Heather Desaulniers

San Francisco Ballet
San Francisco, War Memorial Opera House
February 24th, 2023 

San Francisco Ballet fans know Giselle. More specifically, they know this particular Giselle. Choreographed by former Artistic Director Helgi Tomasson, the two-act narrative premiered almost twenty-four years ago (April 8th, 1999). Since then, the ballet has frequently been part of the company’s season; so, Bay Area audiences are very familiar with the story, the costumes, the sets and the movement variations. Even the major roles have been similarly cast in recent years. 

Sasha De Sola and Aaron Robison in
Tomasson’s Giselle
Photo Lindsay Thomas

Yet, with all those layers of familiarity, if you were present on opening night, you can attest that something special happened on the War Memorial stage. Something unexpected. Perhaps even magical. It was the newness that Sasha De Sola and Aaron Robison brought debuting as Giselle and Count Albrecht. The fresh atmosphere was undeniable – energy, technique, dramatic portrayals – and it brought such life to the recognizable choreography. The performances that follow (Giselle is onstage until March 5th) will also feature new Giselles and Albrechts, so it’s a good bet that this updated spirit will thrive throughout the ballet’s run. 

At the start of Act I, Robison injected complex notes of curiosity, mischief and defiance into his Albrecht, while De Sola was the embodiment of innocence and joy. Her famous balleté sequence had such levity, and anytime Robison jumped in the air (whether batterie or a full split jump), he defied gravity. All footwork was delicate, precise and so evocative of Romantic ballet. 

As Act I’s village scene continued, the nobility of the land joined the festivities, leading way to the Peasant Pas de Cinq. This collection of enchaînments was truly glorious. Certain. Confident. Especially the solo variations by Max Cauthorn and Hansuke Yamamoto. Then, the mad scene. De Sola’s approach to this difficult moment in the ballet was different, and for me, better and more believable. She had a way of keeping the innocence and naivete of the character, while letting her unravel. Other portrayals tend to morph Giselle into another being entirely. The throughline that De Sola established in that instant was so effective; it was creepier, to be sure, but that part of Act I should be somewhat creepy. 

The first half can feel a bit lengthy, and as a dog enthusiast, I have to say that it seems a good idea to leave the dog out of the picture. The dog looked scared. I realize the pup is there to reinforce the state of the nobility, but I think their costumes and general air make it clear who they are.

San Francisco Ballet in
Tomasson’s Giselle
Photo Lindsay Thomas

Onto Act II, the forest, the Wilis and their Queen, Myrtha (another SFB debut by the phenomenal Nikisha Fogo). Myrtha’s every arabesque had a decidedly darting quality to it, like her entire being was transformed into an arrow or sword. Fogo wowed as this relentless, almost mechanical character. I’ve seen her primarily dance ‘sunnier’ roles with SFB, but here, her commanding, domineering presence showed viewers she has the range to do it all. De Sola and Robison continued to impress, technically and dramatically, every moment they were on stage. Choreographic extremes abounded. Loftiness and ballon met with an intricate celebration of the lower leg extension. The abundance of assemblé (a step that means ‘to join’) in Giselle and Albrecht’s pas de deux was poetic. And it was fantastic to see how Robison let his movements and phrase material respond to the Wilis’ snare. 

The corps was solid and convincing as this ghostly group. Boureés positively floated; poses were appropriately sober, yet dynamic. The famed arabesque crossing was well-done, save for a few extensions that were too high, compared to everyone else.

It is close to a quarter century old, but this production of Giselle pointed the SFB community to the future. Different perspectives, different interpretations, different triumphs. I, for one, can’t wait to see what’s next.