Joshua Beamish updates Giselle for the digital age

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@giselle | Joshua Beamish/MOVETHECOMPANY | Vancouver Playhouse | September 5 – 7, 2019

Giselle, a classical ballet first performed in 1841, has remained a staple of the canon. It is in the repertoire of countless ballet companies and is still performed all over the world. Giselle is a peasant girl who dies of a broken heart, and is later summoned by the Wilis, a group of supernatural women who all died of a broken heart and hate men so much that they dance them to death. The ballet has received criticism for its portrayal of women as dependent on a man’s love, but Joshua Beamish’s updated version promises to address this while setting it firmly in our time with motion-captured digital projections and characters interacting through social media.

“There have been a lot of alternate versions,” says Beamish, “but none set in present day.” When the artistic director of the Royal Ballet, Kevin O'Hare, proposed that he take a classic ballet and add his contemporary choreography to it, Beamish thought that the base principles of Giselle could be applied to any time. That 2016  work, Re-Imagining Giselle, has been further infused with the technology and complications of modern romance to develop it for this world premiere, and along with way there have been many collaborators and interpreters.

“I felt like I couldn’t approach it without considering how the narrative plays out in present day,” said Beamish on the phone from New York where he was working on some technical elements of the production. (Beamish’s company is based both in Vancouver and New York.) In his updated version, the Wilis are not evil spirits who kill men, but they have been jilted in some way — they may have been “ghosted,” for example, or had some other negative experience with online dating. The basic elements of the ballet are maintained, but, as Beamish explains, the women are given a more fully-rounded journey and their characters are not so flat. Berthe, Giselle's mother, will be danced by Beverley Bagg who is in her 60s, and it is a full dancing role as opposed to the original character role reserved for an older artist who no longer dances.

“Women are beautiful and capable at any age,” says Beamish. He says the roles in @giselle celebrate youth while also illustrating that there is so much more an artist can continue to offer.

Along with Beverley Bagg, the cast list for this production features an all-star line-up: “All my favourite people from the places I work,” says Beamish. Catherine Hurlin (American Ballet Theatre), is Giselle. “She’s an undeniable star, a very natural actress, and receptive to contemporary movement pathways.” It’s not an easy role as Giselle must make the transition from innocent to insane over the course of the ballet. Albrecht, Giselle’s love interest, is danced by Harrison James (The National Ballet of Canada); Sterling Baca dances Hilarion, who is also in love with Giselle (Pennsylvania Ballet); Bathilde, already betrothed to Albrecht, is Betsy McBride (American Ballet Theatre); Myrtha, Queen of the Wilis, is danced by Yoko Kanomata; and Moyna is danced by Ariana Barr (both of Ballet Edmonton). Matisse Maitland (Alberta Ballet II) will dance Zulma.

Projections and other special effects, along with modern costuming, will all combine to add to the 21st century interpretation. Using motion-captured digital projections, Beamish has been working with Brianna Amore to create projections of the spirits. “The ghosts will feel more translucent and ghost-like,” says Beamish. “It will create a trippy atmosphere.”

Another big difference is that many interactions between characters will be mediated through a screen or digital platform. Giselle may interact with Albrecht via Snapchat, Instagram, or Facetime, and there will be more instances where a character is alone on stage while interacting with someone — highlighting the idea that they may be more connected to others, but isolated at the same time. As a result, we can expect more solos in this work.

The focus of Beamish’s narrative is how the internet treats women, he explained. “It celebrates and criticizes digital interactions; it’s scary, funny, heartbreaking, and beautiful,” he says. Beamish hopes that the show might encourage audiences to consider their online behaviour and also place more value on tangible human connection.

The opening night on September 5th will be particularly special as it is accompanied by a special tribute to Jean Orr, Canada’s first Giselle and co-founder of Ballet BC. “She introduced herself to me as Canada’s first Giselle, and I’ve never forgotten that moment,” says Beamish. The timing of this production coincides with Orr’s 90th birthday, and he is thrilled to be able to celebrate “one of the most beloved people in the Vancouver dance scene.”  

Each performance is accompanied by a pre-performance talk in the lobby with Joshua Beamish and a special guest: Jean Orr (Sep 5), Peter Boal, Artistic Director of Seattle’s Pacific Northwest Ballet (Sep 6), and Chan Hon Goh, Artistic Director of Goh Ballet (Sep 7).

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