Manchester Theatre Awards

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Akram Khan's Giselle

English National Ballet
Palace Theatre
27 September 2016 to 01 October 2016

It's easy to forget how today's familiar classics were once new and revolutionary art works. We now know Giselle as one of the most traditional pieces of the classical ballet repertoire, but its first Paris performances during the first half of the 19th century hailed a new era of dance that brought the ballerina centre stage in a way not previously seen.

The strength of the ballet has stood the test of time, providing plenty of material and inspiration for constant re-workings. Yet in the hands of choreographer, Akram Khan it feels not so much re-imagined as revolutionised in a way that takes not only this ballet, but the art form itself in an exciting new direction.

The heart of the story is the same one of doomed love between two young people inhabiting very different worlds. Here instead of peasant and nobleman we have migrant factory workers (the outcasts) and their wealthy landlords, and the gulf between them is almost otherworldly.

When we first meet the Landlords they emerge from behind the huge revolving stone wall which separates them as if stepping off a spaceship. These are exquisite and extravagant creatures wearing haute couture clothing that is as impractical as it is imposing - there is no chance that these characters are going to work and that includes to dance for us.

In contrast the migrant workers, dressed in flimsy, colourless rags fill the stage with an energy that is impossible to be indifferent to. Whether they are pushing their palm imprints into the wall or hunched as the whirring machinery of a clothing mill their dramatic presence personifies the tensions inherent in their oppression.

In this, his first full-length ballet, Khan’s talent for creating memorable visual images is even more striking – one example of many is the strength of the corp to ballet as the Wilis on pointe with four-feet long sticks between their teeth.

Designer Tim Yip complements this with a set that is at once both simple and imposing – the revolving wall becoming an oppressive metaphor for the whole tale.

Every aspect of the production goes into creating an absorbing experience. Mark Henderson’s stunning lighting design keeps the dancers for the most part in half-light - figures living among the shadows with only glimpses of radiance.

The movement is almost inseparable from Vincenzo Lamagna’s score, adapted from the original by Adolphe Adam. It is a challenging mix of haunting melodies overlaid with sounds of radio interference, crashing waves and industrial noise.

Here the romance between Giselle (Alina Cojocaru) and Albrecht (Isaac Hernandez) is not so much a joyful distraction but a glimpse into the emotional heart of separation. Their pas de deux while beautiful are always tinged with sadness, at times every muscle of Cojocaru’s delicate body appear taut with anguish.

The influence of Khan's training in Indian kanthan and contemporary dance combined with English National Ballet's classical excellence has given us a Giselle like we’ve never seen before.

The piece is a collaboration between English National Ballet, Sadler's Wells and MIF. Why MIF has decided to programme it outside of its biannual festival is not clear. But if it is a trailblazer and taster for what is to come in July 2017 it has set the bar incredibly high.

Reviewer: Carmel Thomason


Comment by Paul Genty

A triumph for all concerned. Khan has taken by far the dullest example of the classical ballet repertoire and given it new 21st century life with stunning ensemble and solo choreography and an extraordinary, hard-driving score and setting.
The vast concrete wall dominates proceedings - which has to be unexpected in an art-form generally fleet of foot; and the soundtrack, a mix of fragments of the Adam original and rhythmic, insistent electronica and recorded groans and snarls, sets a mood that fixes the action brilliantly. The original is dominated by pointe work but here it doesn't appear until the second act, when it is used to devastatingly other-worldly effect for the Wilis.
I wasn't expecting to enjoy a ballet I've never really admired that much - too slow and elegiac for my liking, with its parade of the Wilis and show-off solos - but this is powerful, exciting and at only an hour and 40 minutes plus an interval, a perfect length too.
Modern dance meets Romanticism and modern dance beats it - literally, in the case of the Wilis - with sticks...

Comment by David Cunningham

It is hard to believe that a production so steeped in pain could be so utterly compelling and uplifting. Akram Khan catches the anguish of the dispossessed and the indifference of the elite with such aching precision that the act of redemption at the conclusion has all the more power. This re-imagining of ‘Giselle’ is so radical that the atmosphere is closer to a horror movie than classical ballet. The second Act is particularly powerful. The anguish apparent in pulling a soul back from salvation makes the closing act of forgiveness all the more striking.

Comment by David Upton

Khan proved himself a bold and brilliant interpreter of modern dance on the giant stage of the 2012 Olympics opening ceremony and in this comprehensive re-working of Giselle he creates what may well come to be regarded as a classic ballet of our time.

As Carmel explains he re-imagines the heroine as one of a community of migrant workers cast out of their jobs in a condemned garment factory, and sets it all before a giant stage wall which comes loaded with all of its own contemporary resonances. This is not, however, a lofty, high-concept staging, but one that creates its own vivid and intimate story.

There is plenty of spectacle, not least in Mark Henderson’s wonderful lighting design and Tim Yip’s creation of that vast, rotating wall, but it is all designed to exalt the light and shade of Khan’s choreography.

His Eastern dance flavours are always obvious but it is the inclusion of classical technique, particularly en pointe, that delivers so much thrilling choreography. One small dance motif, best characterised as wild running, was re-enacted more than once amongst members of the interval audience!

Elsewhere Khan creates almost organic shapes from a mass of moving bodies that encircle and appear to consume Giselle. For a Madchester audience there are even one or two Bez shapes in the mix.

Vincenzio Lamagna’s score borrows from Adam’s original to occasionally produce familiar moments, but overall the Italian composer has created a delirious requiem to love and death that constantly powers the dance to new heights.

Dancing the lead roles on opening night Alina Cojocaru, Isaac Hernandez, Cesar Corrales and Stina Quagebeur drew a standing ovation and wild applause at the final curtain, but even that was outclassed when the choreographer himself took a bow.

Well on his way to household name status?

Comment by Robert Beale

It’s evidence of the way Matthew Bourne’s way of updating the classics has influenced the whole ballet establishment that ENB and Akram Khan are, in many ways, doing the same thing with Giselle. There’s a framework from the original story and some clever referencing of both the music of the original Adam score and the traditional choreography, but basically it’s a completely new work, with the well-known title a flag of convenience.

He’s not the first to recognise that the high romantic shock-and-shudder of the original’s second act is its real attraction and yet somewhat at odds with the country dance jollifications of the first – Edward Loder, outstanding 19th century British composer and betimes music director at Manchester’s Theatre Royal, scored a big success in the same era with a hybrid opera-ballet version of the story called The Night Dancers.

Here it’s as if everything is in the night. From the outset Giselle and her community are struggling to escape their lot, and the lordly toffs who invade their world are total grotesques (you wouldn't know it was about migrant workers if you were left, as I was, without a printed a programme). Perhaps it’s about love across class divides – perhaps it always was.

But Vincenzo Lamagna’s processed-sound score, with its repetitious four-square units in the music, is not going to last for years the way Adam’s did. Khan’s choreography has some remarkable high-spots (the fight in the first act and the wonderful pas de deux in the second, for instance) but also moves quite slowly in places: with today’s technical resources it makes amazing tableaux, and the sense of atmosphere is all-pervading and what I think the audience like so much, but there are patches of low inspiration and some repeated ideas from the first act pad out the second.

The performances, though, are terrific. I was lucky enough to see the second performance, with ENB artistic director Tamara Rojo in the title role, James Streeter as Albrecht and Oscar Chacon as Hilarion, each dancing their role for the first time. The technical quality is superb, and goodness knows how they sustain so much continuous dancing en pointe in the second act.

One thought about the mis-timing of it as a MIF co-production … letting your hair down, for ballet girls, is always an indicator of wild living or madness, and here it’s very handy to represent the un-dead. Maybe they had to wait for all the danceuses to grow theirs to sufficient length.