In the past there were the greats of dance film, The Red Shoes and Tales of Hoffman; and there were the grainy, single camera documentations of ballets shot from the back of the stalls. More recently, we are able to access better DVDs of ballets and contemporary dance but it is only in the new millennium that opera houses, working with selected cinemas, have opened their treasures to the wider public. It seemed a risky move at the time, threatening to draw audiences away for the theatres. However, with the huge increase in access to viewing some of the world’s greatest performances and no noticeable drop in theatre attendance, it has proved a win-win situation.
The decision to film Akram Khan’s Giselle, that English National Ballet has played to sold out houses, is a welcome move. It features Tamara Rojo in the lead role, with James Streeter as Albrecht, Jeffrey Cirio as Hilarion and Stina Quagebeur as Myrtha. Directed by Ross MacGibbon and filmed at the Liverpool Empire it retains some of the theatre buzz plus the potency of close-ups in high definition.
In the ballet world, the name Giselle has a resonance like no other. Akram Khan has created a modern classic, melding his roots in kathak and contemporary dance with the ENB’s first language, ballet, in a seamless fusion that speaks to the modern world.
Underscored by Vincenzo Lamagna’s ominous atmospheric music, it draws us into the world of the have-nots. The dark forbidding wall of the opening scene is brought into close focus; its gritty texture contrasting with the fragility of the human hands that trace out the imprints left on the surface. The camera captures the scampering figures as they traverse the stage in contrapuntal waves of movement before pulling back when the full stage is in motion. It lingers on the central figures, adding potency to the love between Giselle and Albrecht, an element less focused in the stage version. Hilarion, a spider-like creature, is a constant malevolent presence. I was sorry that the creator of the role, Caesar Corrales, had left ENB before the ballet was filmed but Cirio delivers a powerful performance.
In a brilliant contrast to this gloomy domain, the wall rotates to expose the oligarchs in an avenue of white light. The camera accentuates their outrageous cat-walk fashions, (Tim Yip at his most extravagant), showy posturing and snide side-long glances to show the yawning gap between third world garment workers and the world of haute couture: a harsher reality than the pretty Rhineland peasants.
Into Act 2 and the detail of Wilis’ dresses smeared with the dirt from the underworld, the tremor of pointes and the pounding of the sticks brings frightening realism. Quagebeur is a chilling leader of the undead while the stark simplicity of Khan’s corps de ballet choreography is highlighted to great effect. As in the stage version it is the magnificent duet between Rojo and Streeter, impassioned and sensitively interpreted, that is the climax.
While a film may not fully capture the raw energy of live performance, there is so much detail to relish especially in the close-ups that get to the heart of the relationship. Khan’s Giselle is an important addition to the library of dance film, and one that can be enjoyed by a wide variety of dance lovers.
Akram Khan’s Giselle is in cinemas from April 25, 2018.
For more information, dates, times and venues, visit www.ballet.org.uk/cinema/akram-khan-giselle.