I reviewed two casts of San Francisco Ballet’s Giselle for the San Francisco Classical Voice:

Giselle might have seemed merely an ordinary start to the San Francisco Ballet’s 78th season — a nice, now-familiar staging of this Romantic-era warhorse by Artistic Director Helgi Tomasson, a chance to glimpse new and newly promoted dancers in familiar roles — were it not for the sharply contrasting talents of two of the world’s most interesting ballerinas. Yuan Yuan Tan is Chinese, in her mid-30s, and so willowy as to be otherworldly, almost not human. Sarah Van Patten is American, in her mid-20s, a sensuous woman whose gift is to make every role she takes on flesh and blood.

The steady chance to compare these two outstanding artists — I shouldn’t cast this as a rivalry, though the idea is tempting — is as surprising a development in S.F. Ballet history as it is an enriching one. It all crystallized last year when the two dancers alternated in the lead of John Neumeier’s European Expressionist ballet The Little Mermaid (which repeats this season); both gave revelatory, breakthrough performances, but to see the always elegant Tan deform herself as the grotesque, titular sea creature proved more shocking than watching the always committed Van Patten flail with ungainly abandon. Then, this past weekend, the two were cast back-to-back as Giselle. Tan, for more than a decade one of the company’s biggest box office draws, had Saturday’s opening night. But Van Patten’s following is growing, and her debut in the iconic role sold out a Sunday matinee.

To be sure, Tan’s well-developed interpretation of steps burned into many balletomanes’ memories has plentiful pluses. She gives a spectacular second act, when the dead Giselle, transformed into a ghost of white gossamer, must defend her penitent Prince Albrecht from the vengeful forest Wilis.

The choreography of this act lends itself to contemporary extremes, and Tan works them, emphasizing 12 o’clock arabesque penchée (lifted leg straight to the sky in what dancers call the “ironing board” position), along with unfurling arms. ”

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1 Comment

  • tabatha Posted March 16, 2014 6:16 am

    I appreciate your comparison and wonder of you might update it. I saw Giselle with Sarah this season, and she played all the emotions including madness beautifully and had such energy as to dance like a ghost tirelessly and gracefully. Mranwhile I reaf in the paper Meanwhile I read in the paper that Juan Juan danced around as if she were happy and unfazed by Albrecht, so presumably that side of the equation is unchanged. Thank you for your time.

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