While he may have trained in classical ballet, Vancouver-based choreographer Joshua Beamish’s career has flourished inside the contemporary ballet scene. It was perhaps an inevitability though that after fourteen years since forming MOVETHECOMPANY in 2005, Beamish would eventually cast his eye to the classics.
Setting his sights high, Beamish will present the world-premiere of @giselle in Vancouver this September with an updated version of what many consider to be a masterwork in the classical ballet canon.
“Back in 2015, I was working at the Royal Opera House in London, and the artistic director said that he was curious to see what I would do with narrative ballet,” explains Beamish. “So he asked me to look at all the narrative ballets that they were doing that season, and then to pick one that interested me.”
The result was Reimagining Giselle, a half-hour work that would eventually become the spark for the full-length @giselle in 2019.
“I found myself really intrigued by what I had done in those little studies, and so I kept further developing the project, and four years later here we are,” he says.
For some, the idea of tackling a ballet as iconic as Giselle might give them pause. For Beamish though, it would be the ballet’s complicated music and the way in which the movement often repeats through its changing rhythm and signature that would give him his biggest inspiration for this contemporary update.
“That allowed me the space to relate to the choreography of the very original productions, but add more movement and to play with the musicality a lot more than the original choreography does,” he says. “What’s beautiful about the classical Giselle is how simple it is, and so I felt like there was room for me to make a much more complicated version of the story.”
The original 1841 version of Giselle tells the story of a young peasant girl’s journey through the many dimensions of love and betrayal. Dying of a broken heart after discovering her lover Albrecht is betrothed to someone else, a group of mystic and supernatural women called The Wilis, summon Giselle from her grave.
In Beamish’s updated narrative, it is now present-day and Giselle has been betrayed, isolated, and ghosted by her romantic partner on social media. In a state of heightened anxiety, she live-streams her death, later returning as a digital projection to haunt her male tormentors.
To accomplish the digital reincarnation of Giselle, Beamish turned to motion-capture, a technology he was unfamiliar with and one most widely used by the video game and film industries. The result is what he calls a haunting tension between the live and digital realities inside @giselle.
“It’s rare that choreography as complex, in terms of the isolation of the joints, is motion-captured,” he says. “And so there was a big process to learn how to choreograph and relate what I do effectively for motion capture.”
Coming into play in act two as The Wilis make their appearance, Beamish was looking for a way to make these mysterious spirits, who pressure the male dancers to dance to their deaths, feel translucent as if passing through their bodies.
“The Wilis are represented both by live dancers and by motion capture,” he says. “I feel like that has allowed me to take the production and make it into more of a haunting thriller and a ghost story.”
Alongside the motion-capture, @giselle also utilizes projections. Unlike motion-capture, Beamish has worked previously with this type of technology, although he never felt the final product in previous works was entirely successful.
“I felt like the two mediums were competing against each other instead of working together,” he explains. “For this project, I’ve invested a lot of time with the projection designer Brianna Amore to really build the visuals.”
While technology will help to tell the story visually, Beamish has also embraced our 21st-century obsession with social media to bring further relevance to the work.
Asked by the artistic director at the Royal Opera House back in 2015 to relate the story to the world as he saw it, Beamish began thinking of his own experiences with dating, his relationship with friends online, and how people create and curate their online identities.
“The story is focused on deception and the misunderstanding of romantic availability,” he says. “I think that’s something that is really easy to promote online these days where someone can have a separate profile and present themselves as single, but they’re actually married or in another relationship.”
Looking to provide his Giselle with a rational explanation for her descent into madness, it was within our online world where Beamish looked for inspiration.
“I feel like the pressures of the internet, and particularly social media, are really impactful on young people’s psychology right now,” he says. “And Giselle’s ultimate insanity is actually not so far-fetched when you consider what social media can do to young people.”
Helping to bring @giselle to the stage, Beamish has gathered a company of renowned dancers from across Canada and the United States. Among them are Catherine Hurlin, the 2019 Erik Bruhn Prize-winner, and soloist with the American Ballet Theatre, who will dance the role of Giselle.
Originally set to perform as one of The Wilis soloists in the ballet’s second act, Hurlin found herself re-cast into the title role. And while she is no stranger to Giselle, having previously danced in the classical ballet as both a corps member and in the peasant pas de deux, this will be her first chance to dance the title role.
“I had no idea what I was getting myself into, but I’m still glad that I did and I’m really fortunate,” she says.
Attached to the project since the workshop production three years ago, it was both the relevance to today and the use of technology that has sustained her excitement over the years.
“I think that it’s such a great concept to take such a classic story where society and culturally it’s so different, and then make it part of our culture today,” she says. “I thought that that was brilliant and I wanted it to be a part of it.”
Dancing the title role, Hurlin will perform opposite Harrison James who will dance the role of her love interest, Albrecht. A principal dancer with The National Ballet of Canada, James is also no stranger to Giselle having danced the role of Albrecht in the classical version of the ballet.
“I like his character, which you can play a couple of different ways, and I try to make it a little less of a dick,” he says with a laugh. “But it’s also just the classicism of the ballet; it’s so romantic dancing. Act two is one of my favorite things to do, and the male dances so much, it’s enjoyable.”
Having a connection to the classic version of Giselle didn’t mean James was apprehensive about joining Beamish’s updated version. Instead, he trusted the vision from the choreographer he has known and worked with for more than a decade.
“I’m a huge fan of his choreography and the way he works,” he says. “I kept hearing about this project since he started working on it four years ago, and I was hoping from the get-go that I would be able to be involved.”
Eventually joining the company of @giselle a year ago, much of the rehearsal for the piece has been somewhat fractured.
“I don’t know how he does it really, because he’s got all these different bits of choreography with different people in different locations and he’s managed to keep it all in his head somehow,” says James. “That’s really impressive.”
Coming together in New York with the leads in act one of @giselle for the first time in just the past couple of weeks, it was James’ first opportunity to see it all start coming together.
“It was really cool for me to see what Josh has done with the narrative,” he says. “And I think he’s done a great job with making dance tell a story without pausing for those ‘mind sections’ that you see in classical ballet. The story’s being told, even though we’re dancing non-stop, which I think is really interesting.”
While no stranger to the use of technology in ballet, having performed in the projection-heavy Frame By Frame last year at The National Ballet of Canada, James acknowledges @giselle goes much further with the use of motion-capture.
“There is nothing like what I’m doing now in Josh’s production because I’m interacting with Giselle as a projected being, partnering with it, and dancing with it,” he says.
The projected image of Giselle in Beamish’s contemporary version also helps to set it apart from the classic, with much of Catherin Hurlin’s performance taking place digitally, rather than on stage.
“Usually, she has a full act on stage but in Josh’s version it’s something like seven or eight minutes of time where Catherine is actually on stage and the rest is projected images of her,” he says. “But there’s a really good natural mix between the two characters as she becomes more and more real in Albrecht’s mind and finally materializes as a real person.”
That isn’t to say Beamish totally ignores the classical ballet in his quest for relevancy today.
“He hasn’t completely departed from some of the signature moments from the classical production of Giselle,” he says. “While it’s very modern ballet, people who know the classical ballet will also see a lot of references to certain parts of the original which are transformed for the 21st century.”
It is through this modern narrative makeover that Beamish hopes audiences will see themselves reflected in @giselle.
“I hope that it asks them to question the ways that they relate to one another, and how they value their accountability to each other online,” he says. “I also hope that they think that they’re seeing the ballet in a way that they haven’t before, and that it feels very relevant to the world that they inhabit themselves.”
@giselle opens at the Vancouver Playhouse on September 5 and continues through September 7. Visit joshuabeamish.com for tickets and information.