Sadler’s Wells, London
September 18, 2019
Early autumn this year means Giselle, albeit three very different productions. Next week sees Birmingham Royal Ballet in Galina Samsova and David Bitley’s very traditional version, and then comes Dada Masilo’s South African take on the tale. But first to English National Ballet and the return of Akram Khan’s startling, modern telling.
In Act I especially, forget the detail that’s there in the traditional productions. This is Giselle big and bold. Khan sets the scene in huge broad sweeps of his choreographic brush. The sheer scale of the opening is impressive. The Outcasts may have lost their jobs and livelihoods due to the closure of the factory where they worked but the past echoes in the clanging and clattering of machinery heard in the score, and the repetitive movement seen in the dance.
In among all this is Albrecht, disguised so he can visit his love, Giselle, and Hilarion, who gets a particularly dramatic and impassioned solo that includes lots of turns close to the floor. Although the story is about Giselle and Albrecht, it often seems that it’s the shape-shifting and duplicitous fixer Hilarion (Jeffrey Cirio) that’s at the heart of everything that happens. A decidedly unpleasant character, he deserves everything that is coming his way.
As a dancer-actor, Tamara Rojo is still very much at the top of her game. Her Giselle is absolutely believable. Her face speaks volumes. She’s inquisitive and just a bit innocent. Her gentle touches of , all of which gets her into trouble of course. Her reaching out and gently touching of Albrecht’s face (James Streeter), tells us she has very much fallen for him.
When the Landlords arrive, they emerge from the wall like aliens from a spaceship. But then, in many ways, in dress and manner and gesture, they really are people from another world.
Giselle’s death rather neatly leaves open what actually happened. We know Fabian Reimair’s imposing Landlord gives a command because the programme tells us (although it doesn’t say exactly what), and he’s certainly very close when she dies. Whatever, the swirling around Giselle of the Outcasts, swallowing her as if she was being sucked into a human whirlpool, is one of the highlights of the ballet.
The ensemble is strong and dramatic throughout but appropriately, for this is after all a tale of female revenge, it’s the women who are the more gutsy and intense. It’s shown time and again, first in an early furious dance for them. When Hilarion and Albrecht fight, the women exude presence in a way that the men do not. You feel their whole being projecting forward, drilling into the combatants.
That’s all a foretaste of some of the ghostliest Wilis you are even likely to run across. Incredibly beautiful in their own way, in their dirty white dresses, unkempt hair and staring eyes, they scream death. Having them on pointe (they are the only characters who are), just adds to their power. Led by Stina Quagebeur’s Myrtha, they form up like an army. Hilarion played with mercilessly before being dispatched.
There’s just time for a final tender pas de deux for Albrecht and Giselle before she is finally prised away by Myrtha. The end is beautifully quiet and reflective, he left alone, broken, as Myrtha takes Giselle into the shadows and their ghostly domain.
Akram Khan’s Giselle, danced by English National Ballet, continues at Sadler’s Wells to September 28, 2019. It is fully sold out, but check with the box office for returns 020 7863 8000.