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Five Minute MFA: Giselle

What you need to know about the San Francisco Ballet's tragic new show. 

Yuan Yuan in Giselle

Yuan Yuan in Giselle 


Giselle, the tragic story of a peasant girl who rescues her true love from beyond the grave, has been a mainstay of classical ballet for 170-plus years. You, however, know next to nothing about it but still want to see San Francisco Ballet’s production. Fear not, intrepid ballet ignoramus: Just throw out these informed-sounding comments during the intermission chatter and let the ensuing debate educate you.

“Who do you think has had the stronger influence: the French, the Russians, or the Americans?”
Giselle was originally composed for the Paris Ballet and premiered in 1841, perpetuating the vogue for ballet blanc (in which female dancers wear only white). But it was an even bigger hit in Russia, and that version is the one that was associated with the title for decades. Fifteen years ago, S.F. Ballet’s Helgi Tomasson choreographed this production, which has been part of the ballet’s programming ever since.

“The subtle interplay between the ballet and operatic musical conventions is particularly delightful.”
Composer Adolphe Adam was noted for his work in opera as well as ballet. For Giselle, he borrowed freely from musical styles common in French operas of the time: Quadrilles, waltzes, polaccas, and tarantellas are all distinct in the orchestration.

“i hope that the critics treat Yuan Yuan gently this time.”
This is Yuan Yuan Tan’s 20th year with the San Francisco Ballet and her 18th as a principal dancer. Though she is widely well received, her previous outings as Giselle (three since 2008) were criticized as too robust and lively for a dying woman.

Originally published in the February issue of San Francisco

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