San Francisco Ballet’s current season contains a good helping of world premières and 21st century creations. Yet, no work addresses contemporary issues as urgently as Giselle, which premièred in Paris 174 years ago. In the first Act, an entitled member of the 1% screws over a decent, ordinary girl, sending her to her early grave. Act II takes place in a dystopian forest policed by a gang of ghostly feminists who seek revenge on men. The ultimate tragedy in the second Act is that the wrong guy is punished, while the one-percenter lives to see another day – thanks to some heroic filibustering by the dead girl whom he screwed.

Maria Kochetkova and Vitor Luiz in Tomasson's <i>Giselle</i> © Erik Tomasson
Maria Kochetkova and Vitor Luiz in Tomasson's Giselle
© Erik Tomasson
The elfin Maria Kochetkova appears rather plain and stiff in Act I, particularly in contrast to the expressiveness and freshness of her friends Clara Blanco, Sasha De Sola and Koto Ishihara in the peasant pas de cinq. Helgi Tomasson’s reworking of the traditional peasant pas de deux is a triumph of lyrical and uncontrived dancemaking that reveals the communal pride of the inhabitants of this mythical German hamlet.

Among the other gems of Act I are Pascal Molat’s likeable and impetuous Hilarion, whose passion for Giselle goes unrequited, and Katita Waldo in the role of Berthe, Giselle’s mother. Hilarion may not be the brightest of young men, but his sense of justice, and his outrage at his rival Albrecht’s depravity make him the moral center of the ballet. In some interpretations, Hilarion is little more than a crude oaf, but the sensitive Molat has us clearly on his side. 

Berthe warns of the terrible fate that awaits her daughter if she keeps on dancing and falling in love with suspicious newcomers to the village. In her critical mime sequence, Waldo displays luxurious and powerful movements of the upper body and arms. Kochetkova, in contrast, lacks naturally beautiful upper body lines, on top of which her artificial coyness fails to convince us of the peasant girl Giselle’s unique charms. Her descent into madness at the end of Act I is an unconvincing tantrum.

Maria Kochetkova in Tomasson's <i>Giselle</i> © Erik Tomasson
Maria Kochetkova in Tomasson's Giselle
© Erik Tomasson
Casting misgivings are forgotten in Act II, however. Kochetkova’s somewhat ungainly proportions and her rigorous Bolshoi-honed technique produce a sensational, unearthly vision. She displays a fearlessness and consummate artistry from the moment her ghostly veil is whipped off her head by the imperious Myrtha, Queen of the Wilis, and she launches into a tornado of spinning hops in arabesque.

The revenant Kochetkova dances with an eerie abandon that redefines beauty in ballet. It is very clear in her interpretation that she transmits energy to the shattered Albrecht, and that she can no longer be possessed or manipulated by any man. In those moments when she is lifted by the steadfast Vitor Luiz, in the role of Albrecht, she appears to be floating or flying independently of his support; he is practically invisible (as all good partners of ballerinas should be.) Never once looking at Luiz, she showers him with white Easter lilies, a symbol of purity and hope, reinforcing the notion that she is an ephemeral force of nature, inhuman, uncontrollable.

Luiz shone throughout, as the sophisticated cad in Act I – finally struck with remorse and a realization of his true deep feelings for Giselle only after she stabs herself with his sword and expires in front of him – and the noble, anguished target of Myrtha’s rage in Act II, soaring through his final variations. (No amount of grandeur can hide the silliness of his Act II entrance, however, which required him to traverse the stage with glacial steps, wrapped in a voluminous velvet cloak, in appearance more like a parody of men in ballet by the campy Ballets Trockadero.)

Ultimately, Act II belongs to the beautiful Sofiane Sylve as Myrtha and the elegant corps de ballet women, impressively led by Sasha De Sola and Dores André, who show no mercy as they dispatch Hilarion. (It might be wise to employ a stage effect to indicate the lake upstage into which the Wilis toss his wasted body. Giselle neophytes who don’t understand Myrtha’s crossed-arm mime and who don’t read programme notes might think they were merely telling him to scram.) Sylve, with her lush, commanding movement, embodies the complexity of the mysterious terrorizing queen: grand, tragic and fierce. You would not want to meet her in a dark alley. Giselle stands up to her briefly, long enough to spare the life of Albrecht, but then recedes into the earth under the cross that marks her grave in the forest.

San Francisco Ballet in Tomasson's * Giselle © Erik Tomasson
San Francisco Ballet in Tomasson's * Giselle
© Erik Tomasson
The fact that Giselle is not buried in the village cemetery but in this gloomy forest implies that she and the Wilis are outcasts – not simply because they were jilted at the altar, but also because they had given up their virginity outside of marriage. (Why do programme note writers always avoid the seamy underbelly of these librettos?) The image of a mob of silent but powerful women identically draped in white, representing purity, righteousness, and incorruptibility, was inspired by the French tradition of the rosières and re born out of the fervor of the French Revolution; traditionally meant to be simple folk of the highest principles, they graced Revolutionary festivals and celebrations. The evolution of the corps de ballet ­– from male and female aristocrats (and Greco-Roman demigods), into ranks of pristine women in white – gathered steam after the French Revolution.

Art that celebrates the collective power of ordinary women who stand united against betrayal resonates in today's world, and Tomasson’s Giselle surely ranks as an exemplar of such art.

***11