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The Arts
November 15-21, 2006

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The village: Things are not what they seem in the bucolic world of 'Giselle.'

Way-Out Wilis

Ballet San Jose tip-toes through the graveyard for classic dance drama 'Giselle'

By Marianne Messina

REHEARSING the role of Hilarion from Giselle, for Ballet San Jose's upcoming production, lead dancer Maximo Califano exits the rehearsal floor breathing heavily, moisture trickling down his face—but smiling. "They're so mean to me," he says. The dervishlike ensemble of ghostly dancers called "Wilis" (affianced girls who've died before their weddings—from dancing, go figure) has just tossed Hilarion off a cliff after forcing him, by way of ghostly magic, to dance to exhaustion. Naturally, this walk-through rehearsal has no cliff and only the barest of carry-on props, like sprigs of rosemary for the Wilis' Queen Myrtha to carry (new company dancer Haley Henderson looking regal and cold).

Though Henderson's sightless stare and rigid form project a remote power, her delicate entourage hardly seem ominous. And the broad daylight of rehearsal hall makes it hard to envision the midnight graveyard that has swallowed a childlike Giselle (Karen Gabay) after her death (from dancing) at the end of Act 1.

But lighting designer Kenneth Keith sees the place in all its eeriness. The Wilis' sinister nature and the graveyard's haunting aura will come partly from white costumes moving against dark set pieces. "In lighting, sometimes it's the lack of light that is important," Keith explains. "Not that there aren't numerous lighting units used to achieve the effect."

Keith sketches out the plan. "The leads will be follow-spotted, which allows the stage as a whole to have that sense of darkness needed." Given the contrast created by white dresses in darkness, "directed light from the sides, and texture from the top in shades of blue ... will create the total look." Sounding in his description like a skilled painter, Keith puts final touches to his vision with ground fog "to add to the feeling of 'chill'" and a few other "flashes of surprise." For Gabay, reprising the role after 13 years, Giselle shows her innocence in this scene by protecting "the one responsible for her broken heart."

Ballet San Jose's resident costume director, Maggie Heaman, works to complete the graveyard picture. "I am very eager to see what Act 2 looks like onstage," she says. "The costumes on the women are actually the same white dresses that we used last season for Les Sylphides, differently accessorized. But the mood of the scene is so different that the look will have a whole other connotation."

Heaman is in the frenzied process of fitting all the costumes to perfection. "Fitting is the most important thing that there is," Heaman declares. "Even the most beautifully designed costume will not be successful if it doesn't fit the dancer perfectly." Costumes brought from Boston Ballet bring with them fitting issues. "For the eight village women, most of our company is taller than the Boston Ballet dancers in those roles."

Other performers are shorter than those in the original costumes, which puts Heaman in a whirl of hems going up and down, trim going on and coming off. For the nondancing extras, which could normally be a motley group of shapes and sizes, the company had to put out a call for people with the lean bodies of dancers. "When we unpacked the costumes, we realized that Boston Ballet must have used dancers, because those costumes are small sizes! So because of the costumes, we got this great group of people, who bring so much enthusiasm to the production."

Talking to the creative team always reveals a delightful anticipation for the final performance, with all the collaborative pieces put together. But watching a rehearsal has its own rewards. At a performance, you only get to see one of the performers who alternate each role, but in rehearsal, you get to see two Hilarions, one on the dance floor, the other in the waiting area (Califano and Daniel Gwatkin), doing their jumps and spins like mirror images.

Ballet San Jose presents Giselle, Thursday-Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 1:30pm at the San Jose Center for the Performing Arts, 255 Almaden Blvd., San Jose. Tickets are $25-$78. (408.288.2800)

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