By BRUCE DENNILL
J’Zel: A Re-Imagining / Choreographed by Ignatius Van Heerden and Weslee Swain Lauder / NSA Downstairs Theatre / Johannesburg
Giselle, the ballet, has a pretty left-field plot to begin with, what with the spirits of dead girls forcing men to dance themselves to death, the heroine biting the dust before the halfway point and all the rest. So using that story as a “jumping off point” (in their words) for an edgy contemporary take that uses teen Twitter spelling for its title and teen muscle, skill and passion for almost everything else.
The show stars the students of the Oakfields College of Dance and Musical Theatre, and on the small, bare stage of the Downstairs Theatre at the Nationals School of the Arts in Braamfontein, they create all the colour, movement and drama that makes this production an interesting addition to the modern ballet landscape.
Costume designer Ileen Eloff’s work lingers with you after you leave, suggesting that the storyboard for the show might have been sketched by Tim Burton and that Elizabeth Banks’ stylist for The Hunger Games might have been lurking backstage. There are striped ringmaster trousers, corsets, peacock feathers, four-foot-long red gloves that conceal a pair of crutches and some very expensive haircuts.
The vision of artistic directors and choreographers Ignatius Van Heerden and Weslee Swain Lauder is maintained throughout its hour or so running time, which is saying something, as Adolphe Adam’s original music for the ballet is mashed up with compositions from One Ensemble, Midnight Syndicate and Sigur Ros and the piece requires wall-to-wall (sometimes literally) massed steps and complicated manoeuvring past each other, all of which is achieved with some panache by the Oakfields dancers.
Those moments are visually arresting, but the sequences when the stage is occupied by just one or two dancers are just as effective. The pas de deux featuring Michael Hyams and Kaylan Sabbadin features a number of strength elements that are closer in style to acrobatics than balet, while Nicolene During’s solo, in which crutches give her the appearance of having very long, powerful arms, speaks of considerable physical strength and endurance. Michael Fullard is perhaps the best of the bunch, his technique just a touch crisper than some of his colleagues and his confidence manifesting in significant stage presence.
Audiences with no knowledge of the original classic ballet need not worry about being unable to figure out what’s going on, as the correlation between the pieces is relatively incidental. J’Zel will develop its own reputation for its style and imagination.