Review: Akram Khan and English National Ballet - Giselle

Reviewed by Graham Watts - Monday 21 November 2016

English National Ballet Giselle, Akram Khan - Dancer Tamara Rojo Photo 
Photo: Jason Bell

Performance reviewed: 15 November 2016

Wow, wow and, thrice, wow! Here’s to a new masterpiece of neoclassical dance. Akram Khan has reimagined one of the most popular ballets in such a unique way that his Giselle seems destined to become a classic in its own right. This is one of those rare events when the seamless assimilation of many creative talents has gelled so splendidly to produce an absolute triumph.

The usual narrative ingredients have been reassembled in an ambiguous industrial landscape, thus creating an alien environment for the tragic heroine, but nonetheless retaining almost everything else that is familiar about this sorry tale.

Khan’s inspiration was sparked by the Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh, causing the deaths of more than one thousand textile workers, mostly women; a touchstone visited immediately the ballet opens when we first encounter Khan’s dustily-clad migrant workers (including Giselle) as outcasts, their backs to the audience, staring at a huge wall. Many great dance works often have a single monumental design statement and here, it is Tim Yip’s wall; a boundary between the impoverished workers and the owners in their extraordinary elaborate, courtly costumes. When the wall revolves upwards for these mock-aristocrat popinjays to walk from upstage, emerging from smoke and darkness, it presents a spine-tingling coup de theatre.

Khan’s narrative vision is barely a step removed from the original libretto. The outcasts take the place of the villagers and the factory landlords represent their local aristocrats (with Albrecht disguised as an outcast in order to court his beloved Giselle). Her wary mother, Berthe, is omitted and the role of Hilarion aggrandised into a kind of “fixer”; a self-made, roguish trader occupying a twilight world between landlords and outcasts. The eventual mixing of the two societies exposes Albrecht’s duplicity as his fiancée, Bathilde, is revealed to Giselle. Overcome with grief at this betrayal, she descends into madness and dies.

In Khan’s vision, the supernatural Wilis are not ghosts of jilted brides, but the spirits of dead factory workers; and they seek revenge, not on their runaway lovers, but on the factory landlords who have abused them. Giselle’s forgiveness releases Albrecht from the Wilis’ power and he ends the ballet as the outcasts began it; on the wrong side of the wall; but alone. That the reimagining of the story in this industrial landscape is so expertly achieved must have much to do with the dramaturgical skill of Ruth Little.

Another stellar contribution comes in the stunning score by Vincenzo Lamagna, composed – unbelievably – in less than two months. Lamagna has been quick to credit the impact of Gavin Sutherland’s orchestrations and, together, they have succeeded in matching the splendour of Khan’s theatrical vision – brought to life in Yip’s designs and Mark Henderson’s haunting lighting – with a glorious soundscape. There are many subliminal and overt references to Adolphe Adam’s original score but these are like samples that merely flavour a highly original new composition. Lamagna mixes industrial sounds and melodic orchestral music that grows in layers, driven along by an insistent, compelling momentum. Sections of silence, slowness and even stillness serve to heighten tension and accentuate the darkness.

Tamara Rojo brought an aura of adolescent wonderment and joy to the title role and there is a heightened eroticism in her act one duet with James Streeter’s Albrecht that contrasts with the chilling ethereality of their second act pas de deux. Here was a love that overcame betrayal to transcend the grave, made believable because the chemistry between Giselle and Albrecht was so tangible.

The casting of Streeter was a stroke of genius. Here is a soloist who has been with the company for a dozen years, hitherto largely majoring in roles such as Tybalt in Romeo & Juliet or Swan Lake’s Rothbart. He is not generally the first call for a romantic lead but Streeter has the knack of creating believable characters with charisma and dramatic strength that project well to the audience. In his interpretation, the character of Albrecht is opened up and laid bare.

It is the prodigiously talented Cesar Corrales who grabs the opportunity of a greater focus on Hilarion. His is the very first dance: a hyper-flexible, muscle-popping solo with elements of b-boy leg spins and Matrix-style rewinds. Streeter has taken decade to hone his stage presence, whilst – at just 20 – Corrales already has years of experience (he was Billy Elliot in the USA, as a teenager); plus a brooding, dark handsomeness that no amount of experience can buy! In most traditional interpretations of Giselle, Hilarion reluctantly comes to see himself as Albrecht’s inferior – both socially and as a rival – but in this view, Hilarion is the steely-eyed enforcer, unafraid of taking on Albrecht in a fight. Corrales looks set to be one of the stars of the next decade in dance.

Stine Quagebeur was a revelation as Myrtha, the vengeful Queen of the Wilis, giving an imposing, Amazonian performance. Begoña Cao exuded an aloof, unattainable beauty as Bathilde, providing an explanation in her every look and action as to the cause of Albrecht’s love for the more joyful Giselle. Two iconic moments reference back to the traditional libretto when, firstly, Giselle recognises her own stitching in Bathilde’s dress, followed by Bathilde’s peremptory offer of her glove as a gift before disdainfully dropping it to the floor. Such slight modifications made the narrative clues all the more discernible.

Khan achieves the perfect win-win with his vice-like grip on direction and flowing stream of meaningful choreography. The pace of the work is extraordinary and undiminished by the risk that is taken with periods of silence and stillness. There are times when one is aware that events are unfolding with deliberate slowness but there’s no let-up in the production’s arresting capacity. It absorbs the audience from beginning to end; from despair, through hope and into the darkness and reconciliation of the final act. The dancing of the corps de ballet was always engrossing, developing fluid group movement into fascinating imagery, regularly punctuated by extraordinary tableaux.

Taking on the task of reimagining the epitome of romanticism in one of the world’s greatest ballets is a tall order. Both Team Khan and English National Ballet have risen to the challenge with distinction; creating a theatrical experience that is visually spectacular, aurally luscious and performed by a cast that enthusiastically believes in the author’s vision.

Graham Watts is a freelance dance writer and critic. He is a regular contributor to Dancing Times and also writes for, and other magazines and websites in Europe, Japan and the USA. He is chairman of the dance section of the Critics’ Circle in the UK and of the National Dance Awards. Twitter: @gwdancewriter

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