A Joshua Beamish/MOVETHECOMPANY production. At the Vancouver Playhouse on Thursday, September 5. Continues until September 7
Just the sight of the @ at the front of @giselle has the potential to give ballet purists hives. It’s risky enough to try to modernize the epitome of 1800s romantic ballet, let alone fill it with selfies, emoji chats, live-stream video, and follower stats.
But that’s exactly what Vancouver choreographer Joshua Beamish has done, in a contemporary story ballet as audacious in concept as it is in execution.
It’s packed with carefully cued video projections that build an entire online world for the characters. It even opens, charmingly and brazenly, with a big projection of the title character preening into her cellphone screen, fixing her bun and adjusting her dress.
Beamish has created a unique meld of classical form and popular-culture references, using Giselle’s themes to illustrate the obsession and deception spawned by the era of omnipresent Instagram.
In the original story, a German legend first turned into a ballet in 1841 Paris, Giselle is a young peasant girl who dies of a broken heart when she finds out her true love, aristocrat in disguise Albrecht, is engaged to another woman. In the second act, her spirit joins a band of ghosts called the Wilis, spurned women who died before marriage, as they attempt to dance Albrecht to death in revenge.
In Beamish’s cheeky reimagining, Albrecht leads a double life on the Internet, flirting with Giselle in chats screened above her head. (They use a group platform cleverly called the Village, a mix of Tinder and Instagram.) The difference in their social status is reflected not in class terms, but in the number of followers we see in their profiles. And Giselle’s death is underscored by—what else?—the broken-heart emoji. As for the second act, it plays out like a hallucination, with the Wilis as some kind of warped projection of Albrecht’s sense of guilt. (Hello, #MeToo.)
The result is occasionally funny and consistently entertaining, with clever references to the original en pointe choreography—even as Beamish reimagines the vocabulary with his more grounded, spine-swivelling contemporary style.
The only drawback is that the dance itself takes a back seat to the online effects in the first act. But the second act lives up to the haunting power of the classic, using high tech and layered scrims to conjure a supernatural world where vengeful ghosts multiply through awe-inducing digital wizardry. Here, the dance and effects interweave seamlessly, never overwhelming the choreography: dressed in gauzy white outfits that suggest a cross between tutus and fashion-runway bridal dresses, the ballerinas joined by smudgy white spectres.
In another clever addition, we see a selfie of the dead Giselle pixellate and fracture until it takes the form of a small, blizzardlike cloud that floats above the stage. And the dark-veiled ghost that puts Albrecht through his paces near the end is as eerie as anything out of The Haunting or The Ring.
Part of the reason dance fans will crave more ballet in the first act is that the talent here is top-grade. In the title role, American Ballet Theatre superstar Catherine Hurlin is magnetic, supple, and expressive, with flawless en pointe extensions. She’s vulnerable, but not the traditionally fragile Giselle. Hurlin whirls with the power of a typhoon in Giselle’s demise, her coppery hair flailing and live viewers’ projected faces multiplying and closing in on her. (No wonder her nickname in the ballet world these days is “The Hurricane”.)
As her hunky suitor Albrecht, New Zealand–born Harrison James of the National Ballet of Canada is broodily spectacular. At one point, he executes a series of such pummelling entrechats, with its repeated high jumps and madly scissoring midair footwork, that one wonders if the Wilis really might dance him to death. Beamish choreographs compelling movement in James’s final pas de deux with Giselle’s rival Bathilde (Betsy McBride), curling forward in shame, begging forgiveness with Albrecht’s broken body.
Ballet Edmonton’s Yoko Kanomata makes a mesmerizing and gracefully seductive head Wili; Ballet BC instructor Beverley Bagg is honed and super energized as Giselle’s mother, Berthe; and Sterling Baca, principal dancer with Pennsylvania Ballet, pulls off some athletic, unconventional movement as Giselle’s would-be suitor Hilarion, though his emoji-yellow pyjamalike outfit is a head-scratcher.
Overall, @giselle is worth swiping right on. To its credit, it’s cool and social-media-savvy enough to speak to younger audiences and bring them out to story ballet. It’s hard to imagine anyone under 30 not laughing in recognition at a scene where a digital clock ticks overhead as Giselle obsesses for a seeming eternity, waiting for Albrecht to respond to a text.
Meanwhile their elders will marvel at the artists’ fearless commitment and the sheer ambition of retooling a tutu ballet for our over-wired world.