SAN FRANCISCO BALLET
The final scene that wasn't: Pierre-Francois Vilanoba and Joanna Berman.
"Giselle" has always been about the perilousness of dancing, its power to be both a pleasant diversion and a tool of destruction. Last night these themes gained added force. Near the end of the San Francisco Ballet's performance of "Giselle" at the Kennedy Center, Pierre-Francois Vilanoba, dancing the leading role of Albrecht, stumbled slightly after landing from a swift and difficult series of jumps. Rooted in place, he gestured subtly to the wings as if to say, "It's over." To his immense credit, Vilanoba never broke character.
Artistic Director Helgi Tomasson appeared to tell the Opera House audience that the ballet would not be finished. Backstage, a company representative reported that the dancer's injury was possibly to his Achilles' tendon.
It was a shattering ending to what had been a glorious performance. "Giselle" is the pinnacle of romantic ballet and most large companies have a version of the 150-year-old production in their repertoire. Tomasson's version, the first created expressly for the San Francisco Ballet, is imbued with freshness, immediacy and dramatic integrity.
The story follows tradition: Albrecht, a nobleman, has pledged his heart to Giselle, a frail peasant girl who loves to dance. He also happens to be engaged to the duke's daughter, however, and when Giselle discovers this, she goes mad with despair and dies. In the second act, her ghost joins a coven of wilis -- spirits of girls who have perished before their wedding day -- that rise at night to force any man they find to dance to his death. The wilis set upon Albrecht, who has come to mourn at Giselle's grave, but her eternal love protects him, and he is freed.
Tomasson enhances the poetic dimensions of the tale with several key additions to the traditional treatments. He has restored a moving and elaborate mime passage in the first act where Giselle's mother warns her daughter not to dance herself to exhaustion because the fearsome wilis may claim her if she dies.
He also expanded what is customarily a duet into a bright virtuoso dance for five peasants, adding music by Friedrich Burgmueller to fill out the Adolphe Adam score. Following this is another addition, a poignant duet for Giselle and Albrecht, where Giselle -- danced by Joanna Berman -- swept close to her suitor and then whirled out of his reach. She seemed already to be receding from this life.
These touches, augmented by splendid performances throughout, make for a feast of dancing, layered in emotional depth. Add to this Mikael Melbye's painterly set, costume and lighting designs and you have a ballet that is no historic reconstruction but a living, glowing testament to its own timelessness.
"Giselle" is a product of its times, when febrile imaginations could conjure hearts breaking and minds unraveling from betrayal, and a love that reaches beyond the grave. The characters don't behave like real people any more than do Catherine and Heathcliff in "Wuthering Heights." Bringing them to life in a compelling way, therefore, takes a certain emotional abandon, within the choreographic confines. Both Vilanoba, who seemed to seethe beneath his velvet, and veteran company member Berman had that in spades. Berman seemed to grow breathless just looking at Vilanoba and ready to burst with happiness when dancing with him. In her "mad" scene, she drew us right into her tangled mind.
Supporting roles were likewise superbly handled, especially Lorena Feijoo as a profoundly sad and implacable Myrtha, Queen of the Wilis.
You could almost smell the wood smoke in the air in Melbye's first-act set, a peak-roofed cottage amid trees just beginning to color; in the second act he evoked a densely overgrown forest touched by moonlight. As the curtain rose, one white-robed wili was seen to drift overhead -- an evocative touch that underscored this ballet's focus on flight -- and falls.
The ballet repeats this afternoon, tonight and tomorrow afternoon, with previously scheduled cast changes.