Joshua Beamish @giselle Review May 13, 2023 | The Gerald W. Lynch Theater at John Jay College – New York, NY, USA
Have you ever been left on read? Then this ballet is for you.
Set in an era with social media access, the heavy lifting of the storytelling in Joshua Beamish’s version of Giselle, called @giselle, is done through clever digital projections of messages on a fabricated social platform playfully referred to as The Village.
@giselle has a few hundred followers, @albrecht almost a million, and @loys (Albrecht’s finsta) has a suspicious zero followers at the start of the show.
Based on Jean Coralli and Jules Perrot’s 1841 ballet Giselle to Adolphe Adam’s score, this version also uses the same score and holds true to the basic outline of the original: girl with heart condition meets boy, boy breaks girl’s heart when she finds out he is already engaged, girl dies and becomes a ghost.
A hit even in its early days, the story is still told today as a staple of classical repertoire (you can see American Ballet Theatre’s version nearly every other year).
I am a firm supporter of the retelling of stories, which is after all how we got the wonderful West Side Story (a revamp of Romeo and Juliet), and it seems Beamish agrees:
“@giselle is not meant to replace Giselle. We offer this work as both a companion and a reconsideration.”
With the only props being a bench and some flowers, the production relies heavily on dramatic lighting by Abigail Hoke-Brady and brilliant digital effects by Brianna Amore. The projections are witty, charming, and explicitly relatable, driving understanding chuckles from the audience.
In this version, after Giselle and Loys meet in person, they take their relationship back online where it quickly heats up.
Loys and Giselle dance upstage while selfies project onto a downstage scrim for a satisfying layering effect imitating their video chats with each other. The duo is nearly undressed, Loys in his underwear and the more naïve Giselle with a few dress buttons undone, before she is interrupted by her mother.
Beamish seems to be commenting on social media customs replacing meaningful real-life relationships, calling it a “realm of hypothetical possibility and elevated fantasy”.
Loys’ messages are heated and pressing:
“just worked out, going to hit the shower” “what are you wearing right now”
Even the ubiquitous eggplant emoji made an appearance, completely skipping the cordial stage which Giselle seems not to mind.
We are also privy to what Giselle’s mother, Berthe, and Hilarion (the recipient of Giselle’s unrequited infatuation) are browsing online.
For Berthe, she searches “what to do if your child faints”. Never-ending search results of varying illnesses scroll across the scrim before she lands on SADS – Sudden Arrhythmic Death Syndrome.
Hilarion, through a “people you may know” suggestion on his The Village app, discovers that Loys and Albrecht are the same person (much like in the original Giselle where he discovers the prince’s identity by finding his sword).
Bathilde, Albrecht’s fiancé and owner of 1.5MM followers and the hashtag #belikebathilde, also helps Giselle come to the realization that Albrecht and Loys are one and the same (in a gradually appearing digital rendering of Albrecht/Loys’ face on the scrim) as the girls discuss details of their loves to each other.
Beamish’s choreography is highly gestural but more metaphorical than literal. Hands dominate the movement: palms press against each other in an upside-down prayer behind dancer’s backs, Giselle places her hand repeatedly to her left hip, fingers bisect palms, and those palms carve around cheekbones and foreheads.
The choreography is inundated with constant vocabulary, stuffed almost to the brim so that when a dancer does extend a limb, the wideness of their extension is like a breath of fresh air.
It has the look of a quick conversation, reverberating from bodies in run-on sentences. Perhaps another comment on our society’s constant need for communication?
Solos were the most interesting while pas de deux and group work (which didn’t appear until Act 2) lacked the same intricacy and could have benefited from more unique patterns.
A star-studded cast graced the stage including Betsy McBride (Soloist from ABT) as Giselle, Harrison James (Principal with The National Ballet of Canada) as Albrecht/Loys, Sterling Baca (Principal dancer from Philadelphia Ballet) as Hilarion, Fangqi Li, (Corps de Ballet with ABT) as Bathilde, and Beverley Bagg (former Principal with the PACT Ballet Company in South Africa) as Berthe.
McBride has an expressive face which worked well both for Giselle’s naïveté and the famous mad scene which in this case took place as a “live video” broadcast on The Village for millions of viewers after Loys ghosted her. Her hair fell from her bun, fanning out wildly with every angry toss of her arms – in the original she seemed to go mad while in this version she became angry, agitating her heart condition.
James’ lines were pristine, hitting every shape with clarity, and with added athleticism especially highlighted in the demanding, repeated entrechat six in Act 2 (a direct callout to the original).
Baca is an intense Hilarion with powerful technique and acting skills and Li is a regal Bathilde. Bagg has a lovely port de bras which held the choreography beautifully.
It’s no secret that social media and cyberbullying have been the causes of devastating events for young people. Giselle’s live video feed of her downward spiral is a megaphone moment, millions of viewers watch her descend, ultimately to her death, and do nothing but watch.
In many ways it’s similar to the original ballet, where the townsfolk watch her madness grow in person, only offering empty gestures and furrowed brows.
For all the laughs that Act 1 brought, it also delivered a dose of the reality of our desensitized culture.
The same cleverness of Act 1 unfortunately didn’t carry into Act 2 but it makes sense why – ghosts can’t use social media.
But beyond that, the story gets a little fuzzy: there are seductive spirits dancing in a lounge but it’s unclear what exactly their role is and Albrecht dances with a digital projection longer than he does with the actual Giselle.
The end is also a bit too buttoned up; instead of letting Albrecht’s guilt rest on the stage, we get a pas de deux with Bathilde and then Berthe re-enters to have a moment, almost overshadowing the heartbreak.
Beamish’s concept is good and there are many wins here: the first act is understandable for any level of ballet familiarity – he brought humor to a sorrowful tale, and made the nearly 200-year-old story accessible.
If young people can go to the ballet and feel like saying “it me”, then that is something worth exploring.
Featured Photo for this Joshua Beamish @giselle review of Betsy McBride as the title character. Photo by Nina Wurtzel.
Nadia Vostrikov is a former television actress and dancer for Boston Ballet II, Alberta Ballet, and numerous freelance dance companies. She currently works as a Digital Marketer in NYC. (Photo by: Katrina Cunningham)