All of San Francisco’s mercurial chill was forgotten on Feb. 25 as crowds gathered at the War Memorial Opera House to witness one of classical ballet’s most infamous romantic works. The San Francisco Ballet’s matinee performance of “Giselle,” choreographed and produced by Helgi Tomasson, follows the story of its titular heroine through the throes of first love, betrayal and supernatural drama.
A swirling melody floats from the orchestra pit as the gilded curtains rise on an idyllic German village, the set entrenched in layers of painted foliage. Cradled in the arms of the town’s warm community, Jasmine Jimison’s charming rendition of Giselle figures in lively leaps and captivating footwork. Her encounter with Count Albrecht (Esteban Hernández), in disguise as a peasant named Loys, immediately sparks the incendiary beginnings of a whirlwind romance, its bright comedy and tender intimacies warmed by the dancers’ effusive movements. Jealous of their connection and in love with Giselle, the troublemaking gamekeeper Hilarion (Alexander Reneff-Olson) is characterized particularly impeccably, with Reneff-Olson’s brash sneers and striding tenacity rocking the lovers’ boat.
As Giselle and Loys fall deeper in love, a noble hunting party — complete with the flamboyantly dressed Duke of Courtland (Val Caniparoli), his daughter Bathilde (Juliana Bellissimo) and a shaggy live borzoi — arrive at the village just in time to witness the spirited jig of the ballet’s effervescent pas de cinq (Olivia Brothers, Thamires Chuvas, Elizabeth Powell, Alexis Francisco Valdes, Mingxuan Wang). It is here that the company’s costuming boasts its creativity and variation, juxtaposing the villagers’ rustic, nude-palletted attire against the royals’ maximalist jewel-toned resplendence. Giselle, clothed in a quaint robin egg blue, shines against the multivariate canvas of her surroundings.
The well-loved “Giselle,” though a longtime classic, is not immune to the SF Ballet’s creative twists on tried-and-true tradition. The pas de cinq in Act I, originally a pas de deux, expands the number of dancers on stage to enhance the ballet’s overarching theme of harvest and community. Meanwhile, Tomasson remobilizes a portion of the music that had fallen into disuse, fashioning it into a pas de deux that allows extra space for Albrecht’s character to flaunt his panache. The production’s intermeshing of classical convention and creative license is executed seamlessly, evincing its showrunners’ well-practiced artistic sensibilities.
Ominous woodwinds and a distant tolling bell furnish the opening of Act II as the stage unveils a wall of gnarled trees. Inspired by the German legend of the Wilis — the mystical, vengeful spirits of maidens betrayed by their lovers — the ballet’s second half delves into the realm of the paranormal. Tendrils of fog obscure a cavernous forest as a ghostly, airborne dancer soars across the woods, the underbrush receding to reveal the lone figure of the Wilis queen Myrtha (Sasha Mukhamedov). Arching and folding across the midnight stage, her dancing emits a captivating luminosity, as if embodying a spotlight in and of herself.
The scene only grows more unearthly as the queen is joined by her Wilis subjects. Spiderweb-like tulle draped on their heads like spectral wedding veils, while the dancers’ formation spins a phantasmal mirage onstage. Their moonlit bodies configure into grand, flowing shapes and suspended arabesques, forming mirror halves that inched toward each other in mesmerizing synchronicity. Alongside the imperious Myrtha, whose draconian regality was amplified with each sweep of Mukhamedov’s arms, Thamires Chuvas and Norika Matsuyama enchant the theater with enthralling solos.
At the ballet’s zenith, the dancers’ technical prowess is more evident than ever. Hernández’s powerful leaps grant Albrecht avian flight, while Jimison’s airy twirls drench Giselle in gossamer pearlescence. Each pirouette is a study in balanced precision, eliciting impressed applause with each elegant rotation. The palpitating tension of the climax erupts as Jimison’s desperate acrobatics come to a head against Mukhamedov’s unrelenting commands, the suspense of the audience’s held breaths harmonizing with the orchestra’s climbing urgency.
As Hernández tugs heartstrings at the program’s final wretched scene, the music fades and the curtains fall to deafening applause. Equal parts heartrending, disquieting and whimsical, SF Ballet’s spellbinding production crafts an incandescent performance to remember, varnished in a dreamlike aesthetic of otherworldly mythos.