Digitally updated @giselle includes impressive technology and technique, lacks emotional connection

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

Social media and other digital communication technologies are supposed to make it easier and more efficient for us to connect with each other — but often those technologies become barriers to real, meaningful human interaction. That was the main theme of Joshua Beamish’s reimagined Giselle that has been updated for our digital age. The point was made too strongly, however, to the extent that the technology being represented became a barrier to emotional connection between the dancers and the audience.

In one scene in particular in the first act, @giselle (Catherine Hurlin) and @albrecht (Harrison James) are video chatting, and their cell phone screens are displayed on the scrim as they dance behind it, almost completely obscured. Another part of the story is told to us through text messages complete with emojis on the scrim, instead of being shown through movement. The integration of “The Village,” an Instagram copy, into the plot was too pervasive. It felt like a gimmick instead of a thoughtful new layer to the story, and I was waiting very patiently for the scrim to finally lift so I could fully see the extremely talented cast including dancers from American Ballet Theatre, The National Ballet of Canada, and Pennsylvania Ballet.

Due to their interactions being mediated via The Village, Hurlin and James barely touch in the first act, and we are deprived of a tender pas de deux. In act two, they finally come together, but the emotional impact is not as strong because it was not established well in the first act. Perhaps this is the point — a demonstration of the ways in which our digital platforms provide the illusion that we are closer to one another when in fact we are isolated and alone.

In this version of the story, @albrecht is a public figure with 928,000 followers, and he seduces @giselle via a second account. When @hilarion (Sterling Baca), who is in love with @giselle, points out the duplicate account and she finds out that @albrecht is engaged to @bathilde (Betsy McBride), a “social encourager” who uses the hashtag #belikebathilde, she succumbs to SADS (Sudden Arrhythmic Death Syndrome).

The Wilis, led by @Myrtha (Yoko Kanomata), lead @hilarion to The Forest Experimental Lounge where they provide him with a special pill so he can have an out of body experience. He imagines the Wilis as spectres, their movements enhanced by beautiful motion capture silhouettes projected onto the scrim (by Brianna Amore). Along with @albrecht, who is feeling guilty for his treatment of @giselle, they imagine her as a pixelated ghost of her former self, particles of her online identity floating across the stage. @hilarion eventually dances himself to death. @albrecht has followed him to the lounge, but it’s too late and he is offered the same pill.

The integration of technology and projections on the scrim was much more effective and meaningful in the second act, but without a strong foundation from the first half, there was little emotional pull to feel for the characters. The entire cast are extremely talented and performed the contemporary choreography with ease, every so often impressing us with a grandiose step such as a series of fouettés or entrechat six’s.

Despite the lack of sustained emotional gravity, this production is significant in that it pushes the boundaries of the form and questions what ballet can be. An art form must always evolve and be relevant to the present moment, so why not have ballets that include interactions with digital technology? The story was carefully and cleverly translated to a time when @giselle and @albrecht would likely interact on a platform such as The Village, and, in the end, Giselle’s death is just as tragic.

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