@giselle
Vancouver Playhouse
Vancouver, British Columbia

September 5, 6, and 7, 2019
World Premiere Preview

Jerry Hochman

Joshua Beamish’s new production of Giselle, titled @giselle, will celebrate its world premiere performances in Vancouver, British Columbia, next week. I recently attended a preview at New York’s Martha Graham Center and based only on what I saw, if you’re in the area it might be worth a detour to Vancouver to see it.

Beamish, a BC native, advised that @giselle has been in development for more than three years, and evolved out of a project that he’d worked on with The Royal Ballet Director Kevin O’Hare – and O’Hare, along with other ballet luminaries (and cast family and friends), attended the preview.

Catherine Hurlin
in Joshua Beamish’s “@giselle”
Photo by Craig Foster

Even limited to what could be gleaned from the preview, the production has several things going for it. The concept is intriguing – a Giselle transferred to the digital / social media age (as the title implies), but one that maintains the basic storyline and score. Beamish’s choreography, again based just on what I saw, is consistent with the pieces of his that I’ve previously seen: it’s certainly contemporary, but the movement is meaningful rather than idiosyncratic or quirky, and he doesn’t shy away from ballet lyricism (he even quotes occasionally from the classical choreography). And it’s got a phenomenal cast: Giselle is danced by American Ballet Theatre Soloist Catherine Hurlin, National Ballet of Canada Principal Harrison James is Albrecht, Pennsylvania Ballet Principal Sterling Baca is Hilarion, Bathilde is played by ABT’s Betsy McBride, and Beverley Bagg (former Joburg Ballet Principal) is Berthe, each of whom appeared at the preview. And its costumes are designed by former New York City Ballet Principal, Janie Taylor. [Yoko Kanomata and Ariana Barr of Ballet Edmonton, and Matisse Maitland of Alberta Ballet II, as Myrtha, Moyna, and Zulma respectively, complete the featured cast.]

Catherine Hurlin
in Joshua Beamish’s “@giselle”
Photo by Craig Foster

As Beamish explained, @giselle transforms Giselle not so much by changing its focus (other recent reinventions of Giselle, for example, focus on the revenge factor), but by making it more contemporary. The Act I “village,” for example, is now a digital village in which people may contact and communicate with each other, “like” each other, and disappoint each other, without ever meeting each other. And then there’s what happens if / when they actually do meet each other. [That Beamish appears to see @giselle as evolutionary rather than revolutionary appears further evident by his choices of guest interviewees who will appear in conversation with him prior to each performance: the opening night (September 5) guest, Jean Orr, Canada’s first Giselle (and co-founder of BC Ballet) on the eve of her 90th birthday – with a celebratory reception to honor her following the premiere; Pacific Northwest Ballet’s Artistic Director Peter Boal, who created his own version of Giselle for PNC, on September 6; and on closing night, Chan Hon Goh, Artistic Director of Canada’s Goh Ballet and former NBC Principal, who danced Giselle around the world and selected that role as her retirement “farewell” in 2009.]

Catherine Hurlin
in Joshua Beamish’s “@giselle”
Photo by Craig Foster

In addition to using expected examples of contemporary life, like cell phones, Beamish communicates this digital village, at least in part, through layers of points of view – the layers presented as a sequence of projections and scrims that appear designed to recognize that these characters, for much of this version, are in different physical spaces. In Act II, more complex technical wizardry converts the Wilis into what’s described as nightmarish “3D animated spectres,” at times turning the horde into multiple reproductions of Giselle herself, giving Albrecht the wilies in a completely contemporary way.

Catherine Hurlin
in Joshua Beamish’s “@giselle”
Photo by Craig Foster

The rehearsal space was not equipped to provide previews of the technical elements of @giselle, which is unfortunate since so much of it is technology-based. But the thematic elements showed interesting variants on the same classical characters, along with some curious modifications to the standard themes. Not surprisingly given the venue and period change, Hurlin is a thoroughly modern Giselle, displaying changes of attitude and demeanor in seconds – annoyance, humor, rebellion, and more – with much more emphasis and bite than the classical Giselle in the age of Romantic ballet would have been capable of, but all fully consistent with the character range that I’ve observed in Hurlin’s stage portrayals over the years. I couldn’t tell much of James from the excerpts presented, except he clearly is more of a hunky Albrecht than we’re used to seeing, and perhaps more duplicitous. And Baca’s Hilarion appears more ardent and persistent than the usual characterization – and also has considerably more dedicated choreography.

Catherine Hurlin
in Joshua Beamish’s “@giselle”
Photo by Craig Foster

I see some potential concerns. Berthe is not just interested in her daughter’s welfare – there’s another, perhaps more contemporary, passionate interest. And Beamish is treading on sacred ground when he appears to promote reconciliation between Albrecht and Bathilde at the end of the ballet, recognizing that Bathilde has been a victim here too (a fact that, to the extent it’s there at all, is lost in the aristocracy vs. peasant theme that simmers through the original). But making Bathilde a sympathetic character, if that’s the way the production plays out, may dampen – or at least refocus – the concept of undying love that is so central to the original. On the other hand, McBride has such a natural aura of sweetness to her stage appearance that maybe the apparent changed (or additional) emphasis will work. At least, it should be interesting.

It’s premature, of course, to evaluate a ballet based on bits and pieces seen during a preview. And the unknown factors – the technical stuff – could sink it no matter how good the concept, choreography and performances are. But Beamish’s @giselle looks like it might just have legs – enough to bring it to the New York area if and when Beamish locates a suitable venue.