It is the middle of Act 1 in @giselle at the Vancouver Playhouse, and the young Giselle prances joyfully behind a semi-transparent screen of projected text. Flirtatious messages between her and an online romantic prospect scroll upwards, and her face is lit with excitement and desire. Played by Catherine Hurlin of American Ballet Theatre (ABT), this modern Giselle spins between small leaps and quick arabesques, arms stretched as if to embrace an absent lover. In her springing steps, centuries of classical ballet live on. But in the words, a sad disconnection of our digital lives looms heavily. It’s a profound pairing of past and future, physicality and absence.
About half an hour prior, as the Vancouver Playhouse filled up around me, I was surprised to read through the synopsis of @giselle by Joshua Beamish/MOVETHECOMPANY and (for once) find a story I could relate to. It did not describe the tragic fate of a peasant girl from a German legend, who falls for a man betrothed to another. Instead, there is a fully reimagined storyline, thought through with painstaking detail to bring it into the present day.
In @giselle, Beamish takes the tragic romance of Giselle, which dates back to 1841, and inserts a third player, social media, to expose its role in modern-day relationships. On huge screens in front of and behind the dancers, the digital lives of the characters are projected, and their online identities become agents that steer the plot. A once wistfully imaginative narrative becomes unsettlingly realistic: the painfully public livestream death of @giselle is linked to the real heart condition of SADS (Sudden Arrhythmic Death Syndrome), and her “resurrection” in Act 2 becomes the mere fantasies of the other guilt-ridden characters who struggle to will her back to life with the online data she leaves behind.
Suddenly relatable, the work inspires a fresh encounter with its topics of love, pursuit, death and grief. And a strong mix of dancers, hand-picked by Beamish from companies around North America — including American Ballet Theatre, The National Ballet of Canada, Pennsylvania Ballet, Ballet Edmonton — and various training programs, carry the narrative to new depths, showcasing the choreographer’s movement vocabulary with skill.
Subverting the performance space with screens, the work juxtaposes real flesh-and-blood performers with two-dimensional live-motion projections, designed by animator Brianna Amore. These moving ghost-like forms even interact with the cast as dance partners in bizarrely one-sided relationships. The resulting eerie but beautiful choreography is an intentional metaphor: in a pre-show talk, Beamish noted that “We are all in constant duet with the thing in our pocket.” When the young protagonist @giselle (Hurlin) denies the romantic advances of the real flesh-and-blood man @hilarion (Sterling Baca) for a digital pursuer, @loys, she and @loys dance for each other on live, larger than life video projections, getting slowly undressed until @giselle’s mother, @mamaberthe (Beverly Bagg), bursts into the room, horrified at what she finds.
Though reinterpreted into Beamish’s recognizable style, the work is held down to the original story by the full musical score written by Adolphe Adam in 1841 and added to by several additional composers over the centuries. This has unexpected benefits for those familiar with the classical ballet, in the pleasure of recognizing exact variations and seeing the choreography transformed. Yet this also limits the work. It is difficult to capture the tragedy of @giselle’s live-video death with classical music. I wanted it to be edgier, darker. In the pre-show talk, Beamish mentioned that working within these constraints was a major challenge: as a mid-career choreographer, he describes the process of creating narrative work over the past four years as “one of the most difficult things” he has done.
Yet Beamish deals with vocabulary of ballet with a skilful and casual air, highlighting the technique of classical repertoire without being constrained by its formality. It’s thrilling to see his dancers work in and out of verticality: falling out of an arabesque into a contracted turn, snaking the spine into a pose with flexed hands or releasing mid-pirouette into pedestrian walks. Beamish uses the accents in the score to full advantage with gestures and pauses and transforms original pas de deux with the intervention of floorwork.
It is those in-between moments that make his main characters, @giselle and @albrecht (Harrison James), shine from start to finish. Hurlon shows both youthful energy and poise, delicately bending over one extended foot, batting her eyelids to the audience with both hands draped over her neck or hovering in mid-air with a split-second full-split jeté. James (from The National Ballet of Canada) is a convincingly devious @albrecht in the first act –yet it is later, in a slow, grief-ridden dance with the spectre of @giselle that his true virtuosity is displayed. He moves with a fluid, full-body connection that travels from his centre to the very ends of the theatre.
Post-show, I find myself looking at my phone and then catch myself, remembering @giselle push @hilarion away to gaze up at the screen in wait of @loys’ message. Looking around the bustling lobby at the Vancouver Playhouse, I appreciate anew the excited chatter of audience members and the physical intimacy that dance as an art form upholds. In a society where “screen time” competes ever-increasingly for our attention, what better medium than dance to address these concerns and to compel us to be together? And how refreshing is it, to feel critically engaged after watching a narrative ballet?
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