An arts and culture magazine.

San Francisco Ballet: Giselle Redux

Likolani Brown, Andrew Veyette, Sara Adams and Lauren Lovette in Valse Fantaisie

Maria Kochetkova in Tomasson’s Giselle
© Erik Tomasson

A Deep Bench

Many dance companies would kill for the depth of talent present at San Francisco Ballet. Take, for example, the recent production of Giselle. This is a company that can field five excellent lead couples and has multiple casting choices for the rest of the assignments. The level is so high that soloists, principal dancers, corps members share assignments with no diminution of overall results.

Nevertheless, sometimes the elements and stars align in perfect harmony to produce a performance that will live forever in the memories of those in attendance. The Giselle on Thursday, Feb. 10, was one such night.

The Elements

Let’s begin with the corps. Even on a bad night, SFB’s corps de ballet is on the high side of very good; some days, though, it really clicks. In Giselle this means that in both acts all groups hit their spacing so that the critical action is clearly revealed, and in Act II the dancers execute the notoriously difficult “Giselle hop” sequence, keeping legs aligned while maintaining a spooky, distancing demeanor. When the corps is on, Act II becomes eerie and dangerous. On Thursday, the group executed the famous bits beautifully, and then added extra elements.

For example, at the moment Queen Myrtha condemns Hilarion to death, he is passed from dancer to dancer along a diagonal, then tossed into the lake. What can take this action from merely good staging to magical theater is a matter of milliseconds. When, as on Thursday, the corps timing is tight, Hilarion doesn’t just walk the diagonal, the Wilis force him to go. They don’t touch him; it just seems that their turning away propels him along a mysterious breezeway. Very spooky.

On this night, corps members also handled soloist assignments with flair. In Act II, Charlene Cohen authoritatively worked with soloist Courtney Elizabeth as one of the two lead Wilis. And in the Act I Peasant Pas de Cinq, corps members a sprightly Nicole Ciapponi, Dores Andre, Sasha DeSola, and Lonnie Weeks joined soloist Hansuke Yamamoto for the divertissement.

In contrast to the almost wistful Myrtha of opening night’s Elana Altman, Frances Chung’s portrayal was severe and chilling. I certainly wouldn’t mess with her. While Chung definitely has the technical chops called for in the role, she managed through subtle phrasing to make each of her solos capture slightly different aspects of Myrtha’s character. And her bourées! Ethereal, skimming the floor, Flamenco-upper-body-still bourées. Textbook.

Albrecht and Giselle

Gennadi Nedvigin’s Albrecht is a bit of a player — a thoughtless aristocrat playing at being village boy. In some Albrechts, his love for Giselle happens as he gets to know her; not so with Nedvigin. Unfortunately for this Albrecht, Giselle has to die before he realizes the depth of his attachment. We forgive him, though, because he sure can dance. While technically secure, Nedvigin still has enough wildness to make his moves exciting. And, he does actually repent at the end.

In describing Maria Kochetkova, critics have used adjectives like “delicate,” “exquisite,” and “feather-light.” Underlying her ethereal Giselle, however, is a technique as steely and pure as the most vaunted ballet technician. Fifth positions are clean and tight, soft landings roll through her foot, jumps are fully realized — all the technical bells and whistles. And it’s an organic component of her characterization, completely in service to the role.

Kochetkova’s Giselle is a heart-breaker. Overcoming her shyness and fear, she learns to trust Albrecht, only to have that trust shattered. It overwhelms her, leading to her death. Her mad scene develops slowly from anger at Albrecht’s relationship with his noble fiancée to desolation when Giselle realizes she has been betrayed; in between, there is a moment of maniacal laughter when she teases Hilarion with Albrecht’s sword. At the end of Act I, as she looks up to the sky — maybe she sees what she is becoming. It’s Wilis time for her and she is afraid.

At her entrance in Act II, Kochetkova links her two Giselles, using the well-known frenetic opening turns to show her confusion; until Myrtha settles her down, she doesn’t seem to know where she is. Once she does, though, her dancing becomes lighter, more fluid, more ethereal. When Albrecht partners her, it appears as if she will go airborne; in her solo work, her jumps have serious hang-time, adding to the illusion.

As small and delicate as her portrayal, when Kochetkova’s Giselle faces down Myrtha in defense of Albrecht, she fiercely demands clemency for her beloved. The contrast makes her final separation from Albrecht even more poignant; in death, she has developed the strength she was missing in life.

I have seen some pretty good Giselle’s over the years, but few that I clearly remember. With her performance on Thursday night, Kochetkova joins the ranks of the greats. She is doing it one more time during this run — Sunday night, Feb. 13 at 7:30 p.m. I’m seriously thinking of going again.

San Francisco Ballet: Giselle
Through February 13, 2011
San Francisco War Memorial Opera House

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