Giselle is one of the iconic tutu ballets, a 178-year-old fable about a peasant girl who falls in love with Duke Albrecht. When Giselle finds out he’s actually betrothed to another woman, she spirals into madness and dies of a broken heart. The ghostly Wilis, a band of vengeful girl spirits, try to dance Albrecht to death, but Giselle’s love from beyond the grave frees him from their grasp.
At first glance, it might seem difficult to update the story—a romantic antique with its mid-19th-century social mores, its supernatural Wilis, its bouts of hysteria, and its en pointe traditions.
But Vancouver dance artist Joshua Beamish immediately saw its potential for a new high-tech, social-media-savvy interpretation.
“I had never seen Giselle made for right here, right now,” he says, speaking to the Straight over the phone between rehearsals and meetings. “The story lends itself perfectly to where we are now, with the idea of deception inherent in the narrative and that someone could make a whole profile online right now that isn’t real, or could be in two relationships at the same time.
“Then I thought the idea of status could be interpreted interestingly: instead of a wealth divide [between Giselle and Albrecht], they have a divide in terms of their followers.”
Beamish took his first stab at the story ballet with a shorter work commissioned by the Royal Ballet in London, building it into the new full-evening piece @giselle that soon premieres here.
The artist’s Joshua Beamish/MOVETHECOMPANY is known for more contemporary works, like last year’s all-male Saudade, and fractured movement phrases with swivelling spines and erupting body isolations. But Beamish, whose mother taught ballet in Edmonton and then Kelowna, says he loves the classical form and was intrigued by the idea of pulling it into the present day.
“What’s fascinating about ballet is there are these stories that people want to come back to watch year after year. And I’ve always been curious about what keeps people coming back to classical ballet,” Beamish says. “I thought, ‘What is ballet today? Is it pointe shoes? Is it arabesques? Is it pirouettes? How do I make a ballet as it always has been but dropping it into today, a time when we’re concerned with gender equality, agency, consideration of diversity?’
“Like, what if I made a ballet about something happening right now?” he says, energized by the idea. “Something where you would say, ‘This is a ballerina, but I’m not watching a ballet about people living in the 1800s; somehow I feel like the character is going through what I go through when I look at my phone or I go out on a date.’ ”
The answer, with @giselle, is a movement language that uses the original lush score to blend the cutting-edge with classical technique. In Beamish’s rendition, the young woman is betrayed, isolated, and then ghosted by her romantic partner on social media. Giselle even live-streams her death.
Fourteen performers—including American Ballet Theatre’s Catherine Hurlin and the National Ballet of Canada’s Harrison James as leads Giselle and Albrecht, plus talents from as far afield as the Pennsylvania Ballet and Ballet Edmonton—dance with and amid motion-capture and social-media projections. Beamish says it’s “far and away” the most technically involved show he’s ever created.
Like some of Beamish’s recent work, it draws on personal experience. The artist admits it was inspired by the devastating end to one of his own relationships—one he was very happy with, until a bit of online sleuthing revealed his partner was engaged to someone else. The emotional fallout gave him a lot of insight into the kind of “madness” that might rack Giselle if she lived in the era of Tinder and Instagram.
“How we perceive each other online kind of lends itself to this hysteria and hyperthought,” he suggests. “Obsession about romance online has become normalized, but is damaging to the psyche.…So many of our relationships are reduced to views.”
Beamish is also weaving today’s social-media platforms, and the disconnected nature of our wired relationships, into the language of the ballet. Albrecht might perform a duet with a hologram, or two characters might video-record movement phrases and “send” them across the stage to each other via screens.
“It’s almost like Snapchat, and that escalates into them actually FaceTiming,” Beamish explains. “It’s how you’re relating to a video of yourself performing to another person on video.”
At the same time, the themes have contemporary relevance to the #MeToo movement. “I didn’t even intend this, because I started this work four years ago, but holding young men accountable for their treatment of women: that is effectively what the Wilis do,” comments Beamish. As for Beamish’s conclusions about social media itself?
“I think it’s treacherous but also wonderful, and I hope the ballet shows where we’re at and people can decide for themselves,” he allows. “Maybe the message is we should just try to care for one another a little bit.”
Joshua Beamish/MOVETHECOMPANY presents @giselle at the Vancouver Playhouse from next Thursday to Saturday (September 5 to 7). The opening-night performance is followed by a reception celebrating Jean Orr, the 90-year-old Vancouver ballerina who played Canada’s first Giselle.