The dancers of Ballet BC were like racehorses champing at the bit as they roared through the company’s final commission to José Navas (resident choreographer 2010-2013). In the premiere of Navas’ Giselle at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre, the seventeen company members, two guests and six Arts Umbrella graduate students flew through the choreography with passion and precision. This power and warmth is something for which the troupe, under the direction of Emily Molnar, is known.
Giselle is the first narrative ballet by Montreal’s Navas, a cool, Cunningham-based contemporary dance choreographer of solos (for himself) and ensembles (for his company). He bravely tackled one of ballet’s iconic texts, and the energy of the duets between the corps in the first act sizzled, while the sweep of the ensemble in the second was splendid. If the whole didn’t quite gel, there was the original Adolphe Adam score – with its dramatic, at times dizzying, colour and energy – to readily evoke the romantic libretto of a young girl’s love, betrayal, death and afterlife on which Giselle hinges.
Not that Navas, an abstract artist very much of his time, has made a 19th-century story ballet. Though he retained the main characters, his Giselle is not a peasant; his Albrecht is no longer a count pretending to be a commoner. Hilarion is no gamekeeper enamoured of Giselle but a powerful man in love with Albrecht. The men’s relationship is sketched in through several long kisses that are formally approached (they grip each other’s heads, fingers splayed, for several seconds, before moving in for the kiss), and through nearly static poses featuring Hilarion’s strong hand on Albrecht’s back or chest. There is no erotic or romantic edge, perhaps because their relationship is, strangely for a ballet, not expressed in a pas de deux.
On both of the nights I attended, Gilbert Small as Hilarion was a commanding figure in a tight yellow shirt, a strip of hair down his skull, Mohawk style. He lurks, straight-backed, in the shadows, or slashes through the air in steel-edged passion.
Albrecht, danced by Connor Gnam on opening night, was a poetic dreamer in a black suit and fitted green shirt, drifting to Giselle one minute, following Hilarion the next. Alexis Fletcher’s Giselle was a naïve girl who seems at the edge of control right from the start, aching to explode in fiery abandon; her leaps and spins are all elbows and knees, jagged and percussive. Over her costume – a simple mauve slip – she sometimes wore Albrecht’s scarlet-lined black coat, in whose inner pocket nestled the fateful knife she uses to slit her throat at the end of Act One.
On the second night, Alexander Burton’s Albrecht was very present to both Hilarion and, especially, to Maggie Forgeron’s forthright, emotionally centered Giselle. Forgeron’s was a very 21st-century interpretation: her Giselle was the kind of competent young woman you meet every day making her way in the world. After all, even the strongest, sanest people fall in love! Yet, when the time came, this Giselle too found a mad, seductive release in the percussive stag leaps, skittery arabesques and whirling spins of Navas’ choreography.
The fourth character key to any production of Giselle is Myrtha, here no longer the vengeful Queen of the Wilis, but still a regal presence in diaphanous white trousers. Makaila Wallace’s Myrtha featured crisp, cool turns and precisely placed leg extensions, echoing the ice-cold Queen of the lakeside maidens from the original libretto. But there was warmth, too, in those luscious arms, and her character seemed to be a peacemaker.
Myrtha, of course, makes her entrance in Act Two, surrounded in Navas’ version by a corps of men and women in transparent white dresses that evoked long Romantic tutus. Here was where beauty crept in: as the company filled the stage and bourréed on tiptoe, or leapt in a blur of legs and arms, torsos twisting, a blizzard of motion overwhelmed the senses, as it always does in Giselle’s white act.
Costume designer Linda Chow also has the corps wear white oval discs, strapped onto their heads, to shield the face. The headgear turned them into the anonymous Greek chorus that Navas explains in his program notes he was aiming for, but it looked odd. In Act One, the corps is shrouded in sleek black suits, with black caps pulled over their eyes, the women in black pointe shoes. While the white act is one of the few times pointe shoes make “sense” in ballet (what else would ethereal, otherworldly creatures wear?), Navas put the entire company in socks.
The huge animated backdrop of giant floating lips and nodding red tulips by Montréal graphic artist Lino was a project of its own. The second night, I blocked it out and had a much better time, avoiding in particular the tag lines, such as “How many souls I have” and “Petals of love”. As a compelling wash of texture and colour, though, the backdrop helped intensify the action on stage.
Navas has shied away from dramatic nuance in his telling of Giselle, and it was missed, as was variety of steps. As well, while themes of love and madness are probably as relevant today as ever, the sacrificial woman that ends the ballet is not, especially in a tale that aims for contemporary resonance. Giselle is disrobed and then, bare-breasted and vulnerable – as both a character and a performer – carried aloft by the corps.
When Giselle is remounted in a few years – as it surely will be – Navas may well work his material a little more. As it stands, he has given Ballet BC an homage to a beloved classic, a whirl of very present dance that makes several exciting references to the past. The project is a vote of confidence from this modern artist–and from Molnar, the dancers, the designers and the audience, too–in the ongoing relevance of those old ballets the once defiantly contemporary company has happily learned to embrace.