English National Ballet at the Palace Theatre, Manchester
September 27, 2016
While there have been previous reimaginings, Giselle has probably been tinkered with less than any of the other classic ballets. Act II in particular seems inviolate. So it was reasonable enough that Akram Khan should be concerned. Worry not. His new and eagerly awaited Giselle for English National Ballet may have a new setting, new music and very different designs, but the essentials of love, betrayal and forgiveness are still there, even if the story isn’t always as clear as it might be (in Act I especially). Best of all, it has some marvellously powerful ensemble choreography and great duets. The second act in particular grows with intensity right up to its desperately heartwrenching ending.
Khan shifts light years away from the usual Central European village to a community of factory workers who have migrated in search of work, who he calls the Outcasts. Albrecht, Bathilde and all that go with them are part of the rich upper class that includes the Landlord, all of whom wear the clothes that Giselle and her co-workers have made. The setting immediately invites parallels with the lives and situations of textile factory workers in Bangladesh, where Khan’s family hails from, and in 19th-century Manchester, where the ballet was being premiered.
The classical and traditional, the contemporary and new come together neatly throughout. Combining different dance forms is fraught with difficulty. The joins often jar. But here, ballet, contemporary and Khan’s kathak based movement fuse together gorgeously. And when it comes to Act II, you would certainly never guess this was Khan’s first excursion into pointe work. In case you might forget the ballet’s roots, little moments reference the original from time to time. The same goes for the new score by Vincenzo Lamagna. Listen closely and you will hear familiar themes, although not always in the expected place. Tim Yip has some great fun with the costumes, for the Landlords in particular.
Act I opens with a low rumble and the regular pounding of factory equipment. A huge rough concrete wall separates the workers from the luxury in which the rich live; a barrier that Alina Cojocaru’s Giselle dreams of transcending. Khan’s very gestural dance for the ensemble makes powerful use of the upper body, although it is somewhat repetitive and over-long. There’s also not much respite from the ensemble, which makes it very difficult to get much of a handle on Isaac Hernandez’s Albrecht or Cesar Corrales’ Hilarion until the very end of the act, and even then it’s not particularly strong. Hilarion is certainly potentially the more interesting of the two. He’s a bit of a schemer who lives on both sides of society, but one who, deep down, Giselle trusts. The moment when she turns to him angry and crying is very powerful.
Cojocaru’s Giselle is very human and absolutely believable. She’s gentle, and inquisitive and just a bit innocent, all of which gets her into trouble of course. Her gentle touches, especially of his face show she’s clearly fallen for Albrecht who has disguised himself as an Outcast. She’s even seen to be ticklish, laughing and jumping away when he hits the spot. The tension when he leaves her and returns to Bathilde is quite palpable, however.
Giselle’s death is cleverly handled, leaving questions about exactly what happened because the actual deed or event is hidden. We know Fabian Reimair’s imposing Landlord gives a command because the programme tells us. After that, the Outcasts weave themselves around the couple, swallowing Giselle as they rise and fall. The next time we see Giselle, she is dead. Did he do the deed? Did the Outcasts do it for him? Or was it good old fashioned heartbreak?
Akram Khan has always been marvellous at creating spellbinding worlds that reach out, grab you, and just don’t let go. He certainly does that to masterful effect in Act II, based in a derelict factory, a place haunted by the ghosts of women who died as a result of being betrayed, heartbreak or the appalling work conditions they suffered. Despite the topicality, Khan has been careful not to place the ballet in any specific place or time though.
A brief appearance by Bathilde, who seeks to stop Albrecht going in, provides a nice link to what has gone before. Then it’s time for the Wilis, beautiful in their own way, but for pristine white tuile read dirty white dresses. With hair down and allowed to fall naturally they really do look like they have risen up from the earth. The fact that these ghosts are the only characters in pointe shoes marks them out as different, at one point Khan using the sound of the shoes as the Wilis bourrée on the spot to add menace. They form up like an army of Amazons. They thump their staves on the floor, adding to the percussion. They are the stuff of nightmares and in Stina Quagebeur’s Myrtha they have a particularly dominant figure as leader.
Khan injects a little more story here than usual. We see Giselle’s spirit raised by Myrtha. Rather than just beautiful patterning, one dance has all the hallmarks of an Wili initiation ceremony. But its soon down to business. These Wilis have a couple of scores to settle and that’s just what they plan to do. There’s no dancing to death here. The Wilis use their staves to capture than toss Hilarion before plunging them into him again and again.
Next up Albrecht, but even this Myrtha and her warriors reckoned without the power of still enduring love. After a stand-off between Myrtha and Giselle, Giselle and Albrecht’s final duet is tender as a newly flowered rose. It’s laced with a sadness that floods over the orchestra and fills the auditorium. It’s absolutely spellbinding and I defy anyone not to be touched. But there’s one even greater emotional high spot to come: the final parting. As the music died to silence, you could have heard a pin drop, so rapt was the audience.
Akram Khan’s Giselle may not be perfect (how many ballets are?), but it is a hugely interesting, visually arresting, visceral take on the classic. It’s also danced fabulously danced throughout by a company that just seems to be getting better and better, and more and more appealing under Tamara Rojo. It reminds me a lot of the classy reimaginings one sees on the continent, and it would surprise me at all to see overseas dancers and companies clamouring to dance it.
Akram Khan’s Giselle continues at the Palace Theatre, Manchester (click here or call 0844 871 3019) to October 1, then tours to Bristol, Southampton, and Sadler’s Wells in London. For full details and dates visit www.ballet.org.uk.
Running time: approx 2 hours including a 20-minute interval.