Michael Pink and the Milwaukee Ballet reimagine a 19th-century classic for modern times.

The fairy tale world of ballet is replete with stories of lovers from opposite sides of the tracks: Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Juliet and her Romeo. Giselle, the piece George Balanchine called “ballet’s great tragedy,” doubles the separation. First social class keeps the lovers apart—Duke Albrecht falls for the village girl, Giselle. Then, after she dies, they are kept from each other by the chasm between life and death itself.

Michael Pink’s version of Giselle, which he developed in England with Christopher Gable and first unveiled in Milwaukee in 2004, grounds the fairy tale in momentous history. Instead of a duke, Albrecht is an occupying World War II soldier and Giselle is a resident of a wartime ghetto. He woos her in disguise, without his fascist uniform. But when he is discovered, and she understands their blossoming love is doomed, she goes mad and dies of a weak heart—one of the great dramatic scenes in all of ballet.

Pink’s bold retelling of the story doesn’t always mesh well with the original (it’s hard to imagine a German officer bringing his wife around to meet the ghetto folk), but it’s a powerful and beautiful story in itself, and Thursday night it was danced beautifully, particularly by the principals Davit Hovhannisyan and Luz San Miguel.

In the first act, Pink sets the story in the ghetto streets, and it’s a vibrant evocation of a communal life that shines through iron-fisted oppression. Pink brings a small band of musicians up from the orchestra into the stage action, which works well with composer Adolphe Adam’s score (only when the two groups played together in full tutti did conductor Andrews Sill have trouble integrating the sound). Seldom have I seen the classical ballet convention of a village crowd erupting into dance rendered with more convincing spirit. I’d even go so far that the French Adam’s faux-Germanic 1841 score—with its early use of saxophone—sounds convincingly like something that might be heard in mid-20th-century Jewish ghetto.

The second half of Giselle shifts moves to more ethereal territory. In the original, the corps becomes an ensemble of Wilis, ghostly figures who, like Giselle, died of broken hearts. In Pink’s radically reimagined version, the ghosts are residents of the ghetto, executed by firing squad. Dressed in haunting, loose-fitting white pajamas, beautifully lit by David Grill, they dance with contorted and convulsive angularity, at times (unfortunately) resembling the hoards of zombies that have become a pop culture staple these days. Eventually, they subside, and the stage is given over to the lead couple’s series of pas de deux, which have rightly made Giselle a masterpiece.

There is no question of its status in Pink, San Miguel and Hovhannisyan’s work here. As befits the story and mise en scene, the movement is simple and rich in delicate emotion. At one point, the pair execute a series of simple lifts, and as she leaves the ground, San Miguel lets her legs lilt off to the side, as if they were made of gauze and blown by a gentle breeze. In their movement and their acting, both dancers capture the essence of the ballet’s final moments—lovers grounded in completely different realities, she in the spirit world, he in the gritty and morally compromised world of realpolitik. And that tension serves Pink’s vision well. Here, Albrecht’s angst is not simply about lost love, but about the overpowering guilt of his part in the atrocities of war. Ultimately, it’s a resonant, modern vision of a classic that has been compellingly reimagined for a different time and a different world.

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