A magnificent theatrical evening: Akram Khan’s Giselle

English National Ballet at Sadler’s Wells, London
November 15, 2016

Maggie Foyer

Akram Khan’s Giselle, his first full length work for a ballet company, premiered in Manchester and arrives in London riding a crest of well-deserved critical acclaim. It is a hugely theatrical work that sets the timeless story of love and betrayal in an austere modern setting. Act One has a complex and over wrought plot that gives little opportunity to relate to Giselle and Albrecht. However, this is remedied in a truly terrifying second act: think Night of the Living Dead on pointe.

Khan is a wonderful shaper of movement but in this work it is the theatricality and emotional depth that grips and holds the attention. The climax of the work is his final duet for Giselle, Tamara Rojo, and Albrecht, James Streeter, who both give remarkable performances. In the bleak emptiness, devoid of past or future, it is spellbinding in its rawness. It touches every nerve ending, as the lovers alive only to the moment, cling and wrap. Any misgivings about the clunky plot fade into insignificance confronted by the power of this duet.

Stina Quagebeur as Myrtha in Akram Khan's GisellePhoto Laurent Liotardo
Stina Quagebeur as Myrtha in Akram Khan’s Giselle
Photo Laurent Liotardo

It is left to Myrtha, a chilling Stina Quagebeur, to separate the pair and draw Giselle back to the underworld. Khan’s ghostly band, ‘waltz pitilessly’ as Heinrich Heine wished. Conceived in 1841, in a period of high Romanticism, it was the spirit world that captured the imagination of the original creators and similarly with this production. The tone is set as Quagebeur drags the dead body of Giselle out of the earth to begin her incantations. The Wilis, bridal dresses smeared with the dirt of their graves, rise on pointe to bourrée soundlessly and are truly terrifying.

The thrilling choreography we expect from Khan, movement that links floor to air in liquid flow, is really only evident in Hilarion’s dancing. Cesar Corrales interprets this ambiguous character in movements part animal, part man, in a mesmerising performance of explosive thrust and aerial heights. In a brutal world, he veers between good and evil and comes to a traditional sticky end.

Tamara Rojo and James Streeter in Akram Khan's GisellePhoto Laurent Liotardo
Tamara Rojo and James Streeter in Akram Khan’s Giselle
Photo Laurent Liotardo

Giselle, is not the only victim. In fact, in Rojo’s interpretation, she is rather a feisty young woman. The exploited garment workers, the twenty-first century equivalent of the nineteenth century peasants, are an unhappy group. Forced to dance for the arrogant Landlord, Fabien Reimar, Khan channels their resistance into a folk dance with fierce undercurrent, hinting at his own cultural roots, building on vibrant rhythms and embroidered with elaborate hand gestures.

The ‘aristocrats’ entering in costumes of extreme fashion amidst the murky, bedraggled mass creates a moment of theatrical brilliance from designer Tim Yip. Begoña Cao as Bathilde is stunning; her presence matching the magnificence of her costume. Duplicitous love and sudden death do not fit easily into the new setting and are cursorily dealt with giving the audience little chance to enter into the drama.

Tamara Rojo in Akram Khan's GisellePhoto Laurent Liotardo
Tamara Rojo in Akram Khan’s Giselle
Photo Laurent Liotardo

Vincenzo Lamagna, called in at short notice, has delivered a score of cinematic scope; atmospheric and open-ended. It hints at Adolphe Adam’s music in relentless repetition of themes that drive the mechanical movements, suggesting the dreary monotony of factory labour or the pounding death rhythms of Hilarion’s death. It delivers on every level, as do the company who are fully engaged both physically and emotionally. The ballet offers great performances and a magnificent theatrical evening.