If you have followed this blog for a while, then you already know that Giselle is my favourite ballet. When I first heard that English National Ballet had commissioned Akram Khan to stage a new version of the work, I was immediately intrigued and happy to have my ideas challenged. Among classical ballets, Giselle (together with Emilia’s own favourite, La Sylphide) – with its narrative based on universal themes of love, betrayal and redemption - offers a wealth of dramatic opportunities for both female and male dancers, and gives the corps de ballet memorable ensemble scenes.
Of course, there have been other modern versions of Giselle, but I have always found them frustrating to an extent. A change in context (for instance, Mats Ek’s asylum version) often leads to a change of motivations on the character’s side, reducing the emotional impact of the above mentioned themes. With this version, I had been expecting a slick reinvention of the beloved classic, maybe set somewhere else – definitely not Rhineland! – danced to Khan’s signature vocabulary, and overall along the same minimalist lines as in contemporary opera stagings these days. What I definitely didn’t expect was how the work would resonate with our times, and more impressively, the way in which Khan manages to portray images of inequality & marginalisation, capitalism, gender and immigration, without making the work feel opportunistic. It all starts from the moment the curtain is raised and the first thing we notice is a huge wall marked with hundreds of human handprints.
At its core, the narrative is the same, but Giselle is now a member of a community of garment factory workers, living in the ruins of a derelict industrial estate, separated from the landlords by a huge wall, as a symbol of the class divide. Albrecht is a nobleman who has disguised himself as one of the workers. Hilarion is the landlords’ go-between. He bullies the workers, and has a thing for Giselle. Here, the ensemble dances are electrifying and one marvels at the speed of ENB’s dancers, a combination of Asian influences, folk dances and balletic movement resulting in patterns that swiftly change while informing us about the factory work routine. In contrast, a tender duet between Giselle and Albrecht depicts the quiet, joyous moments of life among adversity.
The nobles on the other side of the wall finally enter the scene, and they are dressed in high fashion (think McQueen’s Savage Beauty). But Albrecht’s true nature is not revealed to the audience early on, which is a pity. Khan seems to put more emphasis on the character of Hilarion (portrayed by a show-stealing César Corrales), by far his most complex creation. This is a shame, since I feel there is a lot of scope to explore Albrecht’s different personalities (in the classic Giselle, we can have “snobbish Albrecht”, “hopelessly-in-love Albrecht”, “clueless Albrecht”, etc), especially because James Streeter and Isaac Hernández are both excellent, and could have done much in an expanded role.
The two Giselles I saw, Tamara Rojo and Alina Cojocaru, were quite distinctive: Rojo’s Giselle is self-assured, strong, in charge of her destiny, you could even believe she could lead an uprising. In contrast, Cojocaru’s younger Giselle is joy personified, a woman in love with life, broken by the man who loved her. As Albrecht ultimately betrays Giselle and their unborn child, they are discreetly “dealt with” by Hilarion, acting for the landlords (to give more details would be to spoil Act 2).
The second Act follows the original closely, with the Wilis bringing Giselle back to life and Giselle saving Albrecht as her last act of love. Khan’s Wilis are terrifying (eat your heart out The Walking Dead!) a powerful, visually arresting way to represent our history of gender violence (Stina Quagebeur’s Myrtha was the ultimate angel of revenge). I also admired the superlative work of Vincenzo Lamagna, who crafted a score that deconstructs themes of Adam’s original piece in only one month, fusing them with electronic beats, folk rhythms and voices (I particularly loved the use of Albrecht’s Act 2 entrance music in the final duet, using theme and variations). The designs and costumes by Tim Yip are clever and inventive (though we would have liked a prop or visual clue that reveals Albrecht’s noble birth) and Mark Henderson’s lighting creates exciting effects, particularly in Act 2.
Even if this Giselle seems more preoccupied with its central themes, than with following a clear narrative, it manages to go beyond simple reinterpretation. It’s a modern ballet with powerful visuals and choreographic language. Its problems could (and should) be relatively easy to fix for the next revival in September 2017. Whether you are a fan of the classical Giselle, or a ballet newbie looking for an inspiring evening at the theatre, I highly recommend this version.
Akram Khan’s Giselle will be back at Sadler’s Wells 20-23 September 2017. For more information and to book tickets visit Sadler’s Wells website.