The history made in San Jose’s Center for the Performing Arts Friday night was twofold, as a newly rebranded Silicon Valley Ballet – formerly Ballet San Jose – presented Alicia Alonso’s Giselle. This marks the first time a US ballet company has performed this esteemed Cuban staging, based on the 1841 original by Jules Perrot and Jean Coralli. At 93, the iconic Alonso, whose own Giselle interpretation won her great acclaim, is still director of the Ballet Nacional de Cuba. Silicon Valley Ballet’s Cuban-born artistic director, José Manuel Carreño, danced this 1948 version as his first and self-professed favorite Giselle production. Amid expanding relations between Cuba and the US, the timing for this production couldn’t have felt more appropriate. 

Giselle gives us a peasant girl with a weak heart whose love for disguised nobleman Albrecht proves devastating when his duplicity – and betrothed – are revealed to her, causing her to go mad with grief and die. Thereafter, Giselle is consigned to the spirit world to forever mourn her loss as one of the Willis; jilted maidens who died before their wedding day and now haunt the forest, exacting their revenge on hapless men who wander, dancing them to their deaths.

Alexsandra Meijer, as Giselle, delivered a stirring performance throughout the evening, high-spirited and smiling in the first act, with clean footwork and beautiful arabesque lines. A late cast change paired her with newcomer principal Brett Bauer, as Albrecht, after Yoel Carreño, principal with the Norwegian National Ballet, was forced to cancel. Bauer, a former principal with the Oregon Ballet Theatre, made the most of this bigger-than-expected company debut. With his long limbs, great elevation in his jump, strong feet and impressive, feather-soft landings, he offered a solid, if occasionally uneven performance, sometimes more forceful than regal. Hilarion, the local gamekeeper secretly in love with Giselle, was played with a powerful theatrical presence by artistic director Carreño. Act 1 takes place as the villagers gather to celebrate the end of harvest, dance and make merry. Amid this, the arrival of the Duke, a poised Raymond Rodriguez, and his hunting party brings greater color and pageantry to the scene. Ommi Pipit Suksun, as the Duke’s daughter Bathilde – Albrecht’s actual betrothed – was deliciously haughty and mildly benevolent toward the smiling Giselle.

While the staging remains faithful to the original version, Alonso has replaced the peasant pas de deux with a pas de dix – six women and four men – a fine opportunity here to showcase more of the dancers. Hand flourishes and clapping within the variations provide a spirited Cuban touch. The strong sense of ensemble and attention to detail throughout credit not just the dancers, but Ballet Nacional de Cuba stagers Loipa Araúo and Svetlana Ballester, whose investment and hours of rehearsing the dancers in the Cuban company’s unique style (emphasis on softer arms, subtle nuances, attention to detail) has yielded impressive results. 

A jealous Hilarion finally reveals to Giselle Albrecht’s double identity, which abruptly sends the celebration to a dark place, culminating with Giselle’s breakdown and death, which Meijer depicted admirably. Karen Gabay, as well, brought both heart and heartbreak into her role as Giselle’s mother.

Act II opens with spectacular effect: a spooky midnight glade with curls of fog and dead tree branches curling outward. Amy Marie Briones as Myrtha, Queen of the Willis, was brilliantly imperious, decisive in her dancing. A set of grandes sissonnes ouvertes down a diagonal demonstrated the crispness of her focus, her port de bras. As in Act I, the quality of the ensemble work proved notable. As Willis, these dancers were impeccable, intimidating, with the two lead Willis, Jing Zhang and Cindy Huang, taking the quality one step higher.

Giselle reappears, now as a Willi. Meijer’s bourrés, skimming across the stage, were tight, fleet, and mesmerizing to watch. Her dancing in this act, while vibrant with the energy the choreography requires, remained ethereal, unapproachably beautiful. Here the chemistry between her and Bauer seemed less forced, more sorrowfully heartfelt. Their adagio pas de deux was pure beauty, one of the evening’s tender highlights. 

A production of Giselle requires a lot: costumes, setting, lights, staging, all of which comes with a price tag. A few aspects of this production were hit and miss. The first act's set, while charming, occasionally produced a wobbling tree, and a backdrop rendition of a castle high on a hill lacked sophistication. Supernumeraries looked under-rehearsed. Recorded music leached Adolphe Adams’ luscious opening overture of its power. Fortunately, what truly mattered was there: top quality dancing and staging, and a committed effort from all to produce the finest rendition possible. In that, Silicon Valley Ballet has achieved its goal, and it bodes well for their new season, new persona.