A Meditation on Giselle Casting
Maria Kochetkova and Vitor Luiz
© Eric Tomasson

A Meditation on Giselle Casting

San Francisco Ballet

Helgi Tomasson after Marius Petipa, Jules Perrot, Jean Coralli

San Francisco War Memorial Opera House

Jan. 29, 2015 (Opening Night)-Feb. 10, 2015

sfballet.org

Without Hilarion there is no “Giselle.” He is the crude gamekeeper whose manners may be wanting, but who never confuses right with wrong. He is the conscience and compass of this story ballet. Without him, it is the banal tale of a peasant girl who falls in love with a landed aristocrat. Hilarion has the backbone to weigh in when we, along with Giselle, are swept off our feet by the lustrous charms of Count Albrecht. He cautions us about the prevailing inviolable social hierarchy. Flouting it carries repercussions that go far beyond upsetting his own apple cart, in which, he’d hoped to carry Giselle off for himself.

Most Hilarions don’t recognize their own dramatic worth. They are too busy nursing a grudge because they haven’t been cast as Albrecht. They channel that dyspeptic annoyance into a scowling version of their character, harrumphing around the stage until the end of the first act, when Hilarion, saber in hand, challenges his rival in his most direct, not to mention balletic confrontation. Luckily, our Hilarion is Pascal Molat, an artist of many talents. Molat respects his character as much as he feels him. As Hilarion, he knows to the marrow of his bones the pivotal role he plays in flaying the romantic outer layer of the story from what underlies it: brutal mid-19th century distinctions of class. This is a tragedy that plays itself out in a clearing in the woods on a feudal estate.

Molat is the first one onstage. There he spends his brief moment establishing which class he’s from, revealing his desires, and via expertly-turned mime and a few knocks on a cottage door, pointing us toward the lovely Giselle, danced on opening night by the doll-like Maria Kochetkova.

Kochetkova brings a different sensibility to her role from that of her predecessors on the Opera House stage. She is not the plucked and plucky daisy that Joanna Berman brought forth, nor the coy Giselle that we’ve seen in Lorena Feijóo, nor the task-conscious lass that Vanessa Zahorian gives us, and neither is she the tormented soul Sarah Van Patten has danced. Rather, Kochetkova is the alert, somewhat petulant Giselle. She seems to be figuratively looking over her shoulder for the petal she rightfully suspects Albrecht of having tossed away, the better to crunch numbers in game of “loves me, loves me not.” That said, she is fascinating to watch. You can see the meticulous work she has invested into each step and every phrase, so that everything reads exactly as she wishes. No one will ever accuse her of arriving unprepared!

Kochetkova especially impresses in the mad scene, when she gradually enters into a trance state. It begins when she realizes that Albrecht has been double-dealing. The progression is seamless for the seamstress whose mime relays that she spins or sews. Indeed, she spins out a mimed recounting of how she not only sees but writes large, her own foolhardy complicity in Albrecht’s love-intoxicated scheming. How rare to see it rendered so evocatively in mime! In the heat of this climactic moment, with crowds of onlookers swirling about, she grabs the sword from the rival suitors fighting over who will be cock of the walk, and draws a line in the sand between herself and them. Her collapse and death is foreshadowed in her mother’s warnings, and one or two stumbling steps she takes to suggest a weakened heart.

The Act II curtain opens on Giselle’s grave in a copse amid a moonlit forest, where the Queen of the Wilis, Myrtha, reigns supreme. Myrtha’s subjects are brides who died on their wedding night, before their marriages were consummated. All wear white veils and dresses. Hilarion and Albrecht, carrying lanterns, follow the path to Giselle’s grave, only to find themselves ensnared by a regiment of Wilis under Myrtha’s stern command.

Under Helgi Tomasson’s hand, and with the assistance of Lola de Avila, this scene changes just a bit each time it returns to the stage, but one formidable friendly amendment takes the form of Sofiane Sylve’s interpretation of Myrtha. Hers is a Queen who is less a dominatrix than a woman driven slightly insane. It’s as if there are two Myrthas: one who is determined to complete her task in the time allotted by the Adolphe Adam score, and the other, who is a tic shy of reckless, marvelously loose-hipped, careening and ever so slightly off-kilter where she can be, as if she’s downed a dram of moon madness. She is helpless to curtail her mission, even when Giselle implores that she spare Albrecht. Dores André and Sasha De Sola are brilliant as her aides de camp. It is not unusual for the Solos segment to act as a brake on the action. André and De Sola, on the other hand, add dimension by paving the way for the mournful finality that caps Myrtha’s purpose. Similarly, the corps de ballet dispatches a perfectly manicured voyagé and their diagonal becomes the glittering gauntlet that pitches Hilarion into the lake and hastens Albrecht’s expiration date. Vitor Luiz, gives us more of a lick and spittle Albrecht than a despondent lover. His battu and sixes are fiery, even as he approaches the point of his character’s collapse.

Seeing a cast that is capable of solving the algebra of this work with such masterful interpretations, prompts thoughts about future casting. As a large, luxuriant company, San Francisco Ballet might test its flexion by letting some of its soloists have a go at the principal roles, as it has with Myrtha, which will be danced by soloist Dores André in this run, and was danced glisteningly in the past by former soloist Elana Altman. For example, in the first act Pas de Cinq, which is customarily danced by a couple or threesome, Clara Blanco leads the women. What an earnest Giselle she would make! Koto Ishihara, also part of that group, has the makings of a forthright Giselle. Daniel Deivison-Oliveira, evermore princely and elegant, should have a chance to find the Albrecht situated in those qualities.

This is a highly recommended and mesmerizing production that carries in its good bones talent to be tapped like rich marrow for future forays into the woods.

Toba Singer, author of “Fernando Alonso, the Father of Cuban Ballet” (University Press of Florida 2013), and “First Position: a Century of Ballet Artists” (Praeger 2007), writes for international dance journals and websites, and has served as an advisor to the San Francisco Museum of Performance and Design. She was the University Press of Florida author representative at the 2013 Miami International Book Fair. “Fernando Alonso, the Father of Cuban Ballet” was nominated for the Latin American Student Association Bryce Award, the de la Torre Research and Dance Scholars Award, and the Commonwealth Club California Book Award.