Like Odette/Odile in “Swan Lake,” the title role in “Giselle” requires not only technical mastery but also (and more crucially) the ability to create two distinct visions onstage. In “Giselle,” the duty is even more burdensome: unlike Odette/Odile in “Swan Lake,” Giselle is one character. Her transformation from a lovestruck wisp to lovelorn wraith must seem natural and unforced, despite the melodramatic circumstances that led to it. This is a part for a ballerina who can dance her legs off while acting her heart out.
By those standards, Frances Chung succeeded brilliantly in her debut on Jan. 31 in this role. Though the San Francisco Ballet production looks and feels dated (especially the well-worn set and dowdy costumes of Act I’s storybook Rhineland), Chung injected an uncommon freshness to her portrayal of the maiden-turned-specter in artistic director Helgi Tomasson’s traditional staging of Adolphe Adam’s romantic ballet. As the titular peasant lass who falls for a count-in-disguise, dies of a weak (and broken) heart, and is transfigured as a haunted Wili, Chung’s penchés may not always have been 6 o’clock and her pirouettes piquées less than presto (owing to some sluggish conducting), but her on-point hops, delivered with admirable ballon in her Act I solo, telegraphed the exuberance of young love, just as the twirling arabesques in her Act II entrance conveyed the mad spiral of Giselle’s loss. Throughout, Chung made exquisite use of her arms to underscore emotion, her port de bras adding buoyancy and ethereal weightlessness to her evocation of both girl and woman. In her pantomime, she wisely opted for clarity and not overstatement; when she rested her head on an exhausted Albrecht’s shoulder in Act II, the serene sadness on her face was heartbreaking. Over the last decade, watching Chung progress through the corps and then soloist ranks and seeing her now as a mature and fully capable principal dancer have been among the distinct pleasures of following this company.
Another revelation was Sasha De Sola, debuting in the role of Myrtha, Queen of the Wilis. Myrtha demands a dancer of icy control, the better to project the bitterness of unrequited love among her ghostly subjects. From the moment De Sola crossed the stage in a perfect pas de bourrée couru to her exemplary execution of the next solo, she commanded eyes-transfixed attention, as much for her vengeful leaps as for the way she thrusted her chest in confronting intruders. In fact, it is that perfect épaulement that gave De Sola’s Myrtha such chilling imperiousness; exposing her long and regal neck, she appears poised to cut down any man who dares to challenge her will. This promising ballerina, promoted to soloist in 2012, is another one to watch. (The same should be said for Clara Blanco, also recently promoted to soloist; she added verve to the somewhat plodding peasant pas de cinq in Act I and then returned to perform some impressive turns as one of Myrtha’s attending Wilis.)
Among the men, Luke Ingham danced quite dashingly as Count Albrecht, the royal who pretends to be of lower station in order to woo Giselle. Taller than Chung by nearly a foot, he nevertheless partnered her fluidly and gracefully in Act I, and then cut loose in the grand pas de deux of Act II, his bouncing series of entrechats and jetés entrelacés garnering fervent applause. Ingham has been cited in the past for being too acrobatic, but his athleticism in this outing seemed suitably tamped down. Moreover, his characterization of Albrecht — not so much an entitled cad as a poor soul stuck in an unhappy alliance — gave his performance unexpected poignancy. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for James Sofranko, who danced Hilarion as if he were a sitcom creation, all shtick and little feeling. Granted, the role is thankless (he has his own unrequited thing for Giselle), and he gets much of the plot-moving pantomime, which he tends to overplay, delivering the gestures in broad, stilted strokes. To his credit, Sofranko redeems himself in Act II, creating the illusion of depletion as the Wilis dance him to death.
On the subject of Wilis, the beautiful ensemble work of the corps dancers must be noted. The precision these 24 young ballerinas exhibit is breathtaking, particularly in light of the fact that many of them expended considerable energy as the preternaturally jubilant peasants in Act I, making their poise and composure in Act II all the more remarkable. Such discipline is a credit to Tomasson and his assistant, Lola de Avila. Few scenes in ballet can summon the awe inspired when two groups of ballerinas, clad in white and advancing toward each other in intersecting arabesques, achieve the kind of symmetrical unison mid-stage that these young women do. It’s enough to raise the hair on the necks of anyone observing this otherworldly spectacle, and one of the wonders of this enduring ballet blanc.