BalletDanceNorth WestReview

English National Ballet: Akram Khan’s Giselle – Palace Theatre, Manchester

Direction and choreography: Akram Khan
Music: Vincenzo Lamagna after the original score by Adolphe Adam
Orchestration and conductor: Gavin Sutherland
Reviewer: Peter Jacobs

Giselle, which dates from 1841, is one of the few surviving and enduringly-popular Romantic classical ballets. Even after a successful collaboration between Akram Khan and English National Ballet – Dust from their WWI commemoration trilogy Lest We Forget – Khan, popular and successful as he is, with his roots in North Indian Kathak, seems an odd choice to reinvent Giselle: a pastoral tale of love and death and redemption. Which is why the company’s still-new Artistic Director Tamara Rojo chose him for this much-anticipated Manchester International Festival and Sadler’s Wells co-production.

Khan does indeed reinvent the ballet, without dispensing with the original narrative. The setting is however dramatically and excitingly reconceived. Villagers are replaced with migrant garment factory workers (the Outcasts), displaced from their jobs and exiled outside the factory walls. The noble folk who visit and toy with them are replaced with the factory Landlords, distant and exotically attired, in contrast with the simple dress of the Outcasts. The woodland realm of the Wilis – the ghosts of disappointed and vengeful brides – becomes a ghost factory haunted by the ghosts of downtrodden factory workers. This updating gives the piece a striking modernity and relevance but Khan doesn’t go for politics, despite the clear modern parallels and social inequality presented. He sticks with the story, and the design team have cleverly given the staging and costuming a timelessness and uncertain sense of period and place that keeps it balanced finely between realism and fairytale: a powerfully bleak, dystopian urban future-past.

The music has been similarly reimagined by Vincenzo Lamagna, who has created a new score of satisfyingly loud electronic noise and rhythm that has the original Adolphe Adam score drifting within, occasionally breaking fully through at emotional key points. The score blends seamlessly with the live English National Ballet Philharmonic, conducted by Gavin Sutherland – who also orchestrated the new version – to create an epic and cinematic ebb and flow of music and sound and silence.

The staging is austere and monumental, technically impressive and unexpectedly choreographed. Lighting design by Mark Henderson is subtle and powerful, mostly using levels and areas of darkness and white light, punctuated with the occasional pool of significant colour.

Khan’s choreography is almost unexpectedly extraordinary. You are aware of the underlying classical ballet technique but he generally avoids ballet positions and sets the dancers in a clever and changing series of patterns and postures, broken and loose and deceptively complex. He uses repeated motifs to illuminate the narrative in the classical way but everything looks modern and fresh and exciting. At one point in the second act he uses the iconic travelling, hopping cross-stage attitude of the Wilis from the original choreography, which is a nice touch. His characterisation and use of narrative are remarkably clear. The updating and the switching of Albrecht’s duplicity with Hilarion strips away the slight silliness of the original version and makes the love triangle with Giselle more logical and emotionally resonant. The Wilis are transformed from wilting spirits – beautiful as they are – to strange and sinister weaponised insectoid creatures full of threat and simmering ire. That Khan judiciously avoids any pointe work in the first act and uses it only to transform the Wilis from women to spirits is inspired.

Alina Cojocaru makes a wonderful Giselle. Honest, earnest and simple: ordinary yet striking. Her duet with Albrecht in the ghost world is extraordinary choreographically and emotionally. Her reluctance to embrace death and her final acceptance and farewell is devastating. Isaac Hernández – who’s Albrecht is rejecting a world of privilege and comfort for love – is similarly effective: genuine rather than the man who almost casually destroys her. Cesar Corrales is also notable as Hilarion, a man who loves Giselle but aspires to be and is complicit with the Landlords. He maintains a fine balance between being trouble and sincere and his final fate is tragic rather than deserved. Stina Quagebeur is an imposing and serenely sinister-but-just Myrtha, Queen of the Wilis. The entire company are impressive and distinctive, and the principals outstanding.

Is it possible to say that this vision is utterly original? There are echoes of Shechter and Bausch in the choreography, for example, but this seems a massive and triumphant step change for Akram Khan. It is still Giselle, gloriously so. It is a fully and effectively realised modern ballet.

This world premiere performance feels like an event; like something major is being seen in Manchester. Akram Khan’s Giselle is an exciting, massive, thrilling, emotionally-impactful new piece of theatre, and it leaves you with the feeling that you have witnessed something significant.

Runs until 1 October 2016 | Image: English National Ballet

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