Opera House, Antwerp
November 10, 2018
Next year the Royal Ballet of Flanders celebrates its half century and Aki Saito and Wim Vanlessen have been an integral part of the company for close on 25 of those years. As principals they have led the company through ups and downs; and Ballet Flanders has had more than their fair share of these. They retire this season and Saito, giving her final performance in Akram Khan’s Giselle, could not have wished for a more perfect send off.
Over the years Saito has charmed us in the classics, dazzled in Balanchine, adapted her technique to bring enhanced clarity and speed to Forsythe’s aesthetic and now she morphs seamlessly into Khan’s trademark mix of fluidity and attack in a truly memorable performance.
Khan’s Giselle retains the central theme of love beyond death, betrayal and class difference. However, the tame, picture book nineteenth-century peasants are now aggrieved garment factory workers who have lost their jobs while the former nobility become today’s super rich. Situated firmly in the modern world the production offers opportunity for the principal characters to develop multi-layered identities.
Saito’s Giselle is a vibrant force in the worker community, leading the dance, defying the factory owners, fighting off the unwanted attention of Hilarion and making clear her love for Albrecht. Dancing in soft shoes for the first act and pointes in the second, Saito uses all her extensive experience to find expression in Khan’s wide range of movement creating a gentle but charismatic presence.
Vanlessen stands out from the crowd in the elegant classical edge that Khan builds into his solos. He is able to boost Albrecht’s character in an added scene in the second act where, angry and defiant, he rejects his privileged birthright to make the perilous journey to the underworld.
Hilarion, played by Mikio Kato, is now the go-between, a foreman identified by a bowler hat. He directs the workers in a feisty dance to entertain their former bosses and cradles the dead Giselle at the end of the first act as Albrecht returns to his former life.
The Wilis are a terrifying cohort. In dirt besmeared dresses, they bourrée in agitated patterns, using their staves to link up in sisterly ranks or kill the intruder Hilarion. Giselle still retains her humanity, but she too ultimately is drawn into the darkness by the icy authority of Myrtha; a chilling performance from Morgana Cappellari.
Vincenzo Lamagna’s score vividly sets the dystopian scene with rasping industrial sounds interspersed with poignant phrases of Adam’s original music. Tim Yip’s décor and costumes are inspired. For the most part the stage is bare and the costumes, dresses, shirts and trousers non-descript but given a chance to show the extravagance of wealth he rises to the challenge. The siren sounds, and the wall opens to reveal a world of cat-walk hyperbole setting the scene for confrontation, betrayal and death. In the final moments of the ballet the huge wall of stone again shifts, this time to seal Albrecht’s separation from Giselle as death is made final in a very physical form.
But it is the lovers’ act two duet, one of the most beautiful ever devised that brings the ballet to its heart-breaking climax. The opening is tentative as the couple renew their trust and the flowering of their eternal love is expressed in some of Khan’s most imaginative partnering. It is quite simply breath-taking and, on this special evening, it was tinged with sadness, as we witnessed the last performance of a great partnership.