Review: English National Ballet & Akram Khan’s Giselle


Visceral, versatile, and utterly unafraid to be vulnerable: Khan and company vividly reimagine the iconic Romantic classic

Reimagining the nineteenth-century Romantic classic can’t have been an easy task for Khan. It is, as emblazoned on the promotional material, ‘iconic’: from the pretty peasant pas of Act I to the mercilessness of Myrtha and the Wilis in Act II, the ballet strikes a balance between peasantry and power, the earthly and ethereal, and, ultimately, vengeance and forgiveness. A reimagining, too, is a balance; namely, one between the old and the new. A choreographer has to counter the considerable weight of a centuries-old, well-loved classic – and the audience that inevitably accompanies it – with something original enough to earn the ‘reimagined’ title, while appealing to a new audience without alienating them. Poised on this centre-point is Khan’s production.

Khan and the company are visceral, versatile, and utterly unafraid to be vulnerable. There are still beats, bourrées and arabesques, as beautifully executed as ever by a company with such strength in its corps, but these archetypal steps of classical ballet are retraced, with respect, to refreshing, chilling, and tragic effect. Khan’s choreography is at its most impressive in extremes: using English National Ballet’s equally dynamic and disciplined corps, Khan creates shapes onstage that are more than just corps de ballet backdrops, with the company’s circle of undulating arms drowning Giselle at the centre during the mad scene one of the dramatic acmes of Act I. At the other end of the scale are the smallest of hand motions: a palm placed over the face to find the person inside, the otherworldly fluttering of unforgiving Wili fingers, the heartbreakingly human act of Giselle’s hand on her abdomen, as if to imply that something similarly human is growing beneath.

That’s right. Khan and his dramaturge Ruth Little have raised the dramatic stakes in this production with the implication that Giselle is pregnant by her betrayer Albrecht, and it propels the nineteenth-century story into the present with added sentience. Some narrative changes are near misses: opening Act II with Albrecht and the Landlords instead of the Wilis seems to derail the story unnecessarily, and cutting out Giselle’s mother removes a much-needed warning about the Wilis. But perhaps this is a mark of the modernised setting where superstition has no place. Moved from the pastoral peasantry of the Romantic tradition to the gritty realism of the migrant crisis, the lovers’ separation is no longer simply a class boundary, but possibly a geographical and cultural one too, as Albrecht belongs to the blindingly white – surely not a coincidence – and glittering world beyond the imposing grey Wall that is designer Tim Yip’s centrepiece.

The Wall works as the blurred boundary between many a world. The Wilis materialise from the mists underneath it in Act II in the same way it’s raised to reveal the lavishly-robed landlords of Act I, framing each as an ‘other’ to Giselle. As a dramatic device, at the end the Wall comes to symbolise the double-edged sword of vengeance and forgiveness that the ballet depends on, as Giselle’s forgiveness frees Albrecht from the Wilis, but his betrayal has condemned him to a life alone beyond it.

Completing the triad of the re-creative team is composer Vincenzo Lamagna. Reworking Adolphe Adam’s original score, Lamagna uses echoes of the daisy mime to sentimentalise the lovers’ first dance in Act I, and then repeats it with devastating impact in their final Act II pas de deux. As these gestures to Giselle’s original music work so seamlessly, it may have been good to have more, but then again perhaps that would have lessened the tragedy of that final pas de deux had the audience come to expect it.

Nevertheless, Lamagna’s score is suitably atmospheric and sumptuously played by English National Ballet’s Philharmonic; the most striking of the new compositions is a rousing dance upon the arrival of the landlords led by Hilarion in Act I (which you can hear here), complete with shouts and knee-slaps to liven up the soundscape of the piece. As such, the production has a raw, earthy, aural authenticity; from the rhythmic pounding of the dancers’ feet to the Wilis’ sticks striking the floor, the sound feels alive. Although a few of the caesuras and silences are a little more awkward than they are awe-inspiring, in places their effect is powerful, especially when a lengthy, barely-audible rumbling allows us to hear Giselle’s bourrées beating helplessly beneath her.

And there is much to say about Khan’s use of the bourrée. In the most touching and haunting homage to Romantic ballet, Khan takes the humble bourrée en pointe, raises it above the mortal world of Act I and makes it the mark of the wraithlike Wilis in Act II, honouring the original tradition of putting women en pointe to elevate them to a weightless, otherworldly, sylph-like status. Giselle does this onstage at the opening of Act II, as Mythra takes her under her wing – or wooden stick – and teaches her to rise onto her toes, turning a balletic trope into the embodiment of resistance against gravity, as Giselle seems to leave her weight behind to join the Wilis. Another nod to original choreography comes in the iconic crossing arabesque hops (pictured at the top), but as the Wilis are veiled not by wedding veils but by their long hair hanging loose, and clothed not in the virginal white of the original but the ruined rags of vengeful women, it is an altogether more frightening performance.

Portrayals across the production are compelling, with particular acclaim for Cesar Corrales as Hilarion, whose hat solo in Act I is a highlight and scene-stealing dance to the death in Act II begins with a stick driven into his hand, before he’s woven into a web of wooden sticks and dragged into the depths by the Wilis. Stina Quagebeur makes a stunning but spine-tingling Myrtha, with the moment she silently bourrées and suddenly seems to materialise in front of Albrecht sending shivers, and every step imbued with mercilessness. And lastly, lead-principal-come-artistic-director Tamara Rojo takes on the dramatic challenge of the title role with grace, gravity, and gritty determination in a beautifully crafted performance, matched by the supportive partnering of James Streeter’s Albrecht.

In his collaboration with English National Ballet, Khan has created a Giselle that deconstructs its Romantic origins whilst still managing to respect its source material, more than earning the ‘reimagined’ title and its place in English National Ballet’s repertoire.

Bristol Hippodrome, 18th October 2016, opening night cast includes Tamara Rojo, James Streeter, Cesar Corrales & Stina Quagebeur, picture by Laurent Liotardo, click for link to ENB & Khan’s Giselle site

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