Under Tamara Rojo’s artistic direction, The English National Ballet is going from strength to strength. Their current tour of Giselle – which visited London this week – is proof of just what brave steps the company is prepared to take, which will see this production by Akram Khan go down as one of the greats.
Re-imaginings of classics can easily disappoint – you don’t want to mess around with a masterpiece so beloved unless you’re really going to create something of note, something different, that retains the essence of the original but does so with verve and dexterity. This is where Khan excels: his Giselle is set in a disturbing sort of dystopian future (judging by some of Tim Yip’s costumes), where migrant factory workers replace the convivial country community one is usually introduced to.
The central themes of love, betrayal and the barriers of class endure, along with the heartache those beget, but you are immediately put into a state of unease by this brutalist interpretation, which begins with an ominous thudding that reverberates around the auditorium as attention settles nervously on the stark stage that bears a palpably Brontësque bleakness. The fraught workers act together to push back an imposing wall that appears to be keeping them in the gloom we find them. Their simple peasant clothes contrast exponentially with those of their evil landlords – the ruling elite – whose droll appearance engenders an instant dislike in the audience, but since we also cannot take them seriously, this means that their authority appears if not questionable, then mildly absurd. In this way, Khan seems to play on the popularity of certain teen sci-fi phenomena, in which the masses must revolt against a sinister source of power that is wielded with perverse unfairness: think The Hunger Games, The Maze Runner and so on. But to do this with a tale so well known adds a grim flamboyance, since we know that the poor Giselle cannot win against this dark force; as in the original tale, her lover Albrecht belongs to the wealthy side and has wooed her undercover despite his betrothal to Bathilde. When Bathilde and the other landlords remonstrate with him, he abandons Giselle, who is driven to the death by hysterical grief.
Set to Vincenzo Lamagna’s breathtaking score, Khan’s choreography is electric. His group visions (which dominate) combine the rhythmicity and shaping of Dhiagilev with the fluidity and earthiness of Bausch. His contemporary background shines forth, with a lot of inversions done in unison that create shapes reminiscent of breakdance, and there are some amazing spins done by the peasant men on one crouched leg, the other held out to the side – like a Cossack dance for London streets. With such a huge amount going on, there is nonetheless a solid sense of cohesion among the dancers, whose ensemble is incredible. Their energy seems to bounce of one another, hovering perpetually on a knife edge between the sheer power taken from the strength there is in numbers, and the more menacing turns mob mentality can take – you are never quite sure whether their continual congregation is a comfort or a threat, whether they will defend Giselle or turn against her to preserve themselves.
This is also how one feels about Hilarion, who is Giselle’s would-be lover cast aside for Albrect: is he gallantly protective of her, or downright possessive? And his covert association with the landlords makes him seem slightly fishy, too. His Clockwork Orange bowler hat assists in this curious characterization, but it is guest artist Oscar Chacon’s taut mix of slinkiness and brooding that makes Hilarion quite so enigmatic. He almost threatens to outshine the true love Albrecht, were it not for Isaac Hernández’s affecting pas de deux with Giselle in the second act.
In the title role, Alina Cojocaru is girlish and vulnerable, but has clearly picked up some of Rojo’s fire. This Giselle is not just a naïve village girl, she is a demoralized and weary worker who derives energy from her infatuation with Albrecht, so that when she is rejected, she is not only humiliated and alone, but robbed of hope from her dour situation as well. Cojocaru deftly maneuvers Giselle’s progression all the way to empowered Wilis (ghosts of similarly spurned women out for revenge on the living), culminating in one of the most devastatingly tender pas des deux imaginable: she forgives Albrecht for essentially killing her whilst protecting him from the wrath of the Queen of the Wilis, Myrtha. Myrtha seeks vengeance come what may and does not want Albrecht to get away alive. She prowls around in the background, turning the lovers’ reconciliation into a ghostly pas de trois, and this unorthodox premise creates a uniquely haunting extended sequence throughout the second act.
So zombie jilted girlfriend protects the man who killed her with his duplicity against her merciless new zombie queen. Sci-fi movies: eat your heart out. Khan has thus proven how Giselle can live up to the modern age, imbuing it with pain, grief and an overall sense of injustice. Because he does not centre this sense of unfairness solely on Giselle it, in fact, makes her fated role in it seem all the more unjust (since this is an issue greater than her) therefore upping our sense of the wrong done to her all the more. Hence, by focusing more greatly on the group Khan ultimately elevates our heroine even further than the already revered classical favourite does: curiouser and curiouser, And utterly addictive.
Akram Khan’s Giselle at Sadler’s Wells, London from 20 September 2017 – 23 September 2017. For more information and tickets, visit the website.