Giselle, Transcending Centuries
Akram Khan delivers an indelible remake for English National Ballet.
June 8 – 11, 2022
Classical ballet’s adherents can be traditionalists. So remakes of favorites with varying levels of fidelity—such as English National Ballet’s 2016 Giselle, directed and choreographed by Akram Khan—can be fraught territory for contemporary artists. In the nineteenth-century’s Romantic ballet canon, Giselle is beloved in part due to the polar opposite emotions affecting the sympathetic title character, who moves from joyously love-struck to tragically deceived. Khan’s production picks snippets from Giselle’s original score, and adds all new choreography. Happily, the English National Ballet’s is a new version of a ballet that delivers emotional punch on par with the original.
Khan, who as a youth performed at the BAM Harvey in Peter Brook’s epic Mahabharata, boils down Giselle’s narrative bones and refits them into a story involving ostracized garment workers, ghost factories, and the land barons who own it all. Giselle (Tamara Rojo) loves Albrecht (Isaac Hernández), a rich man who hides his identity to mingle with the workers, and presumably the father of her in-utero child. She’s also wooed by Hilarion (the explosive Jeffrey Cirio), a mercenary playing all sides. In the first scene, the company faces the upstage wall, hands spread—are they pushing on it, or are they in a perp stance? The picture represents the stunning tableaux running through the entire work, most involving the huge dirt-hued wall (set and costume design by Tim Yip), which rotates to indicate the factory yard inside and out and delineates the netherworld. (Note: the sets and costumes were delayed and arrived only a day before opening night. The behemoth—a cousin of Robert Lepage’s Ring cycle monster—is a key character, and in retrospect, its installation was a miraculous feat by the crew.)
The corps, surrounding Hilarion, Albrecht, and Giselle, surged in waves of motion, pitching their arms forward and back while shifting their weight from foot to foot. They created a relentless field of energy, perhaps mirroring the machine-like, unrelenting toil within the factory. Khan is trained in, among other styles, Kathak (a form of classical Indian storytelling dance), and Hilarion’s hands mime a reference to the barons—particularly the crown motif—using great precision and speed, notable in Kathak.
Giselle, intoxicated with love, dances happily despite faint booms that build in volume as strings play a hopeful melody over a driving rhythm. Hilarion, disturbed by Albrecht’s interloping visit to Giselle, spins aggressively in the air, challenging the outsider with sharp moves evoking a toreador’s routine. The crowd pinwheels around the trio and gallops cross-stage, arms propelled to and fro. Khan combines the crowd’s silhouetted swarming with the crescendoing score, with militaristic drums and industrial noises, suffusing the theater with agitation both seen and heard (sound by Vincenzo Lamagna).
Ominous claxons signal work shift changes, and the wall flips from inside to outside the factory compound. The barons materialize dramatically from the upstage gloom, wearing outré finery created in the factory. Hilarion plays to the moguls’ vanity, forcing Giselle to bow, which she resists, and goads the workers to follow his deferential behavior. Albrecht, engaged to Bathilde (an elite), hides, eventually emerging and callously repelling Giselle’s desperate clutches. She snaps and loses her sanity, crawling on her shins, arching and rending in anguish. (Khan employs full-body stretches and diagonal tension to great emotional effect.) The crowd links shoulders and encircles her like a flower’s petals, roiling. Three of the barons move in to surround Giselle, and when they depart, she’s dead. No bodycam footage for proof.
In act two the wall is horizontally perpendicular, forming a dark chamber, even eerier with the din of distant bombs and reedy strains. The Wilis, haunted souls of exploited women workers, are led by Myrtha (a sublime Stina Quagabeur) who, on pointe, drags the lifeless Giselle. This duo moves into focus as the ballet’s central, most compelling dynamic. Myrtha, netherworld-weary but determined, breathes animation into Giselle, in part with a pole—coaxing her to stand, and bracing one end at Giselle’s stomach (mortifyingly, at her unborn child), the other at her own belly. Thus tenuously connected, they gauge one another’s minute movements and counteract accordingly. Giselle takes the pole in her teeth like a horse bit, paddles at the ground like a gondolier, and teeters until she’s stable, a Wili at last. The others each grab two pole ends to create a chain. The wall rotates to reveal Hilarion seeking Giselle, and the Wilis pursue him, lunging deeply and stabbing their toe points until finishing him off. (Wearing beige tattered gowns, their long hair loose, the Wilis evoke Pina Bausch’s embattled, feral women.)
Albrecht’s up next. Myrtha hands a pole to Giselle, indicating she should take his life. In a mesmerizing, crypt-quiet moment, Myrtha virtually hovers on pointe behind Giselle, willing her to kill him. The connection between Rojo and Quagabeur reveals superb acting by both, who barely move while conveying a world (and underworld) of emotion.
Giselle wants to release Albrecht, and when Myrtha sees her conviction, she lowers off of pointe. (Khan understands that pointe work is a superpower for ballerinas.) Giselle and Albrecht have one more duet, and for the first time, he lifts her overhead and she stabs the sky with her pointed toe. Myrtha watches, fascinated and weakened but ever loyal to the new Wili. With Albrecht released, the two women reprise the pole-balancing between their guts, receding into the shadows and leaving him be. The wall seems to seek revenge, advancing forward and threatening to crush him, but he raises his hand and plucks upward, and the wall recedes. He is chastised and alive, yet unutterably alone.