It is the ultimate tutu ballet, as sacrosanct a classical work as Swan Lake. Born at the height of the French romantic style, Giselle focuses on the dainty peasant girl who’s so fragile she goes mad and dies of a broken heart when she can’t unite with the man she loves, the disguised nobleman Albrecht.
Sitting in the studio at the Scotiabank Dance Centre, watching 20 Ballet B.C. dancers push themselves to the max, you immediately realize that choreographer José Navas’s ambitious contemporary take on Giselle does not feel that fragile. The dancers are leaping and turning out of unison to Adolphe Adam’s climaxing orchestral strains, and it’s a miracle they’re not colliding. They are creatures from the second act’s vision of the afterlife, and it looks like the world’s most graceful mosh pit until they all pull back into synchronization again.
“This Giselle has bone, muscles, and fluids,” the Montreal-based choreographer says later, with a tired smile, too involved in talking about his momentous project to touch his lunch. “I want Giselle there and I want people to leave the theatre saying, ‘I saw Giselle,’ ” he stresses. “Believe it or not, I do want the piece to feel romantic.…I don’t want this to be a modern-dance version of Giselle. It’s a real attempt to make Giselle relevant.”
“He sees the same story with new eyes,” explains his assistant, Amy Shulman, who’s out here to help to set Navas’s vision on the troupe. Referring to Navas’s highly architectural aesthetic and penchant for beauty, which local audiences have seen in works like Bliss, she adds: “I think the piece is very classical—and classical doesn’t mean putting people in tutus.”
There is no doubt: it’s a massive undertaking—the culmination of Navas’s three-year residency at Ballet B.C., and his first foray into narrative ballet. The creation of a new Giselle also marks a grand step for the company, its biggest project and first story ballet since its rebirth in 2009 under the leadership of Emily Molnar. In the wake of a financial crisis in 2008, she has been carefully rebuilding the company with short repertoire by some of the hottest contemporary-dance talent in Europe and North America. The accolades have come, and this year the company has seen its first tour under her directorship, to Eastern Canada, to be followed by trips to Portland’s acclaimed White Bird Dance festival in May and the high-profile Jacob’s Pillow in Massachusetts come July. And now this: a signature Giselle that, if it succeeds, could be another big ticket to more touring.
Not surprisingly, Navas looks exhausted—not just by the task before him, but because immediately afterward, in May, he is set to dance a solo version of another famous ballet work, The Rite of Spring, with the Brussels Philharmonic in Belgium. (He’s not sleeping, and admits he was up in the middle of the night listening to Igor Stravinsky’s masterpiece.)
Tackling Giselle was daunting only at first, he explains, before he found his way in. He visited the dance library in Montreal, he says, when the scale of his task hit him: “What am I doing? Suddenly, I’m dealing with a pantomime—and I’m someone who comes from abstraction and the [Merce] Cunningham school.”
The key, Navas reveals, was going back even further into performance history, to Greek theatre. Through studying the work of Sophocles he saw the answer: the simplicity of focusing on the three central figures—Giselle, Albrecht, and Albrecht’s rival for her affections, Hilarion—plus a chorus, and pictures for background.
The “pictures”, in this case, are not going to be a traditional backdrop, but will rather be animations by Quebec graphic artist and illustrator Lino, whose imagery Navas describes as “intense and nostalgic”. In another twist, Navas is making visible the “off-stage” areas to the side of the performance space, where audiences can watch the dancers when they’re not playing their roles, relaxing, changing costumes, sipping water, or getting ready to leap on again.
As for the role of Giselle, veteran Ballet B.C. dancers Alexis Fletcher and Maggie Forgeron will alternate. Fletcher admits the formidable role, with its transition from girl in love to madwoman to spirit, is a challenge. “I feel the weight of the responsibility to try and bring this character to life, and there have definitely been moments of being overwhelmed,” says the elegant, fair-haired Arts Umbrella grad, who has never danced a classic character role before. “But in terms of her story, I felt like I was starting with an empty slate. I didn’t feel pressure to be the history—I just wanted to respect the history and those who played her before.”
Navas wants at once to honour his source material and make it relevant as well. And he knows he will have detractors. “Every single person is telling me their experience of Giselle,” he says, and then adds with a smile: “The Giselle purists are possibly going to be a little bit surprised.”
Navas has only cut a small bit of the score’s more folkloric music. His more important alterations involve the story. The biggest is in Giselle’s death: Navas felt unsatisfied with the traditional, weak demise due to a broken heart. Then he found out that in the very first staging of Giselle, in 1841, she committed suicide. “She killed herself with a sword, but then people didn’t like it so much,” Navas explains of the history. “In the versions after that, she has a sword and goes around in circles but then throws it down.”
At first, Navas wanted his lead character to use a gun to kill herself. “I found it sexist to have this sort of an image of a woman who is weak. That’s why I wanted to give her the gun.” In a trial run during rehearsal, though, the violence of the act brought the troupe to tears, and it was decided, finally, that it might be too strong for audiences. Navas has come up with what he describes as a “more delicate” alternative—one we won’t give away here, and one he admits may ultimately be more effective. “But someday I would like to see it with a gun,” Navas says.
He has also altered the relationship between the central trio. Let’s just say you may find more chemistry between Hilarion and Albrecht than between Giselle and Albrecht. And the second act’s depiction of Giselle in the afterlife feels equally contemporary. In traditional renditions, Giselle is raised from her grave by the Wilis, ghosts of betrayed girls who can force men—namely, Hilarion and Albrecht—to dance to their death.
But for the Ballet B.C. rendition, Navas suggests the scenes from the afterlife are a product less of the supernatural than of Albrecht’s memory.
“Act 2 is an introduction to the other side, and everybody is dressed in white,” says dancer Fletcher, who has filled a sketchbook with drawings and storyboards to prepare for the role. “There’s the underworld but also the idea that this is happening in Albrecht’s mind. But there are moments where they can reach through and touch the other side.”
Explains Navas: “We talked about how, when someone dies, at some point they become a memory and you stop thinking about them. That moment happens in the second act, when Giselle stops being a memory—when Albrecht lets go and she accepts she’s becoming part of that other world. I find that more relevant than killing Albrecht or Hilarion. I want people to leave the theatre with the sense of something beautiful and hopeful, where they can imagine the afterlife as a healing place.”
That shift in perspective is just another way that Navas, despite his intricately structured choreography and his respect for the original, is trying to make the quintessential tutu ballet contemporary. In his Giselle, dream worlds become memories, archetypes become human beings, and dancers transform from regular people into performers.
“What’s contemporary? When you leave the theatre thinking about your life,” Navas says, answering his own question before finally taking five minutes to eat his lunch alone. “Instead of leaving the theatre saying, ‘I saw a lovely version of Giselle’ and it stays there in the theatre, why not say, ‘Oh, my God, it speaks to my life. It really lives.’ ”