San Francisco Ballet returned to the stage of Beijing’s National Center for Performing Arts this week, as part of the company’s second visit to China, with Helgi Tomasson’s Giselle. Dancing Giselle is Yuan Yuan Tan, a Shanghai-trained Chinese dancer who has been performing with San Francisco Ballet for 20 years now. Her return to the Chinese stage (the company first toured China in 2009) brought enthusiastic Beijingers out in hordes on Friday night. 

The first sighting of fresh-faced Giselle was hugely anticipated. Not only was the Chinese audience dying to see Tan, but displays of love from the huntsman Hilarion (Pascal Molat) and Albrecht disguised as Loys (Tiit Helimets) ramped up levels of expectancy. Her beautiful dancing was worth the wait.

Tan exuded energetic youthfulness, seeming utterly carefree at every turn as the entire village appeared to watch her. Helimets’ love for her seemed to bounce off every face in their stage audience, radiating forth into the auditorium. Tan’s strong acting ability helped maintain her girlish charm throughout their initial meetings. Her Giselle was a bright, young thing, despite the dancer's aristic maturity, until the moment she understood who her young love really was. Discovering Loys is really Duke Albrecht throws her into a mad fit of grief, as she understands that they can never overcome the obstacles of class that separate them. Giselle grew visibly older as Tan’s loose hair flew out around her face while she searched desperately for some way to unbreak her heart. The moments before her death were truly moving.

One highlight of the first act was Esteban Hernandez and Wei Wang’s performances during the pas de cinq. The pair outshone their three female counterparts, both in energy and technical aptitude. Hernandez in particular danced with such flair that he seemed almost buoyant. Every step was graceful, every jump elevated, and he melted softly into the floor with every landing. 

The second act far outweighed the first. Myrtha, Queen of the Wilis (Sofiane Sylve), floated across a stage blanketed with mist. Sylve commanded the stage powerfully as the veiled Wilis emerged and filled the stage. Soloists Wan Ting Zhao and Sasha De Sola were compelling – De Sola in particular has a beautiful port de bras.

The disconcerting masse of white wilis formed a ring around the now helpless Hilarion, trapping him as they spun around him. He could be seen in flashes between the Wilis as though caged in Muybridge’s Zoopraxiscope. Worn out by relentless dancing, Hilarion’s death was a relief. 

Called from her grave, Tan was a marvelous second act Giselle. Her waif-like thinness and ethereal dancing are perfect for the haunting Wilis. Every movement had a depth of sincerity to it that added a mournful dynamic – even her expressive hands were melancholy.

The talented Helimets shone brilliantly in act two. Not only were his solo moments filled with intense emotion, the partnering between he and Tan seemed more comfortable. The first act hinted at just the tiniest discordance between them. Where Helimets had seemed a little overbearing in the opening act, his mourning Albrecht was both powerful and sensitive.

Helgi Tomasson’s San Francisco Ballet radiates confidence. Their sureness of foot provides the grounds for self-assurance, while the relaxed port de bras,and port de têtes project ease on stage. The San Francisco Ballet orchestra, conducted by Martin West, played wonderfully throughout.