This weekend, I took a break from the endless process of setting up my new computer and watching Oscar hopefuls to attend the opening night of Giselle at the San Francisco Ballet. Although I have long appreciated the music, I had never seen the actual ballet live.

After being relatively disappointed with my last outing to the Nutcracker, I was glad to see the San Francisco Ballet kick it up a notch and deliver a stellar performance all around, particularly Yuan Yuan Tan in the title role. Apparently, the company is using multiple pairings throughout the run, so I’m glad we went to opening night and were able to see her. Giselle is such a demanding role, both technically (requiring exquisite balance and difficult footwork) and expressively (with the lead moving from naïve peasant girl, to someone driven mad by love, to a mature adult in the netherworld of the Wilis) that it is essential to have an experienced dancer.

One of the reasons I first sought out the ballet is that it was co-written by one of my favorite nineteenth-century authors, Théophile Gautier. Virtually unknown here in the States, Gautier is a jack-of-all-cultural-trades: painter, critic, poet, novelist, and dramatist. His most famous legacy is probably his espousal of the phrase “l’art pour l’art,” that is, art for art’s sake, or, as adapted for MGM’s Leo the Lion logo, Ars gratia artis. I love him for his supernatural short stories involving vampires, mummies, and all manner of ghostly appearances, which is probably why he was so attracted to the legend of the vengeful ghost-like Wilis.

The music helps enormously in telling the story, with a heavy use of leitmotif to heighten the drama. While not as overtly dramatic as something like Swan Lake, for me, Giselle is one of the strongest ballets in conveying the story through music. This may be because its composer, Adolphe Adam, was primarily a composer of operas. However, he did compose another ballet in the repertoire, Le Corsaire (ballet with pirates!), which I was lucky enough to see at Lincoln Center some years ago. Perhaps more familiar to readers, he was also the composer of the ultimate French Christmas carol, “Minuit, chrétiens” (“O Holy Night”). Léo Delibes, who composed Coppélia, the next story ballet in the San Francisco Ballet’s 2011 season, was his pupil. And, after this amazing performance, I’m very sad I won’t be able to see it.