Catherine Hurlin. Photo by Craig Foster.

Vancouver Playhouse – September 5, 2019

Joshua Beamish’s latest work and first full-length ballet, @giselle, is a retelling of the original Giselle, the iconic Romantic-era ballet, in a modern day context where relationships and social interactions are mediated through digital devices and platforms. @giselle is set to the original score by Adolphe Adam and retains much of the storyline, even making references to the original choreography by Jean Coralli, Jules Perrot and also by Marius Petipa. 

Beamish’s choreographic vocabulary is rich and articulate. While strongly rooted in classical technique, Beamish puts a lot of movement in the upper body, even in pointe work. Spines lean and curve, then rebound from the momentum of the arms or the swivel of the head. He may centre the momentum of movement at the hip, or shoulder or knee, then unexpectedly change that centre mid-phrase. His choreography captures the layered complexities in this contemporary narrative. The principal cast – Catherine Hurlin, soloist of the American Ballet Theater as @giselle, Harrison James, principal dancer at the National Ballet of Canada as @albrecht and his deceptive alter ego @loys, Sterling Baca, principal dancer at Pennsylvania Ballet as @hilarion, Betsy Mcbride, corps de ballet member of the American Ballet Theater as @bathilde, and Beverly Bagg as @mamaberthe – all handled Beamish’s vocabulary fluently, giving its detailed transitions clarity without abruptness and infusing the movement with the unique personalities of each of their characters. It wouldn’t be an overstatement to say that the dancing, with only minimal prompts for the narrative, could have carried the piece just as well. 

With almost no physical set pieces, the dancers instead performed among digital projections (projection design by Beamish and Brianna Amore and projection animation by Amore) that framed scenes, particularly in the first act, as if being viewed on a smartphone. Large instant messaging conversation bubbles scrolled along the scrim that hung downstage and narrated the flirtations between Hurlin and James. Unfortunately, these images detracted from the dancers who performed intricately expressive solos just behind the scrim. Additionally, the use of these digital projections created distance between dancer and audience that mimicked that of virtual communication, and while it was consistent with the narrative, it also stole some of the richness from the live performance. 

In other scenes, the concept of watching through a smartphone did add to the narrative. When @giselle descended into madness that led ultimately to her death, which in this narrative is attributed to sudden arrhythmia death syndrome, it was depicted as a livestream, with projected images of innumerable strangers helplessly watching the ordeal. It alluded to similar tragedies that have occurred in social media. 

Digital projections were a better complement in the second act, where motion-capture technology was used to replicate dancers’ movements and project ghost-like figures which partnered with the dancers, such as when @albrecht dances with his memories of @giselle. The cast of nine Wilis, led by Yoko Kanomata, dancer of Ballet Edmonton, as Myrtha, were also multiplied by the ghost-like figures accompanying the ensemble. The dancing was given more focus as the video projections were more subtle.

Costumes by former New York City Ballet principal dancer Janie Taylor dressed the characters in outfits that seemed to reference the original period but can slip well into any era. @giselle was dressed in a peasant-styled green dress with knee-length flowing skirt and @albrecht and @hilarion were in solid-coloured loose fitting pants and long sleeve shirts. The Wilis were dressed in light and flowy white dresses.

@giselle captures the isolation, immediacy and overwhelming anxiety of contemporary relationships and social interactions. While the digital concepts supported the narrative, it is the choreography and dancers who really carried the piece. A strong full-length debut for Beamish.