English National Ballet at Sadler’s Wells, London
September 20, 2017
The 19th-century ballet canon has survived many an adaptation. There will always be a place for a standard ‘traditional’ version but equally there is always a place for making things resonate directly with a contemporary audience. This approach works best when it is allied with a thorough understanding of the original work and the way that it affected its first audiences or at least the work as it has been presented for a few decades, so that it enables a nuanced approach that is not simply swapping bovver boots for pointe shoes.
Akram Khan’s much lauded Giselle has a way to go before it competes with that by Mats Ek, whose Giselle is as mad as a hatter and incarcerated in an asylum, or even Marcia Haydée’s circus version for Stuttgart Ballet. It is always difficult when a production has been praised to the hilt and comes with great expectations, but Khan’s Giselle fails on several counts.
He is poorly served by Vincenzo Lamaga’s score which alternates thumping ostinati, like a 1980s disco, with sickly Hollywood romanticism, all thin strings and gush. He even manages to make live strings sound like a synthesiser. Ruth Little’s dramaturgy is muddy too. The clear political and social setting of traditional versions is replaced by a vague, polarised ‘us’ and ‘them’ of landlords and outcasts.
The landlords have closed their garment factory and made all the outcasts, shut out behind the giant, sometimes revolving, wall, redundant in all senses of the word. We see them at the beginning as a huddled, dimly lit mass, writhing and pawing at the wall. Somewhere in the melee, which drags on for an interminable time going nowhere, is Hilarion, although he is impossible to distinguish. Programme notes tell us that he is a “shape-shifter” – that makes mothers-in-law look like a doddle to convey.
A layer of meaning is lost by making Hilarion effectively the same class as Albrecht and their conflict is reduced to a tussle over a girl. None of the characters are given time to establish themselves or provide choreographic interest. By fudging Giselle’s death, the audience are deprived of the ability to take a direct interest in her fate. The ‘traditional’ Giselle is slightly more prosperous than the other villagers but also their favourite, perhaps because of her poor health. Here she is just one of the crowd who gets to move a bit more.
The wall revolves to reveal the Landlords garbed in outlandish costumes. A timely reminder, as it is London Fashion Week, of the stupidity and pointlessness of haute couture that has completely lost touch with functionality and whose form serves only to highlight the studied lack of need to be practical in the wearer and the jadedness of the creator. Giselle recognises a dress that she has worked on, now worn by Bathilde, who gives her a necklace. But robbed of the ‘conversation’ about marriage to Albrecht, it is a meaningless, empty gesture and we are left at a loss as to why it is given and why immediately returned.
Much of the choreography is grindingly dull and repetitive. There is one discrete dance (where we might usually expect the peasant pas de deux) that is entertaining but it largely owes a lot choreographically and musically to Khan’s own dance background rather than ballet, its south Asian roots at odds with the rest of the work. It is also the one place where Lamaga shines and uses some interesting cross rhythms and percussion. Generally, his choice of picking dismembered remnants of Adam’s score – the bits that one can whistle – like scraps left over from cut garments, is reminiscent of the brat on the train in the Saki story that sings “On the road to Mandalay”, and nothing else, over and over again throughout the entire journey.
In Act II there is no real sense that we are in a ghostly, closed factory because it looks pretty much the same as the general gloom of Act I. There are a few sound effects in the score that suggest whirring sewing machines and snipping shears, but the dystopian abstractness drains one of all empathy.
Stina Quagebeur’s Myrtha is given a suitably large role and executes it admirably. The use of pointework in Act II emphasises the other-worldliness as does interposing stillness with the usual bourrées. Much like the bits of Adam repeated in endless loops, it was as if the collaborators suddenly found a bit that they liked and threw it in for that reason only, but it only serves to highlight the limited interest provided by the choreography in the remainder.
The Wilis are provided with staves, rather like giant sewing needles, with which they threaten Hilarion and, eventually, beat him to death. Cesar Corrales has his place in the sun, figuratively if not literally, but it is a pity that he was confined to crawling, running and writhing rather than being given a chance to dance.
Giselle intervenes to prevent Albrecht from suffering the same fate and, in The best and most exciting piece of drama in the whole piece comes when Giselle, assisted by Myrtha, impales herself on her own staff so that she is released from being a Wili. At last, we then get a chance to see what James Streeter can do. This lissomly fluid dancer covers the stage with his breadth of movement and with his personality. His is a double tragedy: we believe that he is genuinely remorseful for Giselle but, by going outside the wall, he exiles himself from the Landlords and is trapped forever in a limbo of his own making.