Ballet B.C.'s Giselle is a fearless re-imagining of a classic

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A Ballet British Columbia production. At the Queen Elizabeth Theatre on Thursday, April 25. Continues until April 27

From the opening moments, it was clear that Ballet B.C. was not going to be presenting your everyday Giselle. The curtain lifted to stark silence, an army of droidlike dancers in black suits lined up militarily on chairs under a projection of an abstracted night sky. Male dancers Connor Gnam and Gilbert Small crossed the stage to meet, took each other’s heads passionately in their grip, and locked lips.

In the traditional romantic ballet, Horatio and Albrecht both yearn for Giselle; here, choreographer José Navas recasts the love triangle as the struggle of a woman for a man (Gnam’s Albrecht) who is bisexual. It’s a ballsy twist. And it’s just the beginning of how Ballet B.C.’s risk-taking choreographer-in-residence has turned the ultimate tutu ballet on its head—sometimes literally. During the ending’s anguished, slo-mo pas de deux in the afterlife, Alexis Fletcher’s Giselle turns upside down, knees pulled up fetally, again and again into Gnam’s arms.

To put it mildly, purists are going to have their pearl earrings shaken off. And we’re not talking about the gay love story; that’s fairly familiar territory in dance (and life). No, we’re talking about the masked chorus of dancers that manipulate the action: in the first act, with black screens that pull down kabuki-like over their faces; in the second, with both men and women in gauzy tutulike gowns, in blank, oval white masks that recall ancient Greek theatre. We’re talking about the lush, shifting clouds, lips, and hearts of multimedia artist Lino’s animation on the giant screen overhead. And we’re talking about strikingly avant-garde stagings of Giselle’s violent self-inflicted death and final disappearance into the afterworld.

The multimedia look and highly structured patterning makes this show a feast for the eyes. And while it may put off traditionalists, you have to admire this Giselle’s fearlessness and commitment—and ultimately, Navas’s rebellious, single-minded vision. Still, as much as his plot and staging twists are going to be what everyone leaves chattering about, it’s when Navas’s choreography cuts a unique path that this production really starts to soar.

Admittedly, you can feel Navas straining a bit with the pantomime of the first act. Whereas the original Giselle filled it with pageantry and folkloric dance, Navas has less to do once he establishes his own love triangle. Fletcher spends repeated scenes coiling away from or naively trying to separate Gnam and Small. That said, the almost sinister chorus is a clever device to help move the action along, its members hoisting the lead characters up on their shoulders to thrust them together, or, at another dramatic moment, pointing Fletcher again and again back at a jacket that lies in front of her and holds a dagger in its pocket. And when the 18-member chorus starts dancing, Navas really shows his stuff: the stage fills with bodies, a blur of figures cutting zigzags and apostrophes in the air.

Navas seems more at home in the dreamy second act, which opens dramatically to the chairs, now piled in a tangled heap at the back of the stage, and Albrecht sitting in a surreal spotlight at stage left. In another departure, Navas has this act take place in Albrecht’s tortured head.

The ghostly crew of gender-bending Willis, normally all women, move as pale blurs against Lino’s almost skeletal, cosmic black-and-white images. Where traditionally they’re presented in strict rows en pointe, here Navas has them in slippers and at one point even turns them sideways in their lifts. A highlight of the show is when they sidle in like zombies on tippy-toes, then climax into a flurry of leaps and turns as Adolphe Adams’s original score crescendoes.

Step back, though, and at some moments the sight of the males in their white gowns and bizarre flat masks is almost comical. And the thick ropes that dangle between us and the dancers are visually frustrating.

As for the crack team of leads, Fletcher transforms effectively from naive girl in love to limp-limbed, flailing madwoman, and then, in her most affecting turn, to ghost spirit. Her final, eerie pas de deux with Albrecht, before they part, finds her drawn instinctually to him, but it’s clear she’s no longer there—she’s in some kind of death sleep. As she curls upside-down in his arms, it’s painful in the way that only ballet, contemporary or classical, can be. Giselle’s final goodbye, in Navas’s hands, is stark and provocative—but not one you’ll forget soon.

Makaila Wallace brings an almost nurturing vibe to Myrtha, the guide to the afterlife, and Gnam is a dashing, tormented Albrecht, with Small as his impassioned lover.

This production is a huge leap of faith for Ballet B.C., but as big a work as it is, it’s still the less obvious, quieter innovations that seep into your soul here. The more shocking ones are going to keep people talking about Ballet B.C.—and that probably isn’t a bad thing.

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