This weekend's world premiere of Ballet BC's new Giselle at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre is the culmination of four years of painstaking restructuring and determined reinvention for the company under the inspired leadership of Artistic Director Emily Molnar. Pushing the company's repertoire in ever more innovative, contemporary, and international directions in a succession of bold and distinctive mixed programs that showcased the depth of talent and individual personalities of its dancers, in many ways Molnar's next logical step was to revisit the classical repertoire and find a story ballet that the company could make all its own. Hence resident choreographer José Navas's commission to update Giselle for the twenty-first century. After last night's performance I can say that, conceptually, Navas has accomplished this task brilliantly. I just wish there was more dance.
Navas has commented extensively in print in the lead-up to the premiere about the paradox of him, Cunningham-trained and steeped in abstraction, tackling one of the iconic tutu ballets and dealing with pantomime. At the same time, he has admitted how the process has, among other things, given him a new admiration for the pointe shoe and the elongated silhouette of the ballerina that comes with it. Which made it all the more surprising last night that apart from the opening sequences of the piece, Giselle (Maggie Forgeron) and the corps of female dancers were in socks, despite spending much of their time in relevé. Perhaps this had to do with the fact that one of Navas's conceptual innovations was to have the men in the corps join the women to make up the Wilis in Act 2. Or maybe this was his natural deconstructive aesthetic meeting classical technique half-way, literally on demi-pointe. Elsewhere, there were conscious allusions to the preparation-execution-release sequencing of ballet's signature moves, as when, for example, Albrecht (Alexander Burton) lifts Giselle at the waist in Act 1 and her feet remain turned out, in first position, or when, in Act 2, the Wilis hoist their leader, Myrtha (Makaila Wallace), aloft while she remains in a deep plié. Indeed, all four of the principals, even Hilarion (Gilbert Small), are lifted in similarly iconic poses throughout both acts, at once isolating them as representative ballet types (the doomed romantic heroine, the glib and oblivious hero, the mysterious stranger/villain, the magical priestess) and as characters subservient to this particular plot.
And it is in terms of the love triangle at the core of Giselle that Navas makes his most interesting changes to the ballet's story, writing in his very comprehensive and intellectually compelling choreographer's note that "in our day, class or status functions less persuasively as an obstacle to love than sexuality does." To this end, rather than Giselle having to choose between the unattainable nobleman Albrecht whom she desperately loves and the peasant Hilarion whom she does not, Navas makes Albrecht and Navas gay lovers and Giselle the woman who threatens to come between them. Again, I think this absolutely works on a conceptual level, and Forgeron, Burton, and Small are all dramatically compelling in their roles. But in terms of the movement they share (at least in Act 1), I was frankly surprised at how little there was and, when it did happen, how pedestrian it seemed. As Giselle, Forgeron spends a lot of time breaking up the hand-holding of Albrecht and Hilarion and generally stumbling around on stage uncomprehendingly. Burton and Small separately and together have moments where they demonstrate their proficient jetés and entrechats. But Forgeron, sans pointe shoes, gets narry an arabesque, let alone the series of dramatic fouettés that in the original staging one might expect would accompany her frenzied dancing of herself to death. To be sure, this relates to another of Navas's changes to the plot, namely that Giselle kills herself (with a knife she finds in Albrecht's coat, and given to him at the top of the piece by Hilarion) rather than dying from a weak--and presumably broken--heart. But the fact that this action takes place while Forgeron is seated on a chair was one more frustration for me.
I get that in stillness there might yet be an abundance of movement (physical and emotional), and that the broken lines of Forgeron's steps reflect not just her character's fragile psychological state, but also a whole history of formal conventions for the female dancer that Navas is subjecting to critique. And, along those lines, it did surprise me the extent to which, last night, I craved adherence to those conventions. The reason for this, I think, is the one element to which Navas, in his program note and in publicity for the piece, claims he felt he owed absolute fidelity: Adolphe Adam's music. When, at different points in the score, there is a crescendo of strings signifying a moment of dramatic intensity, we are cued to expect a similar virtuosic display of movement. Over and over again in Navas's staging--most notably during Giselle's death at the end of Act 1--that doesn't happen. Indeed, the most satisfying moments for me in Act 1 were when the principals were off stage, with Navas providing members of the corps an opportunity to display some amazing physical pyrotechnics. Relatedly, the moment in Act 2 I found the most moving was the duet between Forgeron's Giselle and Wallace's Myrtha that was performed in silence.
Let me be clear: there is so much in this production to admire, including its overall design, which includes stunning video projections and set design by Lino, gorgeous costumes by Linda Chow, and lighting by Marc Parent. And Navas has clearly thought deeply not just about his Giselle's relationship to the original, but also to the entire history of dance since. For example, in the choice of a member of the corps to "play" Giselle at the beginning of the piece--and in her symbolic disrobing--we witness an allusion to Pina Bausch's chosen sacrificial victim in her Rite of Spring. This reference was additionally reinforced for me at the end when the simple white shift Forgeron is wearing is removed to reveal her naked torso, sinewy and muscled like one of Bausch's female dancers, but also like that of the young boy whom she would become were she able, and were it to mean she could then keep her Albrecht.
Moments like these, when the politics of gender and sexuality combined with the poetry of dance, were many last night, and always kept me engaged. I look forward to grappling with the work's layers and complexities even further as it is remounted in the coming years.