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Gram Technique

If you thought Akram Khan’s 2016 update of “Giselle”—which resituated the 1841 classic to apply to modern migrant workers in a haunted garment factory—was radical, you should see Joshua Beamish’s 2019 “@giselle,” which takes place almost entirely over social media. I should clarify. This is not an online viewing situation, one watches “@giselle” in-person at an actual theater. (To be specific: the NY premiere of “@giselle” was held at the Gerald W. Lynch Theater at John Jay College.) But projections of Instagram-esque formatting, by Brianna Amore, were cast onto a scrim and framed nearly every scene. The flesh-and-blood performers danced either in front of or behind these magnified screengrabs, and these same dancers appeared often in film clips and in photos in the projections. For example, the ballet opened with a video of American Ballet Theatre soloist Betsy McBride, who danced the title role, primping and making selfie duck faces into her smartphone camera while crafting her headshot for the Village, the fictional media platform on which most of the ballet’s events unfolded. To the rising and falling of the music—Beamish used the original score by Adolphe Adam—McBride toggled with the lighting filters on her image. It was a clever introduction to Beamish’s smart and piercing rethinking of ballet’s greatest ghost story.

Performance

“@giselle” by Joshua Beamish

Place

Gerald W. Lynch Theater, John Jay College, New York, NY, May 19, 2023

Words

Faye Arthurs

Fangqi Li and Harrison James in “@giselle.” Photograph by Nina Wurtzel

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Kira Radosevic, Chloe Bennett, Sterling Baca, and Yoko Kanomata in “@giselle.” Photograph by Nina Wurtzel

The plot machinations of the 19th century “Giselle” worked surprisingly well in an online context. In the original, the nobleman Albrecht slums it in peasant garb and woos the villager Giselle under a secret identity, Loys. In Beamish’s retelling, the Public Figure @albrecht has a second, fake Village handle, @loys, through which he flirts with @giselle in a catfishing scenario. (Janie Taylor’s fabulous costumes split the divide perfectly, nodding towards the Rhenish original and also towards Uniqlo.) They danced a real-life pas de deux together, with @loys angling for further intimacy and @giselle rebuffing him. Beamish fleetingly quoted some of the original choreography by Jean Coralli and Jules Perrot, but he also employed a lot of the turned-in front leg poses, line-breaking, and forced-arch prances that dot his style.

Betsy McBride as @giselle. Photograph by Nina Wurtzel

In another scene, the lovers shared increasingly randy private videos with each other, before @giselle’s mother, @mamaberthe, summoned her daughter for dinner via text message. Their seduction was framed in close-up videos on the scrim, but they also danced mostly the same steps behind it in real time. Later, in an affecting episode, @mamaberthe danced a panicky solo behind a Google-like search scroll for information on fainting, discovering SADS (Sudden Arrhythmic Death Syndrome) and correctly armchair diagnosing her daughter’s heart condition. Who in the Covid era hasn’t done a variation on this dance?

The stark contrast between @giselle and @albrecht’s actual fiancée—@bathilde, a social influencer—was well-drawn through their respective photo walls. @giselle’s generic pics were a bore next to the art-directed gallery of @bathilde, whose only candid shots featured her swanning about in a gown on the promenade of the Koch Theater at a gala. Tellingly, while @giselle has but a handful of followers, the power couple has many hundreds of thousands apiece. It was amusing how, as Act I progressed, @loys couldn’t help but attract a hefty following with his laid-back (and primarily shirtless) photo diary of coolness, despite his attempts at covertness. In a nice, karmic twist, his cocky magnetism was partly responsible for the exposure of his ruse. Well, that and a suggested-friends-in-common algorithm, discovered by the lowly @hilarion, crushing hard on his buddy @giselle.

Betsy McBride as @giselle. Photograph by Nina Wurtzel

Giselle’s famous mad scene played out powerfully in Beamish’s updated scenario, demonstrating the suffocating pressures of social media on teens and young adults. After posting a series of suicidal status updates on the Village, @giselle livestreamed a dance of despair. @hilarion and @albrecht tune in, as do a growing horde of anonymous Villagers. The viral attention is too much for @giselle, and she dies from anxiety-induced SADS in the white-hot internet spotlight. This conceit was highly impactful, but the screen of exponentially multiplying Villager-watchers dominated @giselle’s onstage death, just as the computer graphics tended to overpower the live dancing throughout Act I. As in real life, it was hard to ignore the tech at hand and focus on the actual humans on the stage. This was the well-made point, of course: the Village world is more compelling than real life. But it forced the live dancing to take a back seat.

Act II was the opposite. The original story was not as neatly transposed in the latter half, and the dancing reclaimed center stage. Since “Giselle’s” Act II is a straight-up ghost story, with the vengeful Wili spirits murdering men left and right in spooky woods, it poses problems for modern adaptation. Beamish made some bold moves with the narrative here, brilliantly turning @giselle into a ghost in the machine as @albrecht danced with a shadowy, pixelated figure in pas de deux across mediums—he in three-dimensional space, she in computer projections. But Beamish’s contemporary equivalent for the Wili tribe was less of a bullseye: he had both @hilarion and @albrecht, reeling, end up at the Forest Experiential Lounge, where they tried to find escape through hallucinatory pills. @hilarion experienced a terrifying victimization fantasy at the hands of the women staff before dying from an overdose, while @albrecht imagined that @giselle was still alive and danced with her before going home and confronting a pained @bathilde.

Harrison James and Betsy McBride in “@giselle.” Photograph by Nina Wurtzel

Though the anonymous female employees of the Forest lacked the awesome backstory and motive of the original Wilis (the ghosts of maidens spurned by lovers, who died of broken hearts), their dancing was among the most memorable in “@giselle.” It was a breath of fresh air to see so many bodies moving together after all the disjointed solos, duets, and trios against the barrage of selfies, status updates, and other imagery on the scrim. Yoko Kanomata was great as Myrtha, the Wilis’ leader. The excellent cast also included McBride, Sterling Baca of The Philadelphia Ballet as @hilarion, Fangqi Yi of ABT as @bathilde, and Beverly Bagg as @mamaberthe, swishing her long skirt with pathos. But, despite the title, “@giselle” belonged to @albrecht/@loys. National Ballet of Canada principal Harrison James was gorgeous in the role, particularly in his plaintive Act II solos, which were the most riveting part of the ballet.

Fangqi Li as @bathilde and Harrison James as @albrecht/@loys in “@giselle.” Photograph by Nina Wurtzel

James’s role was the most engrossing from the start. Beamish wrote in the program, “The fears associated with the long overdue loss of supreme male power are very real for many men, resulting in either unfounded male victimization or thoughtful reevaluation of their behavior.” This seemed to be his driving force, which was an exciting departure for narrative ballet (the male protagonist in almost every full-length is a princely cardboard cutout). But as such, @giselle herself was just another sacrificial lamb in service of some handsome cad’s personal growth. @giselle never felt fully realized, and her courtship with @loys was ultimately hollow. Their brief reunion during his drug trip was utterly one-sided. It was not about their great passion, for she was a figment of his imagination, and they never had a real connection anyway. In all their interactions, he mostly tried to pressure her to take her clothes off—to meet him in his vapid, topless, social media space. Beamish also wrote, “Traditional romance is evaporating.” This was his most scathing commentary in “@giselle.” Love is an impossibility in the Village. Where the original Giselle was a weak-hearted girl who became strong-hearted in death—finding empowerment and eternal grace through true love and a profound act of mercy, @giselle was doomed before the curtain even rose.

Faye Arthurs


Faye Arthurs is a former ballet dancer with New York City Ballet. She chronicled her time as a professional dancer in her blog Thoughts from the Paint. She graduated summa cum laude with a B.A. in English from Fordham University. She lives in Brooklyn with her partner and their sons.

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