Michael Pink’s reworking of Giselle for Milwaukee Ballet, based on a concept he and Christopher Gable set on Northern Ballet 20 years ago, may not be the most farfetched distortion of the 19th century Romantic classic: Mats Ek’s insane asylum and Michael Keegan-Dolan’s rape-and-incest gender-bender have outraged many Giselle traditionalists.

But Pink’s setting of the ballet in a 1940s Jewish ghetto, policed by armed guards, and the mass execution of ghetto inhabitants at the top of Act II, could touch a nerve.

Pink wisely retains scenes of ineffable beauty from the original Coralli-Perrot choreography – notably Giselle’s solos, and her pas de deux with Albrecht (now an army officer rather than a prince) in which she enacts her ritual of forgiveness and he transports her through her ethereal waftings. Pink’s own choreography is taut and compelling, echoing the minimalist vocabulary of the original. His theatrical framing of it all vividly paints the appalling inhumanity of the time, as well as the qualities of vengeance and mercy.

The production design mutes any Nazi references, although costuming vaguely suggests the era of occupied Europe. The setting was inspired by the Terezín ghetto near Prague, used by the SS as a holding camp for Jewish intellectuals, artists and musicians, many of whom were later sent to concentration camps and killing centers. Thus, Giselle’s idyllic hamlet becomes a scene of brutality and creative ferment. Pink’s theatrical choices also evoke other instances of mass persecution, of violence spawned by rabid intolerance, throughout history and in our own dark times.

Most likely to dismay Giselle purists is the transformation of Act II into an urban cemetery policed by the ghosts of the murdered community. No Wilis in long diaphanous tutus flying on wires through the air. No smoky mist emanating from a dry-ice machine. No powerful feminist statement by an all-female gang bent on exterminating every man who wanders onstage. And, most calamitous of all, no Myrtha, Queen of the Wilis – note: this reviewer’s favorite character in the whole ballet world.

The community is still bent on revenge, however, their rage naturally directed against Albrecht – not just for his betrayal of an innocent girl, but for his complicity in genocide. Costumed by Lez Brotherston in flowing white pyjamas, and led by the ghosts of Hilarion and Giselle’s mother, they express their hatred in a glorious contemporary vernacular that borrows from Martha Graham and Lester Horton.

The production is littered with marvelous, often chilling moments:

At the top of Act I, Hilarion, who had sneaked out of the ghetto to forage for food, climbs back over the fence, dodging police searchlights and gunfire to leave his meagre offerings at Giselle’s doorstep. 

The newcomer Albrecht, initially eyed with suspicion, is welcomed into the ghetto community after he joins in their communal dance of hope.

Albrecht’s true identity is revealed when a trio of little kids chance upon his military uniform (which he had hidden) and gleefully play dress-up, to the horror of the grown-ups.

Giselle’s swift descent into madness becomes entirely credible when the poor girl is not only confronted by her lover’s betrayal, but is also threatened at gunpoint by his fellow SS officers. 

Act II opens with the herding of the ghetto community to a point downstage where they are stripped of their personal belongings. The officers march upstage through the ranks of the shivering masses, then turn to face them – and us – before gunning them down. That we are also in the officers’ line of fire makes a profound statement.

After the carnage, Albrecht wanders in horror through the killing field, and stumbles upon Giselle’s grave marker. Gun in hand, he contemplates suicide, as the corpses on stage slowly stagger to life.

At the ballet’s close, Giselle sinks back into her grave, having won a reprieve for Albrecht. In shock, he retrieves his gun and stumbles downstage. He drops to his knees and slowly raises the gun, but the curtain falls before we know what he actually does with it.

On opening night, Luz San Miguel made a luminous, fragile Giselle, with soft, achingly beautiful lines, while Annia Hidalgo on the second night gave us a more quirky and brittle, but equally riveting, reading of the role. San Miguel displayed somewhat greater confidence and abandon in her whirlwind Act II opening solo, featuring those devilish spinning hops in arabesque. Partnering San Miguel, Davit Hovhannisyan made a poetic, noble Albrecht whereas Ryan Martin (with Hidalgo) gave a more edgy, explosive performance.

As the ghosts of Hilarion and Giselle’s mother in Act II, Patrick Howell and Valerie Harmon gave searing performances on opening night. Individual virtuoso qualities of each member of the ensemble, in both classical and contemporary sections, emerged throughout the evening – notably the male trio of Mengjun Chen, Barry Molina and Marc Petrocci, and the female trio of Marie Varlet, Alana Griffith and Jennifer Ferrigno.

Modernist breezes blow through Gavin Sutherland’s updating of Adolphe Adam’s score. Andrews Sill deftly marshals the Milwaukee Ballet Orchestra, including a terrific quintet of strolling musicians onstage.

Some elements of the staging need rethinking. Bathilde’s motivations and interaction with the community are not clearly telegraphed. And the zombie make-up for the dead is overdone; after the gruesome execution, we need no cosmetic reminder of these beings’ supernatural status.

Casts on both evenings received standing ovations. Hidalgo’s face as she bowed and acknowledged the roar of the crowd was priceless: stunned, wide-eyed, overwhelmed, as if she didn’t realize where she was or what she had done. She seemed to be coming out of a trance. A truly great Giselle will do that to you.