After a prolonged gap, the first performance in our autumn dance calendarÂ was English National Ballet’s revival of Akram Khan’s Giselle at Sadler’s Wells last month. The production was hailed a triumph when it premiered in 2016 and we were definitelyÂ among its many fans. We liked that KhanÂ had gone beyond than just re-dressing the ballet and that, together with his dramaturg Ruth Little, he had set the story in a garment factory of migrant workers against the backdrop of a wall. This wall separates them from the “others”, the landlords, who in turn exploitÂ the migrants as cheap labour.
Since then, this production has touredÂ widely, winning new fans around the world. Tickets for this revival at Sadler’s Wells were like gold dust, and it seemsÂ the ballet has managed to bring in new audiences, who will hopefullyÂ becomeÂ ENB regulars. This was my first time revisiting the production, so I wanted to look at it with fresh eyes andÂ see if the ballet would impress me again. I jotted down some quick thoughts to share here:
1) An Universal Giselle
Despite changes in the ballet’s setting, its character motivations and in the actual choreography, Giselle remains the woman whoÂ gives her heart away to the wrong man and whose love eventually saves him. I noticed that Khan’s Giselle is perhaps more mature,Â and that the languageÂ he gives Giselle in her exchanges with Albrecht is more sensual. Giselle’s gestures and the way she touches Albrecht’s face indicate a degree of intimacy not found in the traditional version, and it is interesting to also note howÂ two seasoned traditionalÂ Giselles, Tamara Rojo and Alina Cojocaru are fully at home in this new version.
2) Hilarion’s Star Turn
InÂ the original run, CÃ©sar Corrales almost stole everyone’s thunder as Hilarion. I remember getting the feeling that KhanÂ had beenÂ more invested in this character, who is trapped between two worlds and rejects his community, his own origins. He certainly gives the bestÂ moments to Hilarion, and this time around, the impression remains, with Jeffrey CirioÂ taking the character and making it his own. Dazzling and energetic, Cirio leaves a lasting impression and I’m stillÂ trying to understand how he could moveÂ at such speed.
3) The Scary Wilis
Stina Quagebeur remains a terrifying and authoritative sight as Myrtha. Akram Khan’s “white act” is eery and dramatic and makes me think of the army of white walkers in Game of Thrones (yet another wall!). We might not know who they really are, but we know they show no mercy towards Hilarion, who pays the ultimate karmicÂ debt for his duplicitous behaviour.
4) TheÂ New Score
I enjoyed Vincenzo Lamagnaâ€™s score even more this time around. Amidst layers of electronica and percussion, heÂ calls back Adolphe Adam’s classic scoreÂ in a clever and effective way, setting the mood for each scene. The energising rhythms fuel the corps de ballet, driving their super fast movements across the stage. It’s theÂ rightÂ choice for Khan’s choreographic style.
5) A Theme that is EternalÂ
At its premiere, Khan’s ballet suggested connections to the migrant crisis and Trump’s wall. But in 2019, what resonates with me is how itÂ speaks about divided populations along a variety of lines, andÂ of the current cultural wars. If forgiveness, understanding and love are messages that GiselleÂ is supposed to embody, these are cleverly emphasised Khan’s version. They are made even more explicit than in the traditional ballet. This is what makes this version so successful: it preserves the essence of the original, whileÂ allowing for new interpretations that are more relevant to our times – but is, at the same time, evergreen.