Lily Verlaine is known for her burlesque productions, but House of Verlaine’s Giselle wasn’t exactly burlesque. Billed as a risqué retelling of the Romantic ballet Giselle, the production took the tragic story boldly into the present. The cast was pulled from Verlaine’s “Exquisite Assemblage of Daring Classical Artists,” all trained in classical ballet, many with contemporary dance and burlesque experience as well.
As a way of bringing classic ballet stories to a broader audience, Verlaine’s approach works quite nicely. Giselle felt much more contemporary set in a haunted house than in a medieval forest with a hunting party. The feminist spin that Verlaine puts on works lent something new to this production as well. Giselle is already a women-centric ballet populated by the spirits of jilted young lovers who dance men to their deaths. They were no less lethal here, but Giselle (Lara Seefeldt), rather than attempting to save her beloved Albrecht (Davione Gordon) from the Willis, was an active participant in his demise.
Seefeld as Giselle was electrifying to watch. As the only female character not en pointe, she was freer in her movement. There were a few moments when the Willis were off balance, and their movement might have felt more solid had they also been barefoot. Seefeld was particularly good when her character was forced to dance by the Willis. Her strong technique, paired with emotional expressiveness, heightened the drama.
In the opening sequence, Giselle and Bathilde (Hannah Simmons) battled for Albrecht’s affection. With their hands in each other’s mouths, they slid a ring off each other using teeth, a physical representation of possession and jealousy. This gesture was very effective. The moments when the Willis (led by Christin Purcell) took possession of their various victims were other instances where abrupt physicality amplified the tension and conveyed the mood well. The Willis represented well the ethereal yet sinister element of their ghostly characters. They physically inserted themselves between the bodies of the living characters—infiltrating a picnic dinner, wedging themselves into sex scenes.
Traditional ballet choreography was peppered in, contrasting the slithering, predatory movement of when they actively seduced (or killed) the other characters. This sometimes felt out of place, and while some of the movement was lovely, at points the choreography might have been better served by being “ballet-inspired” rather than strictly ballet. The transition from a murderous orgy to an arabesque promenade, for example, felt a little prim. That said, the eerie contemporary music helped pull the traditional choreography into the present, and echoes of the famous hopping arabesques from the original ballet were fun to spot.
Also interesting was the recurrence of one particular gesture, that of the arms extended and crossed in front of the body, with the fingers splayed. A similar gesture, with arms crossed at the wrists and the hands in fists, conveys death in classical ballet pantomime. Another, with the right hand pointing to the ring finger, signals marriage. The gesture used in this production seemed like a hybrid between the two, signaling a complicated relationship between marriage and death, a fitting combination since an unrealized marriage initiates lethal tragedy in Giselle.
The resulting emotions from the initial betrayal are equally tangled, and Verlaine’s production explored this through sex scenes rife with both pain and pleasure. For example, the Willis blindfolded Hilarion (Thomas Phelan) at the beginning, prior to seducing and then drowning him in a bathtub. Later, when the ghostly Giselle encountered Albrecht, she likewise lured him into having sex with her before attempting to strangle him to death. Where the first instance felt intentionally deceitful, the second had a different tone. Added to vengeful rage was extant desire and mournful longing, all of which conveyed a snarled emotional landscape.
Though House of Verlaine’s Giselle wasn’t intended as a strictly burlesque production, some of burlesque’s trademark playfulness would have brought some humor to an unsettling story, adding some lightness to the dark designs of the Willis. In this production, stripping down was not an anticipated, lighthearted reveal but a mournful act. While this conveyed some measure of vulnerability in the characters, or served to show different sides of them (the pure white slips of the Willis stripping off to reveal pale leotards streaked and marked with muddy handprints, for example), it was missing some of the sly pride that often comes with a burlesque-style striptease.
Incidentally, that sly pride was in full display in the preview excerpt of the House of Verlaine’s Romeo and Juliet featured at the end of the evening. The playful mood was refreshing and fun, and revealed what may have been missing from this Giselle. The upcoming Romeo and Juliet production, though it will also reimagine a tragic story, promises to have more panache.
House of Verlaine’s Giselle, directed by Rachel Gourd, ran August 31 – September 1 at The Triple Door.
Learn more about House of Verlaine at houseofverlaine.com.