If you are looking for the romantic story of a beautiful princess dancing her way through the castle gates, waiting for her strong prince to come and complete her, Giselle is not for you. There is romance, there is grace, but you will find it in unexpected ways that challenge the boundaries of sexuality and gender. This is not your mother’s ballet.
Contemporary choreographer Jose Navas has taken Adolphe Adam’s original concept of Giselle, first composed in 1844, which centered around a girl who falls in love with a man above her social standing, and transformed it into an abstract love triangle which spans the limitations of societal hierarchy. The ballet opens with a delicately passionate display of commitment between Albrecht and Hilarion, played by Connor Gnam* and Gilbert Small respectively. Giselle, played by Alexis Fletcher**, falls in love with Albrecht only to realize he is engaged to another man. She is heartbroken and confused and takes her own life. This is Act One.
The lead performers are energetic and tragic, using Navas’ unique movements to enhance their characters disjointed experiences. The style appears as a combination of traditional ballet and interpretive puppetry as the dancers sometimes come across as awkward organisms floating onstage, independent from their bodies. The chorus consists of faceless men and women who reflect the emotions exhibited by our leads, and create the two settings of the real world, and the afterlife.
In the first Act, the chorus is clad in black pantsuits that suggest a monotony of day-to-day life. In the second Act, the chorus, including the men, wear flowing white skirts and appear more open in heaven. This cross-gender costuming makes for a fascinating commentary on social norms in traditional ballet. The amazing thing is that with the men being so graceful and talented, and the women being quite broad shouldered and powerful, it is often difficult to tell them apart. Then one realizes that this doesn’t even matter. I come to the ballet to see beauty, regardless of what body this is housed in. Costume Designer Linda Chow truly succeeded in provoking questions of gender identity and what we as a society assign to this concept, both in art and life.
The backdrop to the entire performance is a giant animated screen, which evolves and mutates to compliment the events onstage. It was eerie and beautiful, displaying scrawled words of love, betrayal and isolation amongst a colour scheme of grays, blacks and shocking red. Note: this may not have been the entire colour palette, but it contains the images that most stayed with me. Lino, the company’s animation and set designer used the falling of petals and leaves to reflect and contrast with moments of slow movement amongst our dancers. The result is a visually startling relationship between live action and constructed imagery.
This joint production of Ballet BC and Arts Umbrella brings a new wave of modern, challenging, and intelligent performance art to Vancouver. While at times the show can feel a little too free and without structure, I would encourage anyone looking for something fresh and beautiful in the artistic world to see Giselle and draw your own conclusions about its universal beauty.
*Albrecht is played by Connor Gnam on April 25th and 27th and by Alexander Burton on April 26th.
**Giselle is played by Alexis Fletcher on April 25th and 27th and by Maggie Forgeron on April 26th.