Ballet British Columbia’s updating of the 19th century classic Giselle is quite entertaining. It’s not perfect, but for artistic director Emily Molnar, the risk has paid off. Company resident choreographer José Navas has managed to put his own spin on a ballet warhorse, while keeping the quintessence of the original story and crafting an attractive production.
Navas’s decision to keep Adolphe Adam’s beloved 1841 original score is an important factor in the ballet’s success, sparing us what often happens in radical rethinks of ballet classics – namely, sampling the original music with dreary electronica cacophony. Even those ballet purists who hate Navas’s treatment can take comfort in the familiar score.
In fact, it is Adam’s music that supplies the emotional through-line that, sadly, is lacking in Navas’s characterizations. For a love triangle that ends in death, Navas’s choreography is curiously lacking in passion. Opting to be a medium-cool choreographer does a disservice to his often fetching movement.
In the original story, the peasant girl Giselle finds out that her beau is not only a nobleman in disguise, but is already betrothed to a princess. Duke Albrecht’s duplicity is exposed by Hilarion, the gamekeeper who loves Giselle. The heroine dies when her weak heart gives way to grief.
In the second act, Giselle has become a Wili, one of the malevolent spirits of young girls who were betrayed by their lovers and died before their wedding day. Led by their merciless queen Myrtha, the Wilis drive Hilarion to his death, but their attempt to kill Albrecht is thwarted by the forgiving Giselle.
She keeps Albrecht dancing until dawn breaks, forcing the spirits to retreat. He is left alone and in sorrow.
The cornerstone of Navas’s revision is that class distinctions are not the barrier to true love that they once were. His nod to 21st century sensibility is having Albrecht (Connor Gnam) and Hilarion (Gilbert Small) as the lovers. A bisexual Albrecht’s dalliance with Giselle (Alexis Fletcher), followed by his rejection, is what drives her to slit her own throat.
The second act takes place in the mind of an Albrecht who is tortured by guilt. Myrtha (Makaila Wallace) is the spirit guide leading Giselle to her afterlife. As the memory of Giselle fades, Albrecht returns to Hilarion.
Navas, inspired by the ancient Greek theatre of Sophocles, has transformed the corps de ballet into an everyman chorus.
In the first act, they are clad in black. Costume designer Linda Chow has created close-fitting hats that completely cover the head and part of the face. The dancers are totally anonymous, except for the fact that the women are on point.
The chorus role in the first act is two-fold. They mirror the states of mind of the lead trio by duplicating their movement, such as the joyous leaps of the Giselle/Albrecht courtship. They are also harbingers of death, egging the trio on to their doom. An oft-repeated movement has the chorus elevating the characters vertically into the air, and placing them in position for the next encounter.
In the second act, clad in white dresses and sporting netted face masks, they are the spirits. The women are off point. The chorus role is following the command of Myrtha (the only one in trousers), as they slowly separate Giselle from Albrecht.
Navas is better known as a contemporary choreographer, but he has taken on the ballet vocabulary with full vigour, although he has not reinvented the wheel. His movement, when deconstructed, is quite conventional.
He does, however, put together combinations that are downright exciting. The second act contains his finest moments. The chorus of spirits is especially effective as they move with astonishing grace.
A particularly beautiful sequence has both men and women delicately traversing the stage on demi-point, then executing lyrical turns, their soft arms raised in elegant curves. Lighting designer Marc Parent has magically made their costumes whiter than white, enhancing the otherworldly ambience.
The choreographer’s homage to the original should be noted. Giselle’s first act contains the celebrated peasant pas de quatre performed by Giselle’s friends. Navas has substituted four couples from the chorus portraying different aspects of heterosexual love.
Which takes us to the four main characters. In a word, they are bland. Ballet BC is a company of acting dancers, so it has to be Navas who deliberately excised overt emotion. Perhaps he wanted to avoid the trap of sentiment, but doing so robbed his ballet of heart.
The four dance exquisitely, but this Giselle is a love triangle in name only. They walk the walk, but not the talk. As for Myrtha, by taking away the vengeance factor, we are left with a commander who represents peace and rest. It is merely a pretty second act.
The weakest aspect of the ballet is the animated projections of acclaimed Montreal graphic artist Lino that appear above the stage action on a huge screen. The symbolism is obscure, to say the least, more puzzling and distracting than evocative.
That said, the dancers are wonderful. Swelling the ranks of the 14-member Ballet BC are two guest dancers, three apprentices and six graduate students from the Arts Umbrella, a well-known Vancouver ballet academy. That they all gel into a tightly disciplined chorus makes the visual experience that much more enjoyable.
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