January 26, 2014
War Memorial Opera House

It was good to discover much more about new San Francisco Ballet principal Mathilde Froustey in her “Giselle” debut here Sunday. She certainly drew instant adoration from the sold-out matinee audience—the standing ovation was overwhelming—and for good reason. She is not only an effortless technician, but a natural actress, and this made her Act One a nailbiter. As a peasant girl, she was all naïve sweetness, but no coyness—and this meant, wonderfully, we worried for her as that rascal Count Albrecht convinced her that the flower petals wouldn’t lead to “he loves me not.”

I especially enjoyed the looseness in Froustey’s neck throughout the group dances as Albrecht swung her side to side—she let go, in a swoon, far too trusting. And yet when it came time for the show-off steps, Froustey was bold, so much so that she almost tottered off pointe in a long balance on her second big arabesque. Soon enough, she was making the toughest feats look like child’s play, just like they should, taking springy hops with those little rond de jambe en l’air (when Giselle bounces on pointe while twirling one leg around in front of her) and lifting her hands high from Albrecht’s arm to show the unsupported attitude before her big penchee plunge. Froustey sailed through the flute solo as though on a continuous breeze, buoyed by the marvelous playing of Principal Flutist Barbara Chaffee.

“Giselle” presents considerable choices to the ballerina: Does Giselle die of a weak heart or emotional trauma or both, and if so, how do the two causes connect? Froustey’s interpretation is a work in progress. Her first gasp of heart-weakness was dramatic, yet within minutes all physical weakness disappeared. Her mental break after Albrecht’s unveiling as a two-timing playboy was sharp—shades of Ophelia as she staggered, but staggering and leaping with strength, as though Froustey forgot to dim her technical power. No ambiguity here: Froustey’s Giselle died from madness, not heart palpitations. (But not before swinging Albrecht’s sword especially wide, and catching Bathilde’s skirt. Froustey stayed in character—riiiipp!—and the most expensive costume in the production got torn in two.)

Froustey’s Act Two appears even more under construction. Again with the wonderful head and neck, and the impressive penchees—but she has not yet carved her own phrasings into this much-trod choreography. And she seems to be figuring out what she wants to achieve by way of optical illusions. Some ballerinas can make those odd feet-tucked under jumps look less like steps and more like some gust is eerily batting them about the stage like a cottonball. For Froustey, at this early juncture, the steps still look like steps.

It was also good to see new soloist Simone Messmer in her first Myrtha, Queen of the Wilis at SF Ballet (she has previously danced the role at American Ballet Theatre). Like Froustey, Messmer seems technically infallible, and she projected Myrtha’s brittle resolve in her decisive head and neck. But she does not yet create the pathos of Sofiane Sylve, the best Myrtha I’ve seen at SF Ballet. How she accomplishes it I’m not quite sure, but in Sylve’s rendering you see not just Myrtha’s angry strength, but the hurt that drives it. It’s heartbreaking.

Which goes to prove: Though Froustey and Messmer repeat their roles on Friday, you really can’t go wrong with any cast in this “Giselle” run. Lorena Feijoo dances it in the rounder Romantic style she learned at the National Ballet of Cuba, while Yuan Yuan Tan’s willowy lines make for an otherworldly second act. Vanessa Zahorian imbues the role with unmatched clarity, and Sarah Van Patten gives it unparalleled naturalism, while Maria Kochetkova may remain the most fully realized Giselle in the company. And among the Albrechts, too, there are varying strengths to be savored. Allan Ulrich reports that Davit Karapetyan builds a fully fleshed character, something Tiit Helimets did not do on Sunday—but oh what a thrill to see those trembling feet on his terrified entrechats!

The corps looks superb, especially in Act Two. And there’s always a revelation or two to behold in the Act One peasant pas de cinq. On Sunday, it was corps member Wei Wang landing double tours with air time to spare, and using a juicy plié to power the most perfect pirouettes I can imagine.

PS: Here’s a great interview with Froustey, freshly arrived in SF.

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