier, a poet and leader of the Romantic movement in the French art world, discovered the legend in the writings of German poet Heinrich Heine and decided it would make a beautiful ballet. He enlisted playwright Jules-Henri Vernoy de Saint-Georges to help him translate the eerie tale into a theatrical production. Together with composer Adolphe Adam, these collaborators produced an instant success: Giselle, ou les Wilis.
San Francisco Ballet first presented Giselle in 1947, courtesy of Anton Dolin, a former dancer with Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, The Royal Ballet, and Ballet Theatre (now American Ballet Theatre), who had formed a touring company with Alicia Markova. But it wasn’t until 1999, when Artistic Director & Principal Choreographer Helgi Tomasson re-created the Romantic classic, that SF Ballet’s dancers could call it their own.
Dolin’s version, based on the original, featured himself and Markova in the lead roles, with SF Ballet dancers filling out the ranks. Portions of Giselle returned to the Company’s repertory in 1965 (the peasant pas de deux) and 1975 (the grand pas de deux, again performed by guest artists). Twenty-four years later, Tomasson gave his dancers a new production in which they, not guest artists, would dance the leading roles.
“New,” however, is a relative term. Tomasson tailored a Giselle that remains true to the original story and its themes of love, betrayal, and forgiveness. Like many productions, it retains most of the Coralli/Perrot choreography, handed down largely thanks to Marius Petipa, who restaged Giselle in classic form in St. Petersburg in 1884. Over the years, though, choreographers have taken creative license with the ballet, placing Giselle in an insane asylum, for example (Mats Ek’s production for Cullberg Ballet), or setting the action in Louisiana, where the Wilis haunt the bayou rather than the forest (Frederic Franklin’s version for Dance Theatre of Harlem).
More than 100 years after its premiere, Giselle became dear to the heart of a young Icelandic dancer, Helgi Tomasson. “I fell in love with that ballet,” he says. “I loved dancing Albrecht.” He danced in four productions, with four companies: Erik Bruhn’s for the Royal Danish Ballet, Alicia Alonso’s at the Paris Opéra Ballet (with Noëlla Pontois), David Blair’s for American Ballet Theatre, and Anton Dolin’s at National Ballet of Iceland. “When I set out to mount the ballet,” Tomasson says, “I tried to bring my love for it to the stage.”
Tomasson retained much of Dolin’s approach to the ballet, which was filtered down from Alicia Alonso, Olga Spessivtseva, and Alicia Markova. “A lot of things Dolin had spoken about came into my mind as I was working on this production, particularly the way he interpreted Albrecht,” Tomasson says. “He made him more noble, aristocratic. It’s because of circumstances that he leaves Giselle in the first act; it’s not his choice. He realizes how much in love with her he is.”
Maria Kochetkova and Joan Boada in Tomasson's Giselle (© Erik Tomasson)
Tomasson recalls how Dolin talked about images and “showed the movement. Like when he was on the bench with Giselle—how he would stand, how he would be with her.” Tomasson speculates about why Albrecht might be drawn to Giselle: “Is it because he doesn’t care for the superficiality of the court? Is that what led him away? And her innocence, her joy of life—she wasn’t pretending to be someone else. Maybe that’s what he fell in love with first.” Making Albrecht a sympathetic character enhances the poignancy of the love story.
Though Tomasson, a self-described traditionalist, wanted to honor Giselle’s history, he recognizes that dancers and audiences change over time; consequently, he looked for ways to update the ballet while remaining true to the original style and intent. Such choreographic fine-tuning is like walking a tightrope: you want to engage new audiences without alienating those who know and love the tradition imbued in the classics. Some changes you make “because of what you have around you,” says Tomasson. “We have fabulous male dancers these days, in many companies. Is there a way to incorporate them [more fully] into the production and still have it make sense?”
Tomasson felt compelled to give his men more to do. To expand Albrecht’s dancing role, he made a pas de deux for Giselle and Albrecht in the first act; he set it to a portion of the original score that had fallen out of use, thinking it appropriate to reinstate it. “To me, Albrecht wanted to show off for Giselle, and how would he do that?” Tomasson says. “In ballet, he would dance. The music was there, so why not do that?” He also changed the Act I peasant pas de deux to a pas de cinq. After all, he reasoned, there were dancers he wanted to feature, and it made sense that a dance that celebrates friendship and the harvest would include more people. “[George Balanchine] always said to me, ‘Use what you’ve got,’ ” Tomasson says. “And I have wonderful dancers.”
To perform Giselle well requires impeccable technique and the ability to immerse oneself in the characters that occupy an “otherworld”—a world in which undead brides-to-be fly through the forest at night and make strong men dance to their deaths. Whether audiences connect emotionally with the fantastic story—and thus come to care about that world’s inhabitants— depends largely on the choices made by the choreographer, and the dancers as well.
Giselle is famous for its difficult footwork, balances, and virtuoso sequences—all done, if you’re Giselle or Myrtha (Queen of the Wilis), while looking otherworldly, weightless, and alternately serene, vengeful, or sad. But character is equally important. Giselle, in the course of a brief intermission, leaves her naïve girlhood behind and becomes a mature, loving wraith/woman capable of forgiving Albrecht for his betrayal. Albrecht can be played as a conniving cad or, as Tomasson prefers, a misguided, earnest young man in love, confused and frustrated by the social limitations imposed on him by nobility. And the outwardly heartless Myrtha must find a shred of humanity in her no-longer-human form that allows her to hesitate when Giselle pleads for Albrecht’s life. Without this kind of emotional depth from the dancers, the characters become flat and distant.
For Principal Dancer Maria Kochetkova, Giselle stands apart from other classical ballets because of the profound changes the central character goes through. “It’s more than a fairy tale,” Kochetkova says. “It’s much deeper; the story is much more intense. It’s a drama.” She calls Aurora in The Sleeping Beauty, for example, “only one person,” while in Giselle “you get to be so different, from the peasant girl into the mad scene and then into the ghost creature. It’s such an amazing story to live onstage.”
Kochetkova wasn’t quite as enthusiastic the first time she was asked to dance the role, at age 19. When Vyacheslav Gordeyev invited her to perform Giselle with the Russian State Ballet in St. Petersburg, she turned him down. “It’s not me. I don’t know how to do it. It’s not my kind of role,” she told Gordeyev. Eventually she acquiesced. During rehearsals in London, Tamara Rojo, then a principal dancer with The Royal Ballet (now artistic director of English National Ballet), told Kochetkova to watch the film Dancer in the Dark, in which Björk portrayed a woman going blind.
Björk’s performance—of a woman desperate to maintain her life despite her loss of sight—influenced Kochetkova’s interpretation of the mad scene in Giselle. “I didn’t want to be a madwoman running around,” she says. “I didn’t want it to be scary; I wanted people to feel sorry for her.” To further flesh out the character, Kochetkova watched interviews and programs and read books about Giselle. “You need to know all the background in your head,” she says, “who she is, how she feels, not just that she’s a peasant girl. You need to know where she was yesterday and what she did a year ago, how she is with Hilarion and Albrecht.”
Now, years later, Kochetkova says she sees Giselle completely differently. “The more you do it and the more you study, the more you understand,” she says. She equates revisiting a role to rereading a book. “Sometimes you understand, but not quite, and you have to read it a second time. And it becomes so suddenly clear for you. That’s how I feel with Giselle.” The first time she danced the role she grappled with the technique. Later, as her understanding of the character grew, the steps became natural. “It’s suddenly so clear—that’s why I plié here, that’s why I turn my head to him here,” she says. “It all makes sense. The steps are the way to express whatever you do onstage. I feel like every single step is genius. Everything is in the music; it leads you into each mood. You come on in the first scene and it leads you into the rest of the ballet.”
Of particular note is a deep penché (forward-leaning) arabesque in the second act. Giselle is surrounded by lines of immobile Wilis, and the stillness of the moment can make the choreography seem daunting. The penché comes out of a turn, creating one long, sustained balance. To Kochetkova, it’s absolutely necessary because it prepares the dancer for the action to come. “It puts you into the mood for the second act, because you have to be so concentrated and quiet. You really have to control it. It’s so quiet, so slow. It’s like a transition—it transmits me into a different world. I know it’s scary, I know it’s hard, but I feel like that’s the whole point. It makes total sense for me in the choreography.” She smiles and adds, “Apart from that, it looks quite beautiful when you don’t wobble!”
Choreography conveys character, which, according to Kochetkova, comes from each individual. “It’s the same steps, but the story can be so different—what’s behind it, how the ballerina feels,” she says. “It’s personal. That’s why this ballet stays for centuries now.”
According to Ballet Master Katita Waldo, who danced Myrtha when she was a principal dancer in the Company, Tomasson gives his dancers plenty of freedom to interpret their roles. “He tries to find what will work for you, to bring out whatever is in you that will be this character,” says Waldo. She describes Myrtha as “complex” and the role as “technically brutal.” “She has to be very commanding, and that’s the hardest part, because you’re exhausted—it’s so technically demanding.” The leader of the Wilis has to be “one huge, powerful thing,” Waldo says. Yet underneath Myrtha’s bitterness and desire for vengeance, there’s “a glimmer of the young girl she was. The love that Giselle and Albrecht have for each other is so big that it lightens something in her.”
That love is dramatized in a pivotal moment at the beginning of the second act. When Giselle enters, at first Albrecht can’t see her; he only senses that something’s there. Gradually he realizes that what he senses is Giselle’s presence. As they dance together, the girl he betrayed becomes real to him. Their deep devotion, so powerful that it transcends even death, makes audiences, like Giselle, forgive Albrecht. By the time a devastated Albrecht throws himself on Giselle’s grave, viewers have fallen under the spell of this eternal love story.
Program notes by Cheryl A. Ossola